The limited release Ardbeg Alligator was launched towards the end of 2011, taking its name from the inside of heavily scorched barrels which begin to crack and peel into a rough, but shiny pattern that looks rather similar to alligator scales. Originally released for the Ardbeg Committee and in a general release ‘Untamed’ form (though both at 51.2% ABV), both versions are now long consigned to auction.
Alligator is composed of a marriage of two separate whiskies – a standard 10 year old ex-bourbon Ardbeg, and spirit matured in heavily-charred virgin American oak casks (the Interwebs suggest that these are also around 10 years). It is the latter which is referred to as ‘alligator’ and is otherwise known in the industry as level 4 char.
Charring is a common practice used to increase cask activity or refresh older oak during coopering and re-coopering. Charring caramelises the natural sugars held within the hemicellulose of the oak’s cell walls and likewise allows the spirit to penetrate deeper into the wood to extract more flavour and colour. It also helps build a type of ‘filter’ between the spirit and oak, which, during maturation gradually removes/reduces undesirable flavours.
There are four common levels of charring, with the higher levels being much more commonly used in American than in Scotland, where distilleries tends to favour the more gentle ‘toasting’.
Level 1 (15 second burn) - A little step above a heavy toast, imparting little woody/burnt flavour into the spirit – rarely used
Level 2 (30 second burn) - Slightly caramelisation of wood sugars imparting gentle vanilla, coffee and spiciness
Level 3 (35 second burn) - A common level for American whiskeys. The higher char helps impart earthy, spicy flavours as well as deepening the colour of the spirit though caramelisation
Level 4 (55 second burn) - Alligator char. The barrels begin to crack and peel, developing the look of Alligator skin. Intense scorching imparts increasingly dark colour and a higher level of spicing
*Buffalo Trace purportedly upped the ante with one their barrel experiments, introducing a Level 7 char. No doubt highly intense.
Nose: Powerful, but enticing. Trademark Ardbeg phenolic smoke (surface cleaner, ointments, tinctures and log fires), but sweetened with BBQ’d meats, coffee beans, reduced sugars and vanillins. There’s some oysters laced with lemon juice here – but their influence is much less than you’d find in standard bottlings from this distillery. The addition of water heightens the sweetness and cask influence, and adds a slight ashiness and salinity in to the peat.
Taste: Quite a silky arrival which delivers smoked fishes and meats alongside sweet, slightly fruity peat and a combination of fresh and charred wood. There’s a high minerality here – granite, wet pebbles and rock pools – as well as some tangy citrus (grapefruit). Spicing is prevalence, with both pepper and ginger pronounced, and sitting alongside vanilla and salty sea water. Less oomph, more subtlety and spiciness than one might expect of bottlings from this distillery. A small amount of dilution (which I’d personally not recommend in this instance) softens the fruits and sugars, as well as adding in some chalky ash flavours.
Finish: Medium to long, with drying minerals and dying embers. Quite lovely.
Ardbeg Alligator is rather the different beast to many Ardbeg bottlings. Whilst nowhere near as punchy or brutish as the distillery’s spirit can be, Alligator offers both lovely balance (particularly in the finish) as well as some natural sweetness that is derived from the wood itself, rather than from the more common use of sherry Like many limited editions from this distillery, the ‘story’ highlights the concept, but then rather oversells the actual implementation – nevertheless, there’s a lot to like here – and the end result is a tasty different take on the distillery’s natural character.
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