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Whisky Reviews

Islay's First New Whisky In 15 Years Was Absolutely Worth The Wait: Ardnahoe Inaugural 5 Years Old Single Malt

 

 

The whisky world was abuzz after an announcement in 2017.

Jim McEwan, the living legend of whisky instrumental to revitalising some of Islay’s most iconic distilleries was supposedly enjoying a well-deserved retirement after close to six decades in whisky. Yet the call of the still, it seemed, was too strong to resist.

 

Jim McEwan, leading a "Journey's End" Masterclass for Bruichladdich (Source: Bruichladdich)

Stewart Laing had come to Jim with the ambitious prospect of making an entirely new Islay whisky from the ground up, shaping its character and coaxing out its hidden depths. And so, with a spring in his step, Jim decided to come out from retirement to embark on this new adventure. Up until then, Ardnahoe was just another promising new distillery. But then came the news that the man who breathed life back into Bruichladdich and revitalised Bowmore was to become Ardnahoe’s Master Distiller. Suddenly, Ardnahoe wasn’t just a new kid on the block: it was a distillery with a true maestro at the helm and one to be watched by Islay whisky lovers around the world.

 

 

Behind this ambitious project is Hunter Laing, the independent bottler best known for its lineage to the renowned Douglas Laing & Co., as well as a purveyor of some well-regarded IB-labels such as the Old Malt Cask line of single cask Scotch whiskies.

Ardnahoe has just released the first whisky from a new Islay distillery in 15 years – and this is one of the most hotly anticipated whiskies this year.

 

 

Ardnahoe aims to produce a whisky that is what Jim McEwan regards as the classic Islay style – richly peated, sweet, and very full-bodied. To achieve this, the process begins with malted barley peated to 40ppm. The barley is then mashed and fermented for an unusually long duration of 60 to 70 hours, the extended fermentation time crucial in allowing the yeast to work its magic, developing a complex array of fruity esters that will ultimately contribute to the whisky's depth and character.

 

The most distinctive feature of Ardnahoe's production might be its worm tubs (Source: Ben Shakespeare)

 

After fermentation, the wash is distilled in two copper pot stills. These stills are run slowly, allowing for maximum copper contact during the distillation process, coupled with the longest lyne arms on the island (measuring an impressive 24.5ft), resulting in a spirit that is fruitier.

However, perhaps the most distinctive feature of Ardnahoe's distillation process is the use of worm tubs. Worm tubs are a traditional form of condenser that, while once ubiquitous in Scotland, has largely been replaced by more modern and efficient Shell-and-tube condensers. According to some estimates, fewer than 10% of distilleries in Scotland still use worm tubs today.

Now, a worm tub consists of long, coiled copper pipes—known as “worms” due to their serpentine shape—housed within a large wooden vat filled with cold water. As the hot spirit vapour passes through these copper coils, it is gradually cooled and condensed into liquid spirit.

The decline of worm tubs began in the 1960s as most distilleries began adopting the more efficient shell-and-tube condenser. Despite their drawbacks, worm tubs are still cherished by a select group of distillers who believe they are essential for producing a particular style of whisky, and it seems that many of these worm tub users are pretty renowned ones themselves: distilleries like Rosebank, Brora, Springbank, Craigellachie, Talisker, Kanosuke, and Yamazaki all continue to use worm tubs for at least some of their production.

 

The worm tub is notoriously tedious to operate and maintain, yet certain traditional distillers swear by its ability to produce a heavier spirit (Source: Speyburn)

 

What’s so special about the worm tub? Well, unlike the shell-and-tube condensers, worm tubs gradually cool and condense the vapours, and also has a reduced copper contact with the spirit. This allows the spirit to retain more sulphur compounds, responsible for creating an overall more “meaty”, "heavy" or “oily” character in the whisky. The alternative would be the shell-and-tube condensers that consist of a bundle of small tubes enclosed within a larger shell. Hot spirit vapour is forced through these tubes at high pressure, leading to very rapid cooling and condensation. While this process is highly efficient, the increased copper contact and rapid cooling can strip the spirit of most of its heavier compounds, resulting in a lighter and more delicate new-make spirit.

 

Jim McEwan with Stewart Laing and his two sons Andrew and Scott.

 

Now, thanks to the good folks at The Single Cask Singapore for always bringing in the most hotly-anticipated stuff, we have the pleasure of reviewing Ardnahoe's inaugural 5-year-old whisky. This is a peated single malt, matured in a combination of bourbon and oloroso casks and bottled at 50% ABV.

Ardnahoe Inaugural Release 5 Years Old Single Malt, 50% ABV – Review

 

Nose: Spirity, estery and very aromatic - kinda like an aroma diffuser. My first impression is a heady rush of honey drizzled over toasted malt cereal and digestive biscuits. Prominent lemon peel notes, burnt citrus peels, and then a juicy apple juice note emerges while the aroma begins to reveal more oak-related notes: vanilla, toasted pine nuts, and a touch of cigar boxes. There’s also a rather powerful minty wave, with camphor, eucalyptus, pepper, and just a whisper of coastal ash and smoked heather.

Palate: Thick, oily, and powerful. It continues the theme of honeyed sweetness carried by that lovely viscous textures, now intertwined with rather herbaceous and slightly ashy notes – smoked heather coupled with a rather distinct earthy-herbal ashiness reminding me of Angelica root found in Chinese herbal powders. The palate is quickly lifted by a lavish sweetness of clarified apple juice, caramel, and vanilla while the dram evolves gently and gradually adds warmth. It’s also got this robust lemon juice and peppery zing to it found in a couple of iconic Islay distilleries.

Finish: A long, warm embrace. Vanilla and honey continues to linger, with a lasting touch of earthy, herbaceous Angelica root, more smoked heather and sage.

 

My Thoughts:

Remarkable for a 5-year-old whisky. This is a classic Islay no doubt, and yet it’s also not a difficult whisky to understand – you do not need to be an Islay whisky junkie to appreciate the complexity and balance happening here.

This is a really well-integrated and aromatic whisky. The nose alone is breathtaking: it offers a complex tapestry of fruit, cereal, oak, and herbs in perfect harmony. The palate, too, is impressive, and you’d notice the very thick, viscous, oily texture thanks to the use of worm tubs. While the herbaceous notes of smoked heather and Chinese herbs are a shade too dominant (and muffled the fruitiness), judging by how older Islay whiskies shape up in the casks, I suspect further maturation will really mellow the smokiness and allow the fruitier notes to shine – it’s probably the intent of Jim McEwan's team.

The potential here is immense if its 5-year-old Scotch is so good. I’d add that its reasonable price point makes this a very attractive buy. After seeing this potential, I casually did some research on purchasing a private cask from Ardnahoe, though it's a shame their private cask program seems to have been closed since 2021. This leaves us to continue watching Ardnahoe for its future releases – fingers crossed for an 8-year-old or 10-year-old so we do not have to hold our breath for that long.

Rating: 8/10 

Score/Rating Scale :

  • 9-10 : Exceptional, highly memorable, 10/10 would buy if I could.
  • 7-8 : Excellent, well above most in its category, worth considering buy-zone.
  • 4-6 : Good, okay, alright; a few flaws, but acceptable; not bad, but not my personal preference; still worth trying, could be a buy if the price is right.
  • 1-3 : Not good; really did not enjoy; wouldn't even recommend trying.
  • 0 : Un-scored, might be damaged, new make, or very unusual.

@CharsiuCharlie