To me, the profile of these ‘Kildalton’ malt whiskies often contains some more 'organics'
(leather, tobacco, old cheeses, sweaty notes, etc.) than most other peated malt whiskies.
Those tend to show mostly smoky notes and ‘dry’ peat, rather than ‘dirty, wet peat’...
Unfortunately, this success didn't last forever.
In fact, the Ardbeg distillery closed its doors in 1983.
Don't worry, though - to the relief of peat lovers around
the world, production at the distillery resumed in 1989.
However, an apparently small detail had changed...
Ardbeg was officially established as early as 1815, but the Ardbeg distillery probably
pre-dates its 'commercial' (and legal) start by a decade or two. The MacDougall family
started production at the site In 1815 - and in 1886 almost a third of the townsfolk worked
at the Ardbeg distillery. Even in those days, the malt whisky production already exceeded
300,000 US gallons per year - not too shabby at all for a little family factory!
The unfanned maltings which were responsible for the unique 'espresso'
peatiness found in pre-1989 distillates of Ardbeg remained closed, though.
In 1990 Ardbeg joined Allied distillers - but not for very long.
Glenmorangie PLC bought the distillery in 1997. The purchase and restoration
of the distillery required over 10 million pounds but it turned out to be worth it.
Helped by clever marketing (and older stocks of whisky which was still great),
Ardbeg was making a massive comeback around the turn of the millennium.
The 10yo and 17yo 'standard' OB’s were good and fairly modestly priced.
However, at some point these affordable bottles became hard to find because
Ardbeg, like many other distilleries, was silent for a large part of the 1980's.
Ardbeg is a good example of the hidden complexities in the Scotch whisky world.
In this case, I’m referring to the actual ownership of the distilleries. Ardbeg is owned by Glenmorangie Plc. - who
also own the Glenmorangie and Glen Moray distilleries. Glenmorangie Plc. are in turn owned by Moët Hennessy.
And Moët Hennessy is owned in part by the LVMH group (which stands for Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) and
in part by Diageo (owner over more than two dozen distilleries, including Lagavulin a little to the West).
The location of Ardbeg distillery is absolutely stunning.
Ardbeg sits right on Islay’s Southern coast line, between its
neighbours Lagavulin and Laphroaig to the West and the
Kildalton Cross to the East. This ancient Celtic cross in
the ruins of a former parish church was carved over a
thousand years ago and more than worth a visit.
In fact, the area around the Ardbeg is so beautiful that it
would be a shame if you didn’t combine a distillery visit with
an invigorating walk along Islay’s coast line.
Ardbeg distillery now features a very decent restaurant - so you can replenish your energy in style afterwards.
2) The name of the ‘Kildalton’ coast
comes from ‘Cill Daltain’ in Gaelic,
meaning ‘Church of the Foster Son’.
4) The phenolic level of Ardbeg is set
at 55 PPM (Parts Per Million). This is
not extremely peaty compared to some
of the other whisky distilleries on Islay.
3) Ardbeg buys its peated malt from
the nearby Port Ellen maltings, who
also produce the peated malt for
most other distilleries on the island.
Malted barley is dried and smoked
according to the exact specifications
of the distillery that ordered it.
5) Ardbeg distillery is (ultimately) owned by perfume peddlers Louis Vuitton.
The marketing of ‘luxury products’ relies heavily on illusions and part of this corporate
approach may have seeped into the marketing of Ardbeg. According to their website,
the Ardbeg distillery was founded earlier than it actually was according to other sources.
Just like its neighbour Laphroaig, Ardbeg was founded in 1815. However, while Laphroaig
proudly displays the year 1815 on their labels, the Ardbeg website claims rather vaguely:
"1798 - evidence of distilling at Ardbeg". That makes one wonder: if the marketeers can
circumvent the facts here, what else might they be fibbing about? The age of the whiskies?
The casks that were used for the whisky? This doesn’t inspire confidence.
1) Casks of Ardbeg whisky are stored at the distillery in four warehouses - two of the traditional 'dunnage' type
and two more modern 'racked' warehouses. Together, they hold up to 24,000 casks of whisky.
6) The quality of official bottlings of Ardbeg has been dropping since the early noughties,
but their PR people are stepping up their claims to make up for the difference. They claim "Unquestionably, the greatest distillery on Earth". Excuse me for questioning it, but ... ;-)
2000 - Due to the closures of the Ardbeg distillery in the 1980's and 1990's,
official bottlings had been difficult to find during the 1990's. However, by the
start of the new millennium a 10yo official bottling of Ardbeg was launched.
A 17 years old Ardbeg whisky was released around the same time.
2006 - Stuart Thompson (distillery manager at Ardbeg since the
take-over by Glenmorangie PLC in 1997) left the distillery after working
at the distillery for almost a decade.
2009 - Whisky writer Jim Murray has a special relationship with Ardbeg.
In 2008 the best whisky he tried all year was the 10 years old official bottling of Ardbeg - and then, in 2009,
he selected a special Canadian bottling of the Ardbeg Uigedail as the best whisky of the year. His score for that
special bottling was notably higher than that for the 'regular' Uigadail, which didn't excite him so much. However,
Ardbeg themselves claim that there have never been any special bottlings of the Ardbeg Uigedail - for Canada
or otherwise. So, the world's best whisky doesn't exist ;-)
2001 - A new spirit still was installed and two new official Ardbeg bottlings
were released; a 1977 vintage edition and Ardbeg 25yo 'Lord of the Isles'.
2005 - Some whisky lovers regard 2005 as a 'watershed year' for Ardbeg.
During the early noughties one could still find plenty of excellent bottles of
Ardbeg at relatively friendly prices, but the launch of 'Ardbeg Serendipity'
proved that the new management at Ardbeg was more than happy to milk
their customers for all they were worth. They released a 'vatting' of Ardbeg
and Glen Moray malt whiskies, claiming that it was the result of a mistake
at the distillery. Yeah, right... But at least it's a smarter way of introducing
a 'blended malt' than the launch of a vatted Cardhu by Diageo...
2013 - Ardbeg was one of the brands that started a trend of 'premiumisation' in the Scotch whisky industry.
By the end of 2013, the UK's Scotch whisky exports had increased by 87% (by volume) over the previous decade.
Meanwhile, the total value of whisky exports increased from £2.300.000.000 in 2002 to £4.300.000.000 in 2012.
However, while the value of the exported whisky had almost doubled, the volume only increased by +/- 30%. So,
if a brand ambassador tells you that the reason for rising whisky prices is increased demand from abroad, that's
not even half of the story. Actually, it's about one third of the story...
2015 - After releasing the first edition of the Ardbeg ‘Supernova’ (without an age statement) in 2009, a newly
composed vatting was released in 2015.
Ardbeg NAS 'Corryvreckan' (57.1%, OB, Bottled +/- 2010)
Nose: A fairly modest and restrained start. Candy and mint. Then the organics and phenolics emerge.
Rubber? It requires some breathing, but eventually it opens up very nicely. Well - until I added water, that is.
Taste: Phenolic with a sweeter undercurrent; smoke and industrial oil. Pleasant but not too complex.
Score: 84 points - oddly enough, adding water seemed to decrease complexity with this one.
Ardbeg NAS 'Supernova' (60.1%, OB, SN2010, 2010 edition)
Nose: Surprisingly light. Not very expressive initially. So, I added a splash of water sooner than I usually do.
It opens up a little bit when diluted to circa 50%, but not very much actually. So, it lacks some complexity.
Taste: Smooth start, with an explosion of smoke in the centre. A fair amount of tannins in the finish.
Score: 82 points - it's my type of profile, but it lacks some complexity compared with the competition.
Ardbeg 10yo (46%, OB, +/- 2009)
Nose: Light, fresh peat. Sparkly and dry with a faintly sweet undercurrent. Hints of horse stable.
A tad too thin for my tastes to reach the 80's. Perhaps it needs some fruity notes to balance the peat.
Ah, wait - after fifteen minutes it finally got a few organics to liven things up, lifting it to 80 points.
Taste: Peat in the start and centre, evolving into smoke in the tannic finish.
A trace of sweetness, but after fifteen minutes the extremely dry finish grows quite bitter.
Score: 80 points - the old 10yo used to contain quite a bit of older whisky, but I guess this is all new stuff...
Ardbeg NAS 'Blasda' (40%, OB, lightly peated, Bottled 2008)
Nose: Light and gentle. Sweetish and perhaps a tad floral. Opens up a little with breathing. Slightly dusty.
After a minute more organics emerge, along with some perfumy toilet freshener aroma's. A weird combination.
Indeed, there is SOME peat in the nose; fresh and farmy - the 'Caol Ila' style of peat if you will... Medicinal?
Taste: Oy... Feels much thinner and weaker than the nose suggests. In the centre some peat reveals itself.
Watery. Unimaginitive, dry finish; a tad too bitter for my tastes - it loses quite a few points here, I'm afraid.
Score: 79 points - a logical 'brand extension' for Ardbeg, but it doesn't quite work for me.
Ardbeg 29yo 1973/2002 (51.4%, Douglas Laing Platinum, 137 bottles)
Nose: Fruity at first, growing peatier quickly. Subtle and complex organics. Grains.
Oh boy, I'm in peat heaven. It's no 'monster' though - it's surprisingly subtle. Rubber.
With 10 drops of water a whole new brigade of organics and veggy notes is unleashed.
Taste: Sweet and round at first; easily drinkable at this strength. Salt and pepper.
And then there's peat - lots of peat. What a great body - this is the Heidi Klum of malts.
Score: 95 points - it seems the Laing brothers have done it again. What a whopper of a whisky!
Ardbeg 25yo 'Lord of the Isles' (46%, OB, bottled in 2001, 70cl, very first bottle in Holland)
The 'LotI' is a vatting of 15% sherry casks and 85% bourbon casks from 1974, '75 and '76.
Nose: Very rich, presenting a broad spectrum of fragrances. This is very good stuff!
Much more iodine than the other Ardbegs I've tasted - almost like a Laphroaig.
Taste: Very smoky! With a few drops of water it opens up. Sherry and liquorice.
Strangely enough, this somehow 'feels' like a vatting. Slightly short on substance.
Score: 90 points - a very fine malt, but not worth the extravagant asking price, IMHO.
Ardbeg 17yo (40%, OB, bottled +/- 1997, code L7 338 4ML 11:40, 70cl)
Nose: One of the best bouquets ever. Hints of oak and salt. Brine. Some peat, balanced with sourness.
An almost Speyside-like sweetness. Complex; even more so after adding water and allowing for breathing.
Taste: Starts off quite soft, but after the trademark "delay" it fully reveals its Islay character.
Peppery finish. In the end, it showed the bitter finish I found in other Ardbegs as well. It needs time though.
This is one of the few malts that seems to improve in the months after opening the bottle.
Score: 92 points - magnificent! This was one of the first batches released after the Glenmorangie take-over.
Ardbeg NAS 'Uigeadail' (54.2%, OB, Bottled +/- 2010)
Nose: Smoky and sweet with some organics. Petrol and other "machine shop phenolics" as well.
The "organic" elements (leather, mussels, sweaty socks) grow a little stronger before disappearing.
Taste: Tar, liquorice and smoke over a medium sweet undercurrent. Rubber? A bit uni-dimensional.
Score: 86 points - this batch is leaning just a little too much on the 'anorganic' site of phenolic for me.
Ardbeg NAS 'Corryvreckan' (57.1%, OB, +/- 2009)
Nose: Hint of wet dog. Fresh peat. Over time more organics emerge, but it all remains quite subtle.
Whiff of rubber? Band aids? Or is that an association brought on by the traces of iodine?
Opens up nicely after ten minutes. Nice definition and development, but it could use more fruits for balance.
After ten minutes sweeter, fruitier elements emerge that (barely) lift it into the upper 80's.
Taste: Feisty start with quite a lot of liquorice right away - I usually find that trait in the finish.
Quite a big burn in the centre. Medium sweet. Dry throughout with decent amounts of peat and smoke.
Score: 85 points - but it needs quite a lot of time to get there...
Ardbeg 10yo (46%, OB, Bottled +/- 2010)
Nose: Light, crisp and clean start with lots of dry smoke in the background. Then sweaty and meaty notes.
The phenols grow more pronounced after some breathing. Hint of rubber? Keeps evolving over time.
Taste: Dry start, growing sweeter and smokier in the centre. Loads of tar. Sweet tannins growing stronger.
Score: 85 points - certainly more to my liking than last year's batch. It has some nice liquorice in the finish.
This batch seems much more "Kildalton" in style to me than the last few batches.
Ardbeg 1998/2008 'Renaissance' (55.9%, OB)
Nose: Light fruits. Peaches? Hint of chloride? Yeah, but covered in a layer of sweetness.
A fairly typical Ardbeg profile, but a little rough around the edges. No peat monster though...
Taste: Round and solid start. Beautiful subtle peat opening up and growing stronger over time.
Great mouth feel with a good deal of sweetness. Salmiak, salted liquorice and smoke. Bourbony roughness.
Score: 85 points - this is pretty good stuff, but it could have used a few years in a sherry cask IMHO.
Ardbeg 'Uigeadail' (54.2%, OB, First release, Bottled +/- 2003)
Nose: Deep and brooding, but not as powerful as I expected at first. Then it opens up.
Organics and swampy aroma's. Seems not quite as peaty as the 10yo and even the 17yo.
A hint of sweetness as well, but not as fruity as the 17yo. Really needs a few minutes.
With a dash of water the peat jumps to the foreground. More smoke and dust as well.
Taste: At C/S there's plenty of peat. Af a short 'delay' it becomes very salty and smoke.
There's a sour undercurrent as well, which slowly takes over and becomes dry and woody.
It's a bloody great dram, but I wouldn't score it as high on the palate as on the nose.
Score: 89 points for now, but if this bottle behaves like the other Ardbeg OB's I've tried it will improve
with time, meaning it could easily reach the lower 90's in due time. That being said, I don't quite think this
is a match for the Laphroaig 10yo Cask Strength 'Green Stripe' that offers incredible value at +/- 50 Euro's.
My own tasting notes for some expressions of Ardbeg malt whisky are collected on this distillery profile.
Those were not all (official & independent) bottlings of Ardbeg I've tried over the years, but the notes should
convey how I felt about those whiskies. However, these tasting notes only reflect my purely personal opinion.
Your tastes might be different from mine - so it would be prudent to check out some other opinions as well.
Serge Valentin’s Whiskyfun website offers tasting notes on thousands of whisky bottlings, including Ardbeg.
The Malt Maniacs Monitor provides opinions of several other aficionados on over 15,000 different whiskies.
But perhaps you'd like to read a little bit more about whisky in general or single malt Scotch whisky in particular?
In that case, you might want to check out the Beginner's Guide to Scotch whisky - 10 chapters filled with (almost)
everything you need to know in order to fully enjoy and appreciate a glass of single malt whisky. Or, if you’d like
to dig a little deeper, the Whisky Lexicon offers more detailed information on a bunch of whisky-related topics.