Ardbog After a Hard Slog

Many people ask for ‘no fuss’ on their birthdays, but you aren’t supposed to believe them. Perhaps British reticence and conditioned modesty compel this caveat, but everyone secretly wants others to take notice of their special day.

Ardbeg operates more from the US ‘Super Sweet 16′ model for throwing an annual look-at-me jamboree, however, swapping the hideous convertible sports cars of the MTV shows for a tractor, and supplanting the yappy youths with bearded Germans and barrel-chested Swedes. No other Scotch whisky can muster quite such a hullabaloo.

June 1 dawned with the reek of peat thick in the air. Around the globe, Ardbeg disciples uncorked their Corryvreckans and guzzled their Uigeadails in sacramental whisky worship of their favourite distillery, while in London inflatable sheep were driven about the streets, culminating in one almighty party. Meanwhile, Ardbeg distillery closed the Feis Ile festival of malt and music with much frivolity and fun. I, however, was working.

Nevertheless, Ardbeg wanted me to feel part of the occasion, and sent a sample of the new Committee release my way. Ardbog was also available for the general public to try at the numerous international Ardbeg Embassies on Ardbog Day itself. Bottled without an age statement, all we have to go on is that this whisky is roughly 10-years-old, with dual maturation in American oak and ex-Manzanilla casks. It is also cask strength. Is it a fit toast for this cult distillery?

Ardbeg Ardbog.

Ardbeg Ardbog 52.1% £79.99

Colour – rich caramel gold.

Nose – at first, a tickle of ashy peat with freshly sliced apricots and a fat maltiness drizzled with honey and syrup. With nose really wedged in the glass I find a classic Ardbeg arrangement: a rich cummerbund of peat, echoes of the kiln and dark, medium-sweet malt. Treated fenceposts, worn leather and spice gradually, with Manchego rind (a hard Spanish sheeps’ milk cheese) and pink peppercorn-laden white chocolate later. With more time, I get wholemeal bread from a wood oven.

Palate – thick with a boiling blackcurrent depth to the peat. The peat element dries and darkens before lemon and honey fill the palate. Just at the end is a rock salt and rosemary savouriness.

Finish – the star of the procedings: rich dark chocolate torte, with a sulphorous match note coming next for complexity. Bonfire night. For a while, flavour defers to impressions and sensations, although at the end there is bold, smouldering wood ash and shards of honeycomb malt. Complex and evocative, as the best Ardbegs are.

Adding water weakened the experience, where it had engineered lift-off with the Galileo. The nose was sharper with the malt and oak stabbing up through the peat. I found a central aroma of gooey sweetness, like the fruity-caramel combo of a tarte tatin. Over the peat was an invigorating menthol presence with hints of almond flour and cherry stones. Overall, it didn’t express itself quite as well. On the palate, there was greater smoothness and more fruit, with the peat and a vanilla note closely aligned. A puff of smoke dried everything before chantilly cream trickled back in. Wholemeal returned on the finish with salty vegetal notes, like sea cliff top verdure. Hay introduces a wispy smoke and the rich honeycomb returned together with the sulphur. However, it failed to hit the allusive heights.

So…?      I must confess that, first time through, this was a crushing disappointment. Tasted alongside Kilchoman’s Loch Gorm this appeared lazy, incoherent and uninspiring while the younger whisky boasted dynamism, energy and originality. Indeed, I found this distinctly un-Ardbeg-like, the finish excepted. The Manzanilla had adulterated the overall character, rather than enhanced it.

On a second tasting, I found more to like, and – praise be – more that was unmistakeably Ardbeg. I do worry that it has set its sights on earthlier pursuits, while Galileo sought for the stars, but this is certainly above average liquid. I remain conflicted about the sample, but my anxiety to taste the next Committee release when it comes along will remain undimmed. More Marsala wood, Bill, that’s all I’ll say.

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