Since gazing in wonderment at the stars of Whisky Luxe, I have been in orbit around planet whisky – Apollo XIII-style – without an obvious means of returning home. I hope you will forgive my absence, but alternative galaxies demanded my full attention. For example, it is difficult to indulge in single malt space exploration when the gravitational pull of earthly academic matters fixes you leadenly to the ground.
Spurring me on to further cosmological discoveries, however, was the Halley’s Comet of whisky: Ardbeg’s latest special release, Galileo. Earlier in the year, Dr Bill Lumsden - Head of Distilling and Whisky Creation at Glenmorangie Co. – stepped out of his space suit long enough to discuss an extra-terrestrial experiment which involved Islay’s cult distillery and zero gravity. Micro-organic compounds found within Ardbeg new make spirit will be studied on board the Internation Space Station as they interact with cask shavings. After two years, the results will be compared with samples stored in the United States and, of course, on the Islay south coast.
In honour of the man who contributed so much to our understanding of the universe and all matters astronomical, Lumsden has devised a new concoction of phenolic ferocity pointed squarely at the final frontiers of whisky under serious rocket propulsion.
What better way, therefore, to suggest that there is life on the Scotch Odyssey Blog than with a review of this intriguing expression? The first Ardbeg release to boast an identifiable age statement, outwith the 10yo, this contains whiskies all distilled in 1999. Some spirit had been maturing in first- and second-fill Bourbon barrels, some in Marsala wine casks, for all that time. Bottled at 49% abv. with no chillfiltration, this fruitier slant on the Ardbeg juice has proved popular throughout the universe.
Ardbeg Galileo 1999 49% vol. £69.99 on release
Colour – lightish, clean toffeed amber.
Nose – at first, very thick and sooty smoke, with an insistent orange zest sweetness underneath. Sweet and spicy vanilla. The phenolic notes have a garlic-like fragrance. Drying, dark peat forms a superb platform of weight and texture, on top of which there is so much sweetness: wildflowers and smoky honey. Soft damsen plums with icing sugar. Toulouse sausage, tarred fence and earth. It takes a while for more fruit to emerge, but when it does there is sultana, apple cores and cherry wood.
Water lifted the nose and added a scented quality: a log-burning fire just lit, with a sticky but light smoke. Lots of vanilla and big oak sugars lend excellent texture. The smoke and sweetness put me in mind of smoked shellfish. Weighty red berries – like tayberries – sidle in. It becomes steadily autumnal with leaf mulch. Rich honey. Bold aromas of fruitcake and marzipan with more time.
Palate – everything you would expect from an Ardbeg: sweet malt and wood sugars with a fixing, prowling smoke. Then the smoke thickens into dry peat ash.
Water reveals one of the most fascinating combinations of flavours I can remember. Things commence with that Ardbeg sheepiness: lanolin, sheep sheds, iodine. Then there is something that reminded me immediately of Cashmere: a texture and fragrance. Red fruit bubblegum appears next before drying on lovely lovely peat.
Finish – spicy and sweet with building creaminess. Thick and rich with dark, ashy peat. Long and elemental: earth and warm sea breezes.
Water added, this is perhaps the greatest finish to a whisky since… I can’t think of one, this is flawless. Big, with allusions to the thickness of the undiluted sample. Then there are impressions of the distillery, between the kilns and the warehouse: light toffee oak and aromatic peated malt. Some of the garlic from earlier. Saddlery and carbolic soap, farm supplies warehouses. Dune grasses and sand in typical Ardbeg fashion. Gentle barley sweetness underneath and the scent of heather in the rain.
So…? We have lift-off! This is why I miss peated whiskies, and why I need to get some money together for a smoky specimen. I would happily plump for a bottle of this, but I see online that prices are creaping up towards the £125 mark, which is where I start to lose interest even for a whisky as stratospherically superb as this one. Neat, it is enthralling enough, without really escaping the earthly sphere, and does everything you would expect an Ardbeg to do. With a couple of drops of water, however, the subtlety and playfulness of the spirit leapt out at me, and I would go as far as to say that this is the sweetest Ardbeg I have ever tasted. The Madeira influence is not as dramatic as I was expecting, but beautifully illuminates dimensions of the Ardbeg spirit when required.
I have the tasting glass from six hours earlier sat, unwashed, on the desk. Like the best variety of incence, it exhales sweet smoke into the room. With Galileo’s help, I’m focusing my telescope on my favourite whisky galaxy once again.