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Chapter 6: Part Three (2008 - 2017) – The Whiskies; “Heavenly Peated"

 

A decade after Glenmorangie acquired Ardbeg distillery, demand for its whisky is greater than ever. Indeed, sales volumes grew by 20 percent during 2015 and 2016, and in the latter year 1.2 million bottles were sold.

Consequently, the pressure has been on. Mickey Heads to expand output as far as possible, on Bill Lumsden to create some masterpieces with the relatively young stocks available, and on the marketing team to relay successfully the uniqueness of each of these creations.

Apart from the ongoing 10-year-old, there were no aged releases until the Twenty-One appeared in 2016, and even this was o f very limited availability. Needless to say, many Ardbeg fans will no doubt be longing for the day when older agedwhiskybecomespart of thecorerange. Perhaps we will see a new 17-year-old added to the portfolio in the next ten years?

The last decade has seen an array of fascinatingly named and styled Ardbegs, but the Supernova theme, running from 2009 to 2015, arguably has taken centre stage. No doubt it will resurface time and again as Bill Lumsden continues to evaluate the results from the Ardbeg in Space' programme.

Meanwhile, with many excitements and enticements doubtless ahead, here are the Ardbeg expressions that have defined the brand since 2008.

Renaissance, 55.9%abv (2008)

In June 2008 the ‘Peaty Path to Maturity' was completed with the release of ‘We've Arrived', also named ‘Renaissance' to reiterate that Ardbeg was back. As with all the previous expressions along the peaty path journey to maturity, 1998 stock were used. Therefore, in addition to the two aforementioned names, this expression could also be referred to as a 10-year- old. According to Bill Lumsden "We may be horribly biased but it's an absolute cracker. I'm amazed by the incredibly, rich ‘tropical fruit' type character I find in this whisky."

Ardbeg Blasda, 40%abv (2008)

Blasda is Gaelic for ‘sweet and delicious.' The bottling was marketed as a ‘lightly peated' Ardbeg, which was in itself heresy for some brand aficionados! It was peated to a mere 25ppm, while the 10-year-old expression has a peating level of 55ppm. Additionally, Ardbeg's traditional minimum bottling strength of 46%abv was dropped in favour of 40%abv.

At the time of its release, Hamish Torrie, Ardbeg Brand Director, declared that "Here at Ardbeg, we like to serve Blasda as an aperitif. Wherever you are in the world, join us for a lip-smacking, lighter side of Ardbeg, comparing it to our famed and very peaty Ardbeg Ten Years Old. It's a limited, experimental release of some very ‘light' Ardbeg and will no doubt arouse the curiosity of Islay malt drinkers - and is part of our ongoing ‘conversation' (or debate!) with the Ardbeg Committee - our huge and very loyal fanclub."

Bill Lumsden says that "Blasda was exactly the opposite of all our other Ardbegs, and was really just a bit of fun."

Ardbeg Corryvreckan, 57.1%abv — for the general release (2009)
According to the Ardbeg team, "Corryvreckan takes its name from the famous whirlpool that lies to the north of Islay, where only the bravest souls dare to venture. Swirling aromas and torrents of deep, peaty, peppery tastes lurk beneath the surface of this beautifully balanced dram. Like the whirlpool itself, Corryvreckan is not for the faint-hearted!"

Having initially been offered as an Ardbeg Committee exclusive at 57.2%abv, in 2008 Corryvreckan took its place in 2009 as one of the three core Ardbeg expressions, alongside 10 Years Old and Uigeadail, and it followed the latter in being offered without an age statement and lacking chill-filtration. Significantly, having replaced the highly-regarded 1990 Airigh nam Beist, some of the component whiskies are matured in new French oak barrels.

According to Bill Lumsden, "Airigh nam Beist was always going to be finite, stocks would inevitably run out, so Corryvreckan wasn't a replacement for it in that sense. We used new French oak casks to give dark chocolate and clove notes. It held everything together. The recipe has evolved, and the French oak casks I laid down 12 years or so ago have started to trickle through into it during the last three to four years."

Ardbeg Supernova, 58.9%abv - for the first release (2009/10/14/15)
Celebrating the launch of Ardbeg into space', the 58.9%abv Advance Committee Release (2,400 bottles) of the first edition of Supernova sold out in a matter of hours during January 2009, and with a peating level of over 100ppm (compared to the usual 55ppm), it was the peatiest Ardbeg ever marketed. The expression takes its name from the term used to describe the explosion of astar, possibly caused by gravitational collapse, during which the star's luminosity increases by as much as 20 magnitudes and most of the star's mass is blown away at very high velocity.

This initial Committee Release of Supernova was followed later in the year by a general release, which was also bottled at 58.9%. In May o f the following year, another general limited edition - (SN2010), was released bottled at a strength of 60.1%abv, with, this particular variant being acclaimed by Jim Murray as his 2010 ‘SCOTCH WHISKY OF THE YEAR'.

Further Committee Releases followed in 2014 (SN2014) and 2015 (SN2015), with the former bottled at 55%abv and the latter at 54.3%abv, celebrating the return to earth of Ardbeg samples which had been subject to zero gravity maturation on the International Space Station According to Bill. Lumsden, "The motivation behind Supernova really was to create the highest peated expression ever. We didn't make the whisky especially for it, but identified ultra-heavily-peated stock we already had. I used a variety of cask types—some of the whisky was a bit brutal, so I used first-fill Bourbon casks and some sherry butts to help give it balance."

Ardbeg Rollercoaster, 57.3%abv (2010) Rollercoaster was released exclusively to Ardbeg Committee members on 15th February 2010, and such was demand for the 15,000 bottles available that the Ardbeg website crashed under the pressure!

Rollercoaster contains a proportion o f whisky distilled each year from 1997 to 2006, matured in the following casks: 1997—second-fill barrel, 1998 - refill hogshead, 1999 — first-fill barrel, 2000 — first-fill barrel, 2001 - refill barrel, 2002 - refill barrel, 2003—first-fill barrel, 2004 -first-fill barrel, 2005—second-fill Sherry butt, 2006 - refill hogshead.

Bill Lumsden declares that "We wanted something special for the tenth anniversary of the Committee, so we took varying proportions of spirit from 10 years of production."

Ardbeg Feis Ile, 55.1%abv (2011)

The 2011 Feis Ile bottling comprised a marriage of two ex-Pedro Ximinez sherry butts, filled in 1998, making the expression 13 years old. The whisky was named after a ferocious bull raised by the Duke of Veragua in the 19th century, famous for fighting an epic battle with ‘El Chicorro' in Madrid on 11 July 1869. Referred by some as El Diablo, Spanish for The Devil,' The Ardbeg team declared of Fels Ile—"This is a rare beast full of pent-up power...don't turn your back on it!" 1,200 bottles were released.

Ardbeg Alligator, 51.2%abv (2011)

Following an initial Committee Release, Alligator was issued in September 2011 as a limited edition to the general consumer. The expression takes its name from the ‘alligator charring' method, which sees the staves of oak barrels intensively charred to produce a scale- like pattern.

According to Bill Lumsden, "Since we bought and restored the Ardbeg distillery we have undertaken lots of experiments, laying down spirit in different types of casks. The heart of Alligator is spirit matured in ‘level 4' casks—the most intense type of charring you can achieve."

"Almost 50 per cent of the whisky comes from highly-charred virgin oak barrels. The whisky was black with charcoal when it came out. We married that with ‘house-style' whisky, matured in first-fill ex-Bourbon casks. I consider Alligator to be one of our most successful new Ardbeg products."

Ardbeg Day, 56.7%abv (2012)

Launched during Feis Ile 2012, Ardbeg Day was that year's Committee Release. It was selected from, and married in, refill sherry casks, previously used to age Uigeadail.

"We were looking to produce a release that was more than a single cask, we wanted to go for a bigger volume to allow more consumers to share it," says Bill Lumsden. "We were targeting a taste profile different to anything else available. Essentially, it was a toned-down version of Uigeadail, with a sweet, raisin-y character, but it was so subtle you wouldn't know the sherry influence was really there."

Ardbeg Galileo 1999, 49%abv (2012)

Galileo was a 12-year-old vatting of 1999 whisky matured in ex-Bourbon and ex-Marsala casks,and was launchedin.September2012. It was created to celebrate the ongoing experiment to determine the effect of zero gravity on maturing spirit, with the Ardbeg in question having been sent to the International. Space Station late in 2011 (see page 74), ‘Ardbeg in Space'. The expression was named after the Italian astronomer, physicist and mathematician Galilei Galileo (1564-1642).

Bill Lumsden explains that "Between 30 and 50 percent of the component whiskies came from the Marsala casks, and their influence gave the expression a more overtly leathery, savoury note."

Ardbeg Ardbog, 52.1%abv, (2013) Ardbog was released on 1st June 2013 – ‘Ardbeg Day' during the Feis Ile. It was initially exclusive to Ardbeg Embassy outlets—a global collection of retailer outlets and specialist bars - before being offered to the public as a limited edition.

Ardbog was a 10-year-old whisky, though it carried no age statement, and maturation took place in a mix of ex-Bourbon and Manzanilla sherry casks.

"I wanted to create the character of a salty, marshy peat bog, and using between 30 and 50 per cent of whisky from the Manzanilla casks helped to achieve that," notes Bill Lumsden.

Ardbeg Auriverdes, 49.9%abv, (2014)
An NAS limited edition released on 31st May 2014—Ardbeg Day. The expression's name Auri (gold) and verdes (green) celebrated Ardbeg's gold and green livery, as well as representing the colours of the Brazilian flag. Brazil hosted the 2014 World Cup, and this bottling was intended in part to celebrate that sporting event. A special feature of Auriverdes was the toasting of the lids of the American oak casks in which the whisky was matured. Bill Lumsden explains that "I had in mind a basket of smoked tropical fruit."

Ardbeg Kildalton, 46%abv, (2014)
Ten years after the initial release of Kildalton, a new version appeared as a limited edition, with profits going to the North Highland Initiative, which intends to build a new community hub in Port Ellen. Unlike the 2004 version, which was essentially unpeated, offered at cask strength, and distilled in 1980, the 2014 Kildalton was bottled at 46%abv and comprised a marriage of smoky and creamy whisky aged in Bourbon casks and spicier spirit from first-fill and refill sherry casks.

Ardbeg Perpetuum, 47.4%abv—for the general release (2015)

To celebrate Ardbeg's 200th anniversary, Perpetuum was launched at 49.2%abv as a Committee bottling and also as a limited release during the Feis Ile 2015, before going on general release at the slightly reduced strength of 47.4%abv. It was a mix of whiskies of varying ages, matured in former sherry and ex-Bourbon casks. In perpetuum is Latin for ‘forever,' and the bottle label carries the strapline ‘Here's to the next 200 years.'

Bill Lumsden says that "The oldest whiskies in it were 15 or 16, but age didn't really interest me here, it was about looking back' over the past 200 years and looking forward to the next. It was Ardbeg's greatest hits, if you like. It had classic 10-year-old style, Uigeadail style, French oak, Manzanilla and Alligator casks— it was a vatting of just about everything I've ever done with Ardbeg."

Ardbeg 1815, 50.1%abv (2015)
To commemorate the bi-centenary o f the establishment of Ardbeg distillery 400 bottles of ‘1815' were released. The whisky was distilled in 1974 and 1975 and aged for 33 years with a further eight years spent marrying in glass containers for preservation. The 1974 spirit was matured in Bourbon barrels, while the 1975 distillate was aged in ex-sherry casks.

According to International Brand Manager. Alan McIntyre, "1815 was created from two parcels of stock laid down during a period when Ardbeg was saved twice from oblivion—the diverse aromas and tastes of Ardbeg 1815 perfectly encapsulate the single malt's irreplaceable island spirit.

"A few years after these whisky parcels were distilled, the distillery entered the most turbulent period in its history closing between 1981-1989. Ardbeg closed its doors again in 1996, perhaps forever.

“In 2008 the precious whisky held within these casksonce again required protection, as Dr Bill Lumsden identified that the casks had reached their best and rather than sacrifice the whisky to the angels or to other effects of age, bottled the liquid to preserve its perfection, decanting by hand so not a drop was lost. Ultimately, it was launched to celebrate the distillery's 200th anniversary—an occasion worthy of its release."

Ardbeg Dark Cove, 46.5%abv—for the general release (2016)
Dark Cove was a limited-edition expression which was launched on 28th May to celebrate Ardbeg Day 2016 during Feis Ile. A Committee Edition had previously been release at an abv of 55% to gain feedback from fans.

Maturation took place in a combination of ex-Bourbon casks and what Ardbeg describes as "...dark Sherry casks..." for "The Darkest Ardbeg Ever." The name refers to the colour of the whisky, but also the shadowy history of illicit distilling and smuggling along the Islay coastline around Ardbeg distillery.

According to Bill Lumsden, "Bodegas José y Miguel Martin in Spain occasionally uses a PX-type sherry boiled and concentrated into almost a syrup. I got a batch of casks that had contained this ‘flavouring sherry.' These were the ‘dark sherry casks' referred to."

Ardbeg Twenty One, 46%abv (2016)
The launch of Ardbeg 21-year-old on 1st October 2016 was highly significant, as it was the first new expression from the distillery bearing an age statement since the very limited previous 21-year-old of 2001. The whisky in question was made during 1993 and 1994 when owner Allied Domecq was only distilling for a few weeks each year at Ardbeg, producing spirit for blending. The Glenmorangie Company managed to buy a quantity of stock from Chivas Brothers (who acquired part of the Allied spirits business) to make this 21-year-old bottling possible.

As Bill Lumsden explains, "When you buy stock back from a third party that has been destined for blends, you're never certain as to the quality of the wood that it's been filled into. Prior to the purchase, I was sent samples from six or so casks out of the 270 or so we bought, so obviously when the deal went through and I had the stock moved to Ardbeg Distillery on Islay I sampled every single cask, and I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised at how good the stock was."

Only around half of the 270 casks purchased for this release were used, so it is reasonable to suppose that another bottling of this spirit can he expected in the future.

Ardbeg Kelpie, 46%abv — for the Limited Edition (2017)

Kelpie was launched on 16th March 2017 to Committee members, with a strength of 51.7%abv. A 46%abv version subsequently appeared as a limited edition on Ardbeg Day during the 2017 Feis Ile. According to Ardbeg, "Kelpie is named for the legends of the sea around Ardbeg." A kelpie is a mythical water spirit, said to inhabit the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Islay.

Ardbeg add that "Its powerful aromas of oily peat, salty seaweed and tarry rope have been produced by virgin oak casks from the Black Sea, intermingled with the hallmark Ardbeg flavour profile.”

Bill Lumsden notes that "When we were working on it we called it Project KGB! The Black Sea Oak casks give very intense spicy and oaky notes, almost with burnt rubber. Because of this only around 30 per cent o f the recipe was o f whisky from those casks. It was nearly 11 years old when we used it."

Ardbeg An Oa, 46.6%abv (2017)

The first new addition to the core Ardbeg range in almost a decade, An Oa is named after the Oa peninsula, a remote area of south-west Islay. In order to accommodate the creation of An Oa, a French oak marrying vat, christened the ‘Gathering Vat,' was installed at the distillery.

Bill Lumsden explains that "The target was to develop something that sat between the 10-year-old and Uigeadail—a more accessible Ardbeg. We've gone back to the old marrying process, hence the ‘Gathering Vat,' which is fed by whisky from a range of cask types. It's a living entity, essentially a solera system, which is never allowed to empty. The heart is first-fill and refill Bourbon barrels, virgin charred oak casks and PX sherry casks."

Ardbeg Twenty Something, 46.3%abv, (2017)
This 23-year-old expression was released to Ardbeg Committee members and through Ardbeg Embassies on 2nd November 2017. It was produced at a time when the distillery's future was precarious, to say the least, and comprises whisky matured in former-sherry and ex-Bourbon casks.

Bill Lumsden declares that "The ex-Bourbon and Oloroso casks I selected for Ardbeg Twenty Something have delivered a beautiful dram, bursting with rich, deep flavours. It has an incredibly smoky, silky quality which is outstanding. The fact that we're releasing this 23-year-old in hon0ur of the Ardbeg Committee makes it even more special."

According to Committee chairman Mickey Heads, "This magnificent whisky was created within the retired iconic still which stands proud outside our distillery today. It's a glimpse back into Ardbeg's turbulent past and reaffirms just why the distillery couldn't be allowed to be disappear.

"Ardbeg Twenty Something is for all those who believe heart and soul in Ardbeg whisky, which is why it's fitting that this most rare of drams—a 23-year- old—will be enjoyed by Committee members."

 

Peat is obviously a big part of Ardbeg's character, but it's not all about that. It's multi-layered, with salt, sweetness and fruit. The use of the purifier on the spirit still helps bring over sweetness so that the smoke doesn't hit you in the face. You get citrus fruits, initial salty sweetness, then an explosion of phenols; a smoky, oily character, and then a deep, rich finish. It's a peaty paradox. Very balanced. Balance is the key. The sweet, citrus character is noticeable even on the new-make spirit. If we're talking about my favourite Ardbegs, I'd definitely include An Oa—it's got sweetness from the new oak influence and the sherry casks help to make it rounded and smooth. Other favourites are the 1977 Vintage —soft, with an oily sweetness and great depth, Alligator— I love that charred style, and we had a lot of fun promoting it, too, and Uigeadail —I'm a big fan of its earthiness, the taste of the soil, and a sherry influence that is not overpowering".

Mickey Head

 

Renaissance, released in 2008 at 55.9%abv

Corryvreckan - Committee Reserve, released in 2008 at 57.2%abv

Corryvreckan, released in 2009 at 57.1%abv


Blasda, released in 2008 at 40%abv


Supernova - Committee Release, released in 2009 at 58.9%abv

Supernova, released in 2009 at 58.9%abv


Supernova—SN2010, released in 2010 at 60.1%abv


Supernova - Committee Release SN2014, released in 2014 at 55%abv

 


Supernova - Committee Release SN2015, released in 2015 at 54.3%abv

Rollercoaster - Committee Anniversary Edition, released in 2010 at 57.3%abv


Feis Ile, released in 2011 at 55.1%abv


Alligator, released in 2011 at 51.2%abv


Ardbeg Day, released as a Committee Release in 2012 at 56.7%abv


Galileo - 1999, released in 2012 at 49%abv


Ardbog, released in 2013 at 52.1%abv


Auriverdes, released in 2014 at 49.9%abv


Kildalton, released in 2014 at 46%abv


Perpetuum - Distillery Release / Committee Release, released in 2015 at 49.2%abv


Perpetuum, released in 2015 at 47.4%abv

 


Ardbeg 1815, released in 2015 at 50.1%abv


Dark Cove – Committee Only Edition, released in 2016 at 55%


Dark Cove, released in 2016 at 46.5%


Twenty One, released in 2016 at 46%abv


Kelpie - Committee Only Edition, released in 2017 at 51.7%abv


Kelpie, released in 2017 at 46%abv


An Oa, released in 2017 at 46.6%abv


Twenty Something, released as a Committee Release in 2017 at 46.3%abv

 

 


Written by Gavin D Smith & Graevie Wallace

 

The text is an excerpt from "Ardbeg: Heavenly Peated" (pp. 173 - 186), written by Gavin D Smith & Graevie Wallace, published 2018 by Hogback Publishing.



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