If we tolerate this
Posted 15 July 2020 by Matt / In Ardbeg
Bottle Name: Ardbeg Wee Beastie
Every pursuit, hobby and industry has bad actors and - let’s be quite clear - in virtually all cases these are a vocal minority. Whisky is no different in that regard. Day-to-day most enthusiasts go about their dramming with good humour and in many instances a superlative amount of modesty and compassion. Well-meant advice, fair-minded dram shares, and acts of pure charity that remind you that community is still the beating heart of the whisky world. It’s nice to be nice. But at the same time – over the past five years – and exponentially exacerbated over the last four months – there’s a growing contagion of self-importance that to my mind is starting to cut far deeper than the long-standing and misguided condescension for ice or mixers.
It’s a mere hop, skip and a jump from a satisfying sense of gratitude that a bottling has been obtained, to developing a poisonous sense of entitlement. And in some corners of the whisky world, it seems that this toxin – ingested long, long ago – has taken hold. Whisky snobbery and elitist behaviour are sadly nothing new – but despite repeated clarion calls for inclusivity, egalitarianism or just plain reasonableness - distilleries, producers and fellow enthusiasts seem to be facing a growing wall of anger, bitterness and misplaced consumer privilege. When did such a social activity become quite so anti-social? The phrase ‘whisky is for everyone’ can start to feel more like an ideal than a reality when you’re at the coal face.
Entitlement issues and the behaviour which stems from it threatens to undo all the endeavours which have taken place (and continue to take place) to position whisky as a drink that’s accessible for everyone. And at times, they don’t paint a pretty, nor an appealing picture to those looking in at the start of their whisky journeys.
The Internet has a lot to answer for. And I like cat pictures. Whilst it has inarguably democratised whisky information, it has also provided the perfect hotbed for displays of self-serving superiority and overprivileged antagonism. Didn’t get that limited edition bottling you were going to flip for all the monies? Well now you can defame the distillery/bottler publicly – or send them a threatening personal message. Don’t like the distillery’s new brand livery? Just make sure you’re telling them this. Not once – perhaps they didn’t hear you?! But repeatedly. Or even better - on every single one of their social media posts. How dare they ruin your whisky.
Feeling irritated is a fact of life - we’ve all been there and doubtless will many times hence. Hell, I was frustrated earlier today when I discovered that my local supermarket isn’t selling pikelets anymore (look ‘em up). But I didn’t as a result make a beeline for the aisle 12 loudspeaker to vociferously decry the entire company for their obviously despicable behaviour in not fulfilling my basic human needs for batter-based baked goods.
But for a product which is made from such commonplace, humble ingredients – for better or for worse, whisky is a somewhat limited commodity. And it’s with the most limited of bottlings where entitlement comes, on cue, to the fore. It seems far easier to explain why a barrel can physically only hold a certain amount of liquid than it is to explain why this volumetric truth necessitates that not everyone can obtain a bottle. People expect casks to be a Mary Poppins bag of infinite supply – or at least for ‘not everyone’ to be a requirement which doesn’t apply to them. But once in possession of a bottle these same people are quite content for it to be limited once more. Whisky isn’t for everyone – it’s for me.
At its core, the desire to obtain is understandable human nature – the collector, the completist, the ‘super fan’ – all eager to possess and covet (and possibly consume) something that’s perceived as being rare. But in many instances, this quickly turns into an unhealthy obsession. Nowhere is this truer than for in-demand, newly established distilleries, where fresher entrants seem to be quickly developing a fixation with ‘catching em all’, having decided – wrongly – that this surely should be an unproblematic task when compared to digging into the back catalogue of longer-established distilleries. They soon discover that this is still no easy endeavour. Most - similarly to those who thought that obtaining every single HP Single Cask release was a good idea – quickly let go of the notion. There’s always more whisky. But some are not nearly as easily dissuaded – and are increasingly willing to give anyone and everyone both barrels of ire should they miss out. An even worse form of FOMO is developing – Fury Of Missing Out.
Railing on distilleries, producers and fellow enthusiasts is not a method to win friends and influence people. Whisky’s wide and growing appeal lies within its ability to be a leveller. As a drink, it is equally at home in a working club as it is at a high-end bar – its consumption and enjoyment bring people together from all walks of life. And we’d all be much better served by thinking of whisky in those terms. As something which binds us - not as a ‘lifestyle choice’ monument to our sense of self-worth, or as a wall which separates this whisky as being ‘for us’ and that whisky as being ‘for them’.
The whisky community is a much richer and more enjoyable place when we’re sharing our experiences, knowledge and passions. We owe it to both that same community and to ourselves to maintain realistic and reasonable expectations - and the behaviours that are commonly associated with those.
We all need to strive to be better - me included. To continually recognise and reinforce that no one is more worthy than anyone else. And that regardless of whether it’s merely an ideal – accessibility, inclusion and tolerance are nevertheless still always worth fighting for.
Despite one of the strangest release timetables of the last few years (not helped by COVID-19, but still geographically nonsensical nevertheless), Ardbeg Wee Beastie has not yet resulted in widespread transmission of the rage virus. Folks have, for the most part, remained extremely patient and eager for the bottle’s eventual arrival here in the UK. That said, things might be different over in France, where rumour has it the release is (at least initially) being allocated solely to the bar trade. Weird.
Nevertheless, whilst bottles of Wee Beastie are flying off the shelves at a rate of knots, cheerfulness persists – for one reason alone – the expressions’ announcement was as part of the ever-widening Ardbeg core range. Slapping ‘limited edition’ on a label is a guarantee for people to get their knickers in a twist. It’s therefore pleasing to see enthusiasm unfettered by resentment. This whisky, as a core product, is for everyone.
We seem a world away from the Ardbeg main line-up consisting solely of the 10 year old, Uigeadail and Corryvreckan and everything else being something of a bun fight. In the space of only a few years a triplet has become a sextet – and it’s worth noting that whilst Traigh Bhan (not really ‘core’ in my book as an annual issuing) has been crafted to appeal to die-hard Ardbeggians, both Wee Beastie and An Oa before it, are pitched at least in pricing terms, similarly to the perennially solid Ardbeg 10 year old.
Ardbeg’s entry point is starting to feel somewhat crowded. And it begs the question as to why? Is the brand attempting to gain wider market share by recognising that there’s still something of a stigma outside of enthusiast circles for spending big bucks on bottles of whisky? Or is this a changing of the guard in terms of the future pricing structure of the remainder of the Ardbeg core range? Time will tell – however for now, the key takeaway from the release of Wee Beastie must be the courageousness of the distillery to issue the release as a 5 year old.
Whilst you’ll regularly see lower age statements from independent bottlers, markedly young OBs are a rarity, particularly from the bigger brands. Wee Beastie’s boldness in proclaiming its age statement should be applauded – and it also won’t go unnoticed by owners Louise Vuitton Moet Hennessy that irrespective of the small number, the bottles are flying. The floodgates could well now be opened for other producers to recognise that the whisky community is likely quite amenable to lower age statements. But, that doesn’t mean that these don’t need to be considered just as carefully - young should never mean rushed.
Ardbeg Wee Bestie has been matured in a combination of ex-bourbon and oloroso sherry casks – it’s bottled at 47.4% ABV and available for around £37 here in the UK. Bottles are shifting quickly – though many retailers have not yet listed their allocations for sale – and likewise, as above, the product is a core release – they’ll be many more bottles to come.
Nose: An expressive and heady combination of tarry and vegetal smoke - road surfacing, ashtrays, smouldering damp bonfire leaves – is sweetened by pear juice, apricots and fermenting apples. Golden barley underpins everything and is joined by pine needles, tree resin, yeasty buns and a pang of youthful brass piping. In the background, creamy vanilla and a twist of cracked black pepper. The addition of water takes things mustier – waterlogged carpet, bung cloth, soaked woollen jumpers – and reveals some meatiness with BBQ ribs.
Taste: An oily and fulsome arrival packed full of maltiness and muscular (though not beastly) dry smoke. Fireplace embers, spent tobacco and wood ash are enlivened by tangy citrus peels and aniseed from Black Jack chews. Salinity runs throughout, alongside pepperiness, whilst a punnet of juicy red berries provides back-palate sweetness. Dilution retains the overall shape and texture whilst expressing lemon sherbet, apple slices, wet slate and barley water.
Finish: Quite long with citrus oils infused into drying smoke.
Ardbeg Wee Beastie is nowhere near as feral and animalistic as I was expecting. Despite emblematic Ardbeg smokiness running throughout, the expression still feels crafted to sit on the rails. More wildlife park than true safari. The overall composition is a whistle-stop tour through Ardbeg’s greatest hits – a bit of this, a bit of that – and for the most part it works nicely. As a heavily peated daily drinker it ticks boxes. And yet, I’m unlikely to find myself buying another bottle.
Comparisons to the 10 year old are a certainty – though they are only valid in terms of a price comparison – not only is Wee Beastie half the stated age, but the cask makeup is quite different. However, whilst Wee Beastie does offer enough points of difference, for me, it’s neither beastly enough nor rounded enough to offer merits which can’t already be found within the pre-existing distillery range. Your mileage may of course vary – and reviewed in isolation, I enjoyed this foray into the younger side of the distillery. But whilst on paper Wee Beastie is suggestive of a brutal bear hug – in reality, I found it more of a slightly uneven, though likeable cuddle.
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