Ardbeg is a divisive whisky. Its profile does not suit all tastes, and over the years my wife has developed a particular (disapproving) facial expression for when the heavily peated spirit in in my glass. Similarly, it’s divisive for fans - new entrants scrabbling over each other in a bottle stampede, piles of limited releases flipped immediately, and old-timers (who remember the dearth of production in the mid 90’s) bemoaning what they see as falling standards and an increasing number of streamlined, ‘beginner’ flavour profiles. And then there’s the marketing…
Whilst the links between the liquid and the Ardbeg Day themes do seem to be getting ever more tenuous, as someone who’s worked across marketing communications for two decades, I really can sympathise with the bods over at owners LVMH – this stuff is not easy. You might think it is. You’re wrong.
Remember that whilst Ardbeg Day has its home at the distillery on Islay, the celebrations extend across the world to many an Ardbeg Embassies (bars). I’ve heard good reports from colleagues far away from Scotland about how well they are treated by the distillery. Coming up with a hook each year that chimes with fans across the globe is a tough ask. I for one would rather folks moaned less about the themes and more about the liquid transparency. Whatever a bottle is called, I care more about the whisky itself and its journey – that’s where booze marketing often falls down.
2019’s Ardbeg Day release is Drum. Think ‘rum’ but with a ‘d’ added to it. Because.
The official release describes Drum thus:
“In a first for the Distillery, Ardbeg have taken Ardbeg single malt from ex-Bourbon casks, and rested it awhile in ex-rum casks from the Americas to coax out tropical tastes.”
Not much to go on – the type and length of rum maturation is less than vague. However, it’s worth noting that Drum is a cask finish. That’s unusual for Ardbeg, as traditionally, they have matured their liquid full-term and then married casks together to create their expressions. Drum takes the ex-bourbon and then re-racks it into the vague rum – I wonder why the decision was made to utilise the casks this way – perhaps a factor of the sweetness of the precursor liquid, or simply the number of ex-rum casks available. As with many limited editions, the actual number of bottles is not specified – but rest assured it’s pretty large. Whilst, pleasingly the Ardbeg website didn’t collapse under the weight of traffic this year, I’m not aware of anyone who wanted a bottle missing out on the day of release.
As a Committee Release, the bottling is delivered at a slightly higher ABV than the standard version of Drum at 52%. As for cost – the initial RRP was £94 plus shipping (slightly lower on the bottle price, but slightly higher on the shipping price than 2018’s Ardbeg Grooves). Now, you’ll have to look on the secondary market to find a bottle – prices look to be around £130-£150, so a fair premium. Alternatively, you can wait a few weeks and pick up the lower ABV (46%) non-Committee release – probably priced very similarly to the RRP of the Committee bottling.
Nose: Sweet, tarry and briny. Smoked pineapple chunks and pear slices alongside plenty of resin, sap and ‘green’ sappy fresh wood (I.E. youthful). Sea shells and salt water sit with medicinal smoke that’s part acrid and part sugared – the balance is there, but for my money, I’d expect more oomph in the peat department. In the background, melted smoked chocolate, gentle rubber, fern leaves and basis. Reduction brings out some cask vanilla and sponge cake whilst also adding in some underfoot pine needles.
Taste: A thick arrival that delivers a punch of sugar and spice alongside medicinal smoke and plenty of minerality. Sweet ashy smoke, drying burnt wood and coal hearths are joined by banana and pineapple fritters and caramelised chunks of fresh papaya served straight off the BBQ grill. Cinnamon and ginger are dusted over the top. The mid-palate moves swiftly into minerality – rock pools, olive brine, engine oils – with some youthful metallic notes along for the ride. Water makes things sweeter up front whilst pushing the flintiness into the background – wet soils, vanilla butter cream and leather added.
Finish: Quite long, quite sweet and syrupy still, but with plenty of tarry ash lingering alongside pepper and cinnamon.
Ardbeg’s recent Committee releases have been lighter-styled, youthful and largely overpriced. Sadly, Drum is no different. Whilst the rum finish has added perceptible tropical sweetness to the expression, at the same time, it has diminished much of the raw power of the spirit. There’s a lot less smoke here than in the core bottlings. That’s either going to be OK for you, or it’s not – but, either way, don’t expect anything particularly bold.
That said, those who like rich, sugary syrupiness in their peated whiskies will probably find a lot to like about Drum. It has a good weight and a nice overall balance and is strangely the most everyday drinking Ardbeg I’ve come across in a long time – but at the RRP (and secondary market prices) should a Committee release Ardbeg really be a lighter-weight daily drinker?
But don't take our word for it..
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