The advent of the 21st Century sparked a peated arms race. Both greater demand for smoky Islay whiskies in general, and the presentation of phenolic content (as measured by parts per million – PPM) on bottles/packaging has led to an escalation in distilleries producing particularly heavily peated expressions, and promoting these liquids based around listing high PPM values. Peat obsessed enthusiasts have by and large lapped this up – like moths to a candle. Ardbeg’s Supernova – first released in 2008 (as a Committee bottling) was probably my first experience of the emerging ‘super heavily peated’ category. Peated to 100 PPM rather than Ardbeg’s more usual 50-55 PPM, the early Supernova releases have become unicorns – now seldom seen and commanding eye-watering prices on the secondary market.
As I’ve written on The Dramble before, large PPMs can be misleading as they’re usually (An Cnoc dabbled with liquid PPM measurement for a while) measured from the malted barley and not from the eventual spirit. The resultant figures are therefore much higher than you’ll actually find when pouring your dram. The loss of phenols during both distillation and maturation can be quite dramatic. Therefore folks should not expect any of Ardbeg’s Supernova releases to be literally twice as peaty as standard bottlings, despite the doubling of the stated PPM values. Those interested in learning more about phenols and phenol measurement should check out this interesting presentation by The Manchester Pyromanics produced for Dramboree 2017.
The latest Supernova release was back in 2015. SN2015 (following the naming convention of real life supernovas) was a limited edition Committee release which highlighted the distillery’s ‘space whisky’ experiment from years earlier. N.B. no bottles of Supernova have ever contained any actual space whisky! This supposedly final release (at least under the Supernova moniker – and assuming more heavily peated stocks have been produced) was again produced as an NAS and released at a cost of around £125. You’ll now struggle to pay anywhere near that price should you wish to purchase a bottle – retailers have long profited off the association between Ardbeg and limited editions that fans of peated whisky look out for. To my mind £125 was, and still is pricy for this expression – but the current retail value and secondary market expectations are now simply ludicrous. As a final note of pricing, I’d highlight that Ardbeg themselves are pretty fair and decent people – if you visit the distillery you’ll often see past (and now desirable) expressions being sold for their original RRP.
There’s little to no information I can glean about the cask composition of SN2015 – though I’d assume a base of ex-bourbon casks, albeit with a much higher level of initial peating. The ABV is 54.3% - the lowest of the Supernova releases, which may or may not suggest it contains some of the oldest stock of the series.
Nose: Expressive inescapable smoke – but not significantly more than in other modern releases. Smouldering earthiness and crispy bacon replace the usual Ardbeg ashiness/sootiness and are supported by high sweetness from red apples, vanilla pods and preserved lemons. There’s a strong vein of minerality running throughout – quartz and coal dust – all sharp, hewn and chiselled. In the background, linseed oil, bell peppers, salinity and menthol. The addition of water brings out a greater medicinal character – ozone, Sudocream, sea breeze and touches of leather.
Taste: Immediately bolder with a high level of smoke, spice and coastal impact. Surface cleaner, iodine and fireplace embers sit with salted lemons, granite, graphite and shale. Interestingly, there’s just as much spice as there is smoke – chilli, pepper and cloves. The mid-palate offers a glimpse of fruitiness with apples and pineapple. These quickly subside for saltiness, tar, and tanned leather. Reduction leads to a less single-minded, but more expansive palate – bright citrus peels, tart grapefruit, anise and antiseptic cream – but, delivered with less of a sledgehammer delivery – which may or may not be why you’re here in the first place.
Finish: Quite long, with sweet peat smoke (a touch of honey perhaps), charcoal and iodine leading into a fading dry bitterness.
The 2015 edition of Ardbeg Supernova offers a powerful, focused and persistent peaty experience. The nose is really quite super, delivering a somewhat different take on Ardbeg smokiness, but with a good gradation through fruit and minerality. For many, the true experience of Supernova is delivered on the palate – big, bold and intense. But, perhaps at the expense of some nuance and balance – smoke and spice are both penetratingly strong to a point where you can sense the underlying distillate crying out to express its fruitier more characterful side. Nevertheless, these are but necessary quibbles, the end result is still very good.