This week’s long-awaited news of Heineken offering a $2.5 billion deal to purchase Distell was met with mixed reviews – from both the markets and the drinkers. The notion of ‘bigger being better’ is rarely one which resonates in the minds of consumers – indeed, they can be quite a resistant bunch when it comes to mergers and acquisitions. Whilst people generally understand that companies utilise buyouts to expand into new markets, add new capabilities and increase their revenue, this is often coupled with an anxiousness about the potential knock-on effects that stem from the new behemoth that’s produced as a result – pricing (of course), quality of service and the treatment of employees both during and after an acquisition are all theoretical apprehensions. But when it comes to whisky there’s another – and that’s the potential for neglect.
Distell have invested heavily in their single malt portfolio over the nine years since they purchased the Scotch whisky business from Burn Stewart Distillers. Whilst the group’s three distilleries are well-known and well-loved within the whisky community, those longer in the tooth will remember when Bunnahabhain, Deanston and Tobermory were far from the household names that they are today. Whether the Heineken acquisition (assuming it is completed) will adversely affect the perception and reputation of these three distilleries – only history will tell. However, I would argue that their rise to far greater prominence under Distell did not occur by accident, nor because of the whims of the market. It has been a planned, sustained and highly successful effort by Distell to expand and evolve their inventories, their brands and their people. In other words, they have nurtured their businesses.
Whilst Mother Nature takes care of many aspects of whisky – just three natural ingredients and a vessel hewn from a tree – sit back, relax and wait. She does not care one jot for consumerism. That requires people. People who want to cultivate a business. And a desire for that business to flourish over time.
The nurture of whisky takes many forms – some easier than others, and when all taken as a whole, quite the challenging proposition to get right. Of course, the fundamental aspect which requires fostering are spirit quality and inventories – without a pool of quality stocks of tasty things that people want to repeatedly drink, you ain’t got much. Distillate and casks will always be at the centre of any distillery (you’d be surprised how many don’t get these aspects right – and attempt to cut corners right out of the heart of their businesses). However, outside of spirit and wood, nurturing can be a much broader concept – and it encapsulates, customers themselves, brands, staff, training, visitor centres, and above everything else the idea of ‘experience’.
I’ve visited a number of distilleries who possess inherently great spirit, have matured it within excellent casks and offered it to visitors in wonderfully designed visitor centres. And yet sometimes those experiences simply don’t resonate with me. Similarly, I’ve drunk countless whiskies which on a technical and taste level are exceptional, and yet there’s something wider about them which leaves me feeling a little cold.
Increasingly as whisky consumers we are buying into far more than just brown liquid contained within a bottle. The experience – the people, the community, the conversation – these are all immeasurably valuable and they too require producers to invest in. But not everything can or should be nurtured to the same extent…and that brings me onto Ardmore. One of my favoured distilleries, but a distillery which has not, as yet, been nurtured to anywhere near the level of Distell’s triptych.
Ardmore sits somewhat uneasily within Beam Suntory’s threesome of peated distilleries. Whilst both Bowmore and Laphroaig have long-established global reputations, generations of lauded bottlings and increasingly regular ‘special’ releases – Ardmore just seemingly plods on being Ardmore. There has not been an OB Ardmore since 2019. Further - there has not been an OB Ardmore outside of a core range ‘rebottle’ since 2018’s 1996 20 year old and 1987 30 year old – both of which impressed me.
The distillery does not have a visitor centre – you can’t in normal circumstances bowl up for tour. The distillery doesn’t have a social media presence, nor a mailing list or even, as far as I can tell, an advocacy team hosting tastings either in person – and certainly not virtually.
Ardmore is not a new kid on the block – despite being younger than its Islay stable mates – it was established in 1898. However, as a whisky if you’re looking to explore it beyond its entry points (Legacy, Triple Wood and Port Wood Finish) once you’ve picked up a bottle from the supermarket, you’re invariably heading immediately over to independent bottlers.
So why doesn’t Beam Suntory nurture Ardmore in the same way that is does Bowmore and Laphroaig?
The answer lies in several places. Firstly, one needs to look at the purpose of Ardmore. Much of it is destined as bulk for Teacher’s blended Scotch (which sold 1.4 million cases in 2019) – and with an LPA of a little over 5 million that’s quite the chunk to be out of bounds for single malt production. However, the number of Ardmore independent bottlings is considerable, and to my mind is still growing. Therefore, there’s more than just inventory levels at play here.
I suspect that whilst Beam Suntory are content enough for Bowmore and Laphroaig to compete – that adding in a third peated spirit at the same level is just a step too far. Both in terms of the level of competition, but also in terms of the potential for consumer confusion. Islay peat is not the same as Highland peat. Many would struggle to differentiate the specific reasons why Bowmore and Laphroaig tastes polls apart in terms of their profiles – let alone adding in smoke that’s derived from Aberdeenshire and then attempting to educate consumers as to why that’s both different and also why its worth their time.
Further, there’s the matter of reputations. And whilst those stem from historic nurturing, they’re still something which need to be considered in the context of today. Despite being established in 1898, the first instance of Ardmore being bottled as a single malt that I can find is from 1950. And the next is not until 1984 when Cadenhead’s put it into a dumpty. Indeed, you need to look all the way to 1999 to see an OB Ardmore hitting the market. Compare that to the likes of Bowmore and Laphroaig which by the turn of the millennium were already globally established brands with substantive consumer traction and sales.
It could well be that Beam Suntory feel that Ardmore is too far behind the single malt curve to merit the investment required to get the distillery (and consumers themselves) to a point where the efforts and rewards of nurturing prove worthwhile. Indeed, if you look over to Inverness, you’ll find that if any of Beam Suntory’s sites are being nurtured right now – Glen Garioch could well be top of the list. The stills at Glen Garioch are currently being restored to direct fire. There's a long-term play if ever I saw one.
Nevertheless, as an Ardmore fan, I don’t feel in anyway underserved – there are a substantial number of casks circulating and being matured by independent bottles. And from tasting a great many of these – one thing is for certain – Ardmore are still nurturing their spirit and their casks.
Today’s Ardmore comes via Bramble Whisky Company. And ties in nicely as it has been fully matured in ex-Islay casks. No prizes for guessing which Islay distillery. Distilled back in 2008 and with 270 bottles produced earlier this year at 50% ABV, the expression is available via Bramble’s retail arm – Mothership for £75.
Nose: Beachy with strewn rocks and sand. Fainty barny with damp hayloft at 500 feet. And florally fruity with brown-sugar coated cooking apple alongside spiced elderflower tea, wintergreen, pine and smoked meringue. The addition of water offers a more vegetal focus with leaf mulch, wet hay and damp cotton alongside alluvialness from clay and sea breeze.
Taste: Combining inland and medicinal cues (as the cask makeup would suggest). Opening on floor cleaner and medicinal wipes before a big note of anise extends into the development. Pan fats and salted butter extend into intensely spiced apple segments whilst a touch of molten rubber meets a stack of American pancakes. The addition of water presents greater minerality with metholated limestone (which is really not a thing), together with smouldering leafy smoke.
Finish: Medium to long and expressing salinity and a hearty kick from Szechuan pepper.
Bramble Whisky Company’s Ardmore offers a collision of styles. Both the distillate and the Laphroaig casks have something to say here, and the profile runs the gamut of inland, farmyard, vegetal and medicinal. And that idiosyncraticness makes this ideal single cask material – whilst Ardmore themselves are currently disinclined to offer any real diversity to the market, independent offerings come with huge variance in-built. And this is no exception to that. However, there’s a franticness of flavour going on here – which to me feels refreshingly tangential – but for you might lack a more linear trajectory. Nevertheless, if you're already an Ardmore fan - this is pretty easy to recommend.
Review sample provided by Bramble Whisky Company