The Internet loves lists. The biggest this, the greatest that, the top 25 things to know about lobotomies (no, really). And of course the net-based whisky world is far from adverse to stuffing things into fairly arbitrary orders – cue, ‘the list of the most underrated distilleries in the world. Ever’. I’ve never actually comprehended this regularly created, rolled out and discussed to death list – firstly, most of the entries tend to come from distilleries which produce few OBs and only a handful of indy bottlings each year – ergo of course they’re underrated – folks just don’t get to sample them all that much. Scarcity should not to be equated with underappreciation – often quite the opposite. But, further…..if a distillery is so unnoticed and so undervalued, and yet to your mind cranking out amazing juice, why on earth would you want to tell everyone else about it?
Underrated distilleries is a hard concept to rationalise. One person’s hidden gem can be another’s go-to spirit of choice. And where’s the line between unrewarded and simply unfamiliar? Think of Glen Scotia – not all that long ago the distillery was putting out adequate juice in barely adequate packaging - less under the radar, more unloved. But, nowadays their popularity is on the rise, they’re making and bottling fantastic liquid and pitching it to the market in the right away. And yet, Glen Scotia might always be a distillery which could be considered underappreciated – in some people’s minds they’ll always be Campbeltown’s ‘other’ distillery.
Similarly, I’d argue that whisky consumers have more choice now than at any other time in history. Competition is fierce – new distilleries, new expressions and new bottlers. Your exposure to both brands and trying new spirits is a magnitude higher than it was 10 or even 5 years ago. And of course, the Internet knows everything – so, to the well-read, there’s little reason for any distillery to be truly undiscovered.
But, it’s fair to say that some brands and bottlings get more or less attention than they deserve. This often stems from how well said distillery/owner is able to leverage its outreach capabilities – and fandom. The biggest players not only make the largest amount of liquid, they also have the deepest marketing budgets. But that doesn’t always mean that this is shared equally across the distilleries within a group.
Ardmore is one of the few distilleries which I’d argue is presently underrated – and I’d pin this largely down to how little owners Beam Suntory (yeah, that tiny company) put into promoting it. The capacity of the distillery is double that of stablemate Laphroaig and whilst likely a greater proportion of volume goes out to blend, the amount of advertising and attention which Ardmore tends to receive is near criminal when compared to its inherent qualities as a spirit.
It’s a tricky proposition. Everything smoke is always about Islay nowadays – inland peat just doesn’t have the same romance and image as that of the coast – despite the fact that historically, peat was used as a fuel source for many inland distilleries. But, it feels to me as if Beam Suntory just haven’t really got to grips with identifying Ardmore’s uniqueness and positioning it in a way which has broad, but authentic appeal. Gold foil eagles on bottles and tubes are all very well, but when you spend 90% of your label real-estate taking about them flying and soaring, rather than about your whisky, alarm bells ring.
Despite feeling that Ardmore’s OBs are under promoted and therefore underappreciated, you’ll regularly see it bottled by independents. I’d posit this is down to two factors – the quality and consistency of the spirit being made at the distillery - and its ability to present well at a relatively young age. Nevertheless, older Ardmore – though a rarer sight is something worth checking out – the spirit is robust enough to stand up to several decades in cask. And again this goes to the inherent quality of the make.
I’d personally be quite happy if Ardmore continues to fly a little under the radar – you only have to look at their dependably reasonable pricing to realise that being a little unfamiliar is not necessarily a bad thing for us consumers. But then, damn...I've just gone and told you all about it.
Ardmore 30 year old was released in 2018 and stands as the oldest bottling from the distillery to date. It shares this title with a 2008 30 year old which was bottled exclusively for the US Market. Indeed, only Douglas Laing (2007) and G&M (2008) have matched this level of maturity with independent bottlings.
The current OB 30 year old is drawn from a 1987 vintage of casks – initially matured in refill barrels, before being finished (for an unspecified amount of time) in 1st fill ex-bourbon and bottled at 47.2% ABV. The price is exceptionally fair for an OB of this age when compared to the competition - you can still pick up a bottle for £250 from the Whisky Exchange. See what I mean about flying under the radar?
Nose: Bright yellow fruits – ripe pears, mangos and pineapple chunks sitting with well-aged lemon-y polish from teak furniture and wood panelling. Smoke sits and shifts subtly throughout - on the whole, fresh and in-land with ferns, bracken and smouldering fields. But there’s also background notes which are not quite as clean - felt roofing and green peppers. The addition of water takes things danker – earthy, oily, slightly musty with boiled vegetables – and tarter – under ripe grapes and white pepper oak spicing.
Taste: The arrival has weight and presence, unleashing an array of fruitiness, sweetness and peat influence. Apples, mangos, pineapple and dragon fruit sit with polished furniture, latte coffee, and honey sweetness. The mid-palate offers chopped almonds, pepper and ginger spicing and tantalising forest-forward peat smoke – again, green, fresh and wet with leaves – again, deeper and danker with moss and mulch. Reduction offers steeped fruit teas, coffee grounds and boiled vegetables alongside oaky dryness and a cheeky sprinkle of pepper.
Finish: Long with lingering (but downplayed) herbal smoke – wet hay, mint and sunflowers – alongside fading juicy yellow fruits.
Ardmore 30 year old offers a wonderful balance of thought-provoking and effective flavours alongside some good old fashioned well-aged elegance. Aromas and flavours are distinct and palpable whilst at the same time subtle, balanced and never overstated. The oak has been well-controlled and acts as a foil for the underlying Ardmore spirit profile. Delicious whisky that’s well-priced (as with many of Ardmore’s recent OBs) when compared to other similarly aged competitors.