Whilst cats are supposedly curious creatures, it is humans who are the ones hardwired to be inquisitive (though apparently sheep can be inquisitive also – who knew). And whisky fans are most certainly an inquiring bunch. As soon as a bottle hits the shelves, enthusiasts are already scanning the horizon for the next release….and the one after that. And if you work for a distillery, you better get used to the bombardment of appeals. What’s next? When will that cask be ready for release? What will you be doing in a decade’s time? But for all the bleating, it’s often in the industry’s interest to indulge these investigations – the hype train requires constant fuelling.
New release detection is far easier than it used to be, and pesky kids have all manner of methods for unearthing information. Spend a little time exploring the whisky chatter on social media and you’ll likely get a solid steer as to what’s around the corner. A hastily taken photo in a warehouse or bottling hall, an overheard conversation during a tour or tasting – all manner of things end up on the Internet and rest assured, as many people love to share supposed ‘insider information’ as to find it out.
Several whisky sleuths often turn to the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which offers a database of product registrations and can provide valuable intel into what producers have coming down the pipeline – sometimes much further into the future. But, the morsels of information provided often ask more questions than they actually answer. A label usually only tells part of the story nowadays.
Distillery ‘arm twisting’ is in my experience the most common method that enthusiasts employ to feed their insatiable demand for facts. And from my side of the house, I’m usually happy to provide it. Kinda. Keeping a steady drum beat of excitement going is a fundamental aspect of successful whisky marketing – as is recognising that fans will be fans – questions are asked because answers are always welcomed. Hints, teases and even somewhat subversive tastings (gleaning feedback on potential future releases without telling the imbiber they’re being a test rat) are all valuable methods to keep the interrogators happy – whilst counter-spying and gaining valuable customer feedback at the same time.
But whisky is somewhat different to most hobbies, in that some questions simply cannot be answered until after a passage of time – often a long passage of time. What will your now 4 year old whisky taste like at 10 years of age? How will those new casks, that you’ve not yet filled, interact with your spirit? Whisky enthusiasts abhor an information vacuum, but it is fundamentally part and parcel of an industry where not everything can be known, and where happenstance can and does result in wonderfully unexpected things.
Whilst some distilleries are more secretive than others – Ardbeg usually give enthusiasts oodles of notice of their upcoming releases. Especially if you like in the UK and want a bottle of Wee Beastie – which, at this stage could have been left in the cask a little longer and been unveiled as a 6 year old. But, for the most part, the annual Feis bottlings from Ardbeg play to the idea of the Committee – which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary. One release for those guys, and a similar, lower strength release for the Festival and wider markets. I rather like the dual release concept from a marketing point of view – it’s two bites of the cherry and a much longer hype window that results in excitement in the run up to Feis and beyond it.
But at the same time, whilst these bottlings are usually teased (or dug up on TTB) far in advance of their release, the actual volume of information provided about them is usually somewhat scant. An NAS with a theme (some cleverer than others) and often a specified secondary cask type that has been utilised for an unspecified period of time. And that’s exactly what we’ve got with Ardbeg Blaaack. A red wine cask finished expression that says more about the number of sheep and vintners in New Zealand than it does about the actual liquid in the bottle.
The Committee release is bottled at 50.7% ABV and sold out in short order – though I’ll note that Ardbeg’s ‘please waiting’ room is a more than adequate method for ensuring that those that want a bottle have the ability to get one and aren’t faced with a frustrating morning of 404 errors (others, particularly SMWS, take note). The original cost was £94 – and like all other Committee releases you’ll now have to frequent some auction houses to pick one up. Or, get your skates on and nab a bottle of the ‘standard’ 46% Blaaack – which has been hitting stores this week in time for Ardbeg Day tomorrow.
Nose: Initially fruit-focussed with glacecherries, grape and pear juices and lemon oils. Additional sweetness comes directly from a patisserie – shortbread, cake mix and brioche. The smoke is light and dainty, though becomes more expansive with resting – notes of clays and putties alongside charred pine needles and rain-soaked fern fronds. Dilution diminishes the fruitiness and exposes a much dirtier peat influence – fireplace soot, charcoal and clove-studded ham joint.
Taste: Juicy fruitiness leads off in a soft and velvety arrival – jammy berries and stone fruit marmalades. Alluvialness quickly follows with wet gravels, broken shale and water-logged soils. Peat smoke is controlled, but more pervasive and bolder than the nose – sooty chimneys, sticking plasters and rubber inner tubes alongside spent coffee grounds, chocolate nibs, over-reduced caramel and mentholated oakiness. Reduction offers a role reversal to the nose – more fruits, less peat (or at least moved towards the back palate) – plump raisins, macerated strawberries and an aside of mint leaf.
Finish: Quite long, with persistent sootiness, tingly pepper and some sticky wood tannins.
Recent Committee releases have favoured a lighter styling, whilst wearing their youthfulness on their sleeves (though not on their labels) – and in those regards, Blaaack treads a similar path. However, this time around there’s no need for any sheepishness - the end result feels much more convincing. The red wine cask influence is both palpable and quite effective here. Whilst there’s less peaty wallop than die-hard Ardbeg fans will likely crave, as a result Blaaack is able to offer an immediately drinkable, softer, fruitier and cuddlier characteristic. Less mutton more lamb.