With a spirit as powerful as Ardbeg's, careful
cask selection is pretty much all you can do to
influence the end result that ends up being bottled
as Ardbeg. The problem is that the new owners
have already bottled most or the really good casks
that were laid to rest before 1983 - or sold them to
independent bottlers like Douglas Laing or Adelphi.
The result: old OB's are now insanely overpriced.
I wonder what would have happened to Ardbeg
if Mark Reynier had bought the distillery when it
became available, like he originally planned.
I guess Mark was probably better off with buying
Bruichladdich, the other distillery on Islay that he
purchased instead. The far lighter style of the
Bruichladdich malts has allowed Mark and his team
to experiment a lot with the maturing spirit; both
the older stocks laid down by the previous owners
as the stuff they distilled themselves since 2001.
Unfortunately, the success didn't last forever.
In 1983, less than a century later, the Ardbeg distillery closed.
Don't worry, though - to the relief of peat lovers around the
world, production resumed in 1989. The unfanned maltings
that gave pre-1989 distillates of Ardbeg their unique
'espresso style' peatiness remained closed, though.
In 1990 Ardbeg joined Allied distillers - but not for long.
Glenmorangie PLC bought the distillery in 1997. The purchase
and restoration of the distillery required over 10 million British
pounds but it turned out to be more than worth it. Helped by
clever marketing and decent performance Ardbeg was making
a major comeback around the turn of the millennium.
Ardbeg is also a good example
of the sometimes very complex
structure of ownership in the
Scotch malt whisky world.
The owner of Ardbeg distillery
is Glenmorangie Plc. - owners
of the distilleries Glenmorangie
and Glen Moray as well. They
are owned by Moët Hennessy,
which in turn is owned by the
LVMH group (which stands for
Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy)
and Diageo (owner over more
than two dozen distilleries.
Are you still with me?
According to its own web site,
the LVMH group is the 'world
leader in luxury' - and it shows
in the prices. Even the most
mundane Ardbeg expressions
have a 'deluxe' price tag these
days, making the distillery drop
from my list of Top 10 favourite
distilleries some time ago.
The 10yo and 17yo 'standard' official bottlings were good and relatively modestly priced, but at some point these affordable expressions became hard to find. No wonder because Ardbeg, like many other distilleries, was silent for a large part of the 1980's. During most of the 1990's Ardbeg was very hard to find apart from the odd Gordon & MacPhail bottling, but by the time the new owners had the distillery up and running again Ardbeg was becoming more widely availablel.
One relatively new 'player' on the market (at least around 2000) that helped Ardbeg achieve the cult status it has today is independent bottler Douglas Laing. When they turned their attention from blends to single malts they discovered that they were sitting on a gold mine of casks filled with Ardbeg from the 1970's. Especially the malts that were distilled in the early 1970's (before there was a change in production regime) were stunning! I have yet to taste an 'official' bottling that can match some of these 'Old Malt Cask' bottlings released around the year 2000.
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. In 1815 the MacDougall family started production
at the site and in 1886 almost a third of all the townsfolk worked
at the distillery. In those days the annual production exceeded
300,000 US gallons. Not too shabby at all for a little family factory!
The Ardbeg distillery lies on the South shore of Islay, close to the
other 'Kildalton' distilleries (Lagavulin and Laphroaig). This coast
line is home to some of the scary peat monsters that sometimes
keep me up at night... The style of the Kildalton malts often has
some more 'organics' than those from other parts of the island.
Scores & tasting notes:
Ardbeg (Pronounced: ard-BEG)
Islay (South shore)
55°38'24.81" N, 6°6'33.08" W
Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Port Ellen
Loch Arinambeast & Loch Uigedale
1 wash & 1 spirit still
1.100.000 litres of pure alcohol per year
Moët Hennessy > Glenmorangie Plc. (since 1997)
Port Ellen, Isle of Islay, Argyll, PA42 7EB, Scotland
Yes - but old independent bottlings offer far better value
Below, on Whiskyfun and on the Malt Maniacs Monitor
1) Casks of Ardbeg whisky are stored at the distillery in four warehouses. Two are of the traditional 'dunnage' type while the other two are 'racked' warehouses. Together they hold up to 24,000 casks of whisky.
2) Ardbeg buys its peated malt from the nearby Port Ellen maltings that also produces the peated malt for most other distilleries on the island according to their exact specifications. The phenolic level of Ardbeg is set at 55 PPM, which is not extremely peaty compared to some other Islay distilleries.
3) Official bottlings of Ardbeg released in the late 1990's were excellent without exception, but it seems that the quality has been slipping since the early noughties. After some other developments (steadily rising prices, the incredible 'Serendipity' story, the takeover by 'nouveau riche' company Louis Vuitton) this was the last drop that pushed Ardbeg from the upper half of my Top 10 of favourite distilleries a few years ago - and from the list altogether after they started releasing 'pimp' expressions like the Ardbeg 1965 and the Double Barrel at insulting prices.
4) While the quality of official bottlings of Ardbeg has been dropping for the past decade, their PR people are stepping up their claims to make up for the difference. They claim "unquestionably, the greatest distillery on Earth"
Well, excuse me for questioning - but ... ;-)
5) It almost seems the perfume peddlers of Louis Vuitton enjoy the fine art of lying just for the fun of it.
They are trying to rewrite history and suggest that the distillery was founded earlier than it actually was. Just like its neighbour Laphroaig, the Ardbeg distillery 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 they're lying about that, what else might they be lying about? The age of their whiskies? The casks that were used? I for one have lost my confidence and won't be spending any more of my own money on Ardbegs.
There are far cheaper ways of getting screwed over...
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 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 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 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, +/- 2009)
Nose: Light, fresh peat. Sparkly and dry with a faintly sweet undercurrent.
Hints of horse stable, but all in all it doesn't offer a lot of complexity.
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 emerges after a few minutes, but it disappears again quickly.
A bit too uni-dimensional for my tastes. 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 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. Bourbon wood 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 anything 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.
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 Laings have done it again. What a whopper of a whisky!
Too bad I only had a sample, or I could have done a H2H with the 25yo on my Top Shelf.
The second best Ardbeg I've ever tried - a very impressive work of distillation art.
The 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.
The Ardbeg 9yo 1991/2001 (46%, Murray McDavid, MM2999, 70cl) is my favourite amongst the pre-teen
independent bottlings I've tried during my first decade of dramming. However, I should probably add that almost every other young IB (with the exception of some McGibbon's and Samaroli bottlings) scored above average.
Nose: Dusty. Dry. Light fruits. Menthol? Mint? Slightly oily. Not very expressive at first.
It smells a bit like the attic of an old grain warehouse. Sweaty socks later on. Organics.
Softly sweet. Strange aroma's for an Ardbeg. Over time, the nose grows more powerful.
Salt. Horse stable. Leather. Bandages? Yes! Still, I can't find a trace of peat in the nose.
Taste: Sourish and smooth start. Restrained, but it develops into a big dry burn.
Slightly gritty. More salt and sweet sensations after a while. Overall improvement.
Wow, this one really needs a few minutes! Some peat. A dry, deep burn and a salty finish.
Score: 87 points - it didn't seem 'Ardbeggish' at first, but then there was a sudden Islay explosion.
The Ardbeg 25yo 1975/2000 (50%, Douglas Laing OMC, D 10/1975, B 10/2000, 702 Bottles)
Nose: Soft, almost grainy start, evolving into an odd combination of salt and sweet notes.
Then fruits, spices and salt emerge. Not peaty as some other old OMC's I've tried at first.
Slowly grows drier, peatier and more serious. Some faint medicinal elements pop up.
A slideshow of fragrances; white pepper, tobacco - then horse stable and old leather.
Taste: Peaty from the start, but balanced by a gentle sweetness. Dry prickle. Smoke.
Soft delayed explosion that seems to last forever. Great mouth feel. Medicinal.
Not the most complex palate I've ever tasted, but an Islay malt pur sang.
Doesn't really need water but it can stand a few drops. More salt, chalk and dust.
Score: 96 points - but give this one at least one hour or you'll miss a lot of fun!!!
The very best expression from the Ardbeg distillery I've tried so far. Great whisky!
For once I can fully agree with Jim Murray who loves it as well...
Last but not least: Ardbeg 24yo 1975/2000 (50%, Douglas Laing Old Malt Cask, 713 bottles).
Nose: Almost mellow at first, but you can sense the power beneath the surface. Yeast?
Quite clean and a little grainy. Light fruits, sourish notes and some subtle smoke at first.
Then the peat comes to the foreground, followed by leather, salt, brine and horse stable aroma's.
Rubber? Grain attick. Medicinal. With time more and more fragrances join the nasal orchestra.
Taste: Smashing. Absolutely wonderful combination of sweet and peat.
It develops into a salty center with hints of liquorice. Hugely entertaining.
Mellow peat, smoke and a long dry finish that seems to go on forever.
But there is sweetness too. Faint hints of iodine and liquorice in the finish.
The mouth-feel of this malt is simply amazing - perfectly drinkable at 50%!
Score: 94 points - one of the few malts that makes it into the 90's primarily on taste.
This OMC bottling has lots of subtleties and finesse, without denying its Islay heritage.
The Ardbeg 17yo (40%, OB, bottled +/- 2000, code L9 303 4ML 03:13, 70cl) was a later release than the one I just mentioned, my best estimate would be the year 2000. It seemed notably less peaty to me.
Nose: Soft start. After some breathing it developed a broad, Speysidish sweetness.
Sweet & sour. Balanced and complex with a whole range of aroma's. Almonds?
Just a few drops caused a new nasal explosion - some oiliness or vegetables?
Taste: Starts out soft, but a wonderful gentle burn soon starts warming your mouth.
The Islay centre slowly dissolves into a bitter finish. Definitely highly recommendable!
Just like a blend of 40% Bowmore, 30% Laphroaig and 30% Bunnahabhain, I imagine.
Score: 89 points - great, but I liked the slightly 'rougher' first batches a little better.
The Ardbeg 10yo 'TEN' (46%, OB, bottled +/- 1999, Non Chill-filtered, 70cl) was an early release.
Nose: Starts off rather light- especially at 46%. Sweet at first, followed by smoke and brine.
Needs a few minutes. Salt & ammoniac. Still, there's a constant sweetness in the background.
More iodine than peat, which gives it more of an 'extreme' Islay character than the 17yo.
Taste: A sweet burn picks some salt along the way before developing into a mild Ardbeg explosion.
Very well balanced - the overall profile becomes more 'Islay' after a few minutes in the glass.
Nice and sweet at first, with a long Ardbeg bang in the middle and a satisfying finish.
Score: 89 points - but it definitely needs a while to reach it's full potential.
The Ardbeg 17yo (40%, OB, bottled +/- 1997, code L7 338 4ML 11:40, 70cl) was one of the very first batches
released in - or possibly shortly after - the year Glenmorangie took over control of the distillery.
Nose: One of the best bouquets I ever experienced. Hints of oak and salt. Brine.
Some peat, balanced with some sourness and an almost Speyside-like sweetness.
Complex; even more so after I added a few drops of water and it had some time to breathe.
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.
This is one of the few malts that seems to improve in the months after opening the bottle.
Score: 92 points - simply magnificent! Make sure to take your time with this one, though.
These were not all (official & independent) bottlings of Ardbeg Scotch whisky I've tried over the years.
Besides, these tasting notes only reflect my own, personal opinion; your tastes might be different from mine.
Fortunately, you can find the scores and tasting notes from up to two dozen other whisky lovers in the 'Malt Maniacs Monitor' - an independent whisky database with details on more than 15,000 different whiskies from Scotland and the rest of the world. Visit the Ardbeg page on the MMMonitor and select 'scorecard view' if you want to know how other whisky lovers felt about the hundreds of Ardbeg expressions that have been released in recent years. However, if you'd like to learn more about whisky in general (and single malt Scotch whisky in particular), you might want to check out the Beginner's Guide to Scotch whisky (10 chapters filled with everything you need to fully enjoy and appreciate a glass of single malt whisky) or the mAlmanac (sort of a rudimentary whisky shopping guide.)
- 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 the distillery launched a 10yo official bottling.
And for those who wanted to experience even more
variety in their Ardbegs, the independent bottlers offered
a large selection of single cask bottlings to choose from.
These independent releases were often cheaper to boot.
2001 - A new spirit still was installed at Ardbeg and two
new official bottlings were released; the Ardbeg 1977
vintage edition and the 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... At least it's a
smarter way of introducing a 'blended malt' than
Diageo did with Cardhu...
2006 - Stuart Thompson (distillery manager at Ardbeg
since the take-over by Glenmorangie PLC in 1997) left
the distillery after working there for almost a decade.
He was later replaced by Michael Heads.
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 ;-)
2013 - It has been a while since I've received news from Ardbeg that I felt that was worth mentioning, but they certainly 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; the total value of whisky exports has 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 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...
Is the distillery or