Ardbeg Drum “From Renaissance to Carnivalesque”

It is difficult to be critical of Ardbeg without attracting a fair amount of shade from its hardcore fan base, you know the kind of folks who will respond to every lacklustre review of a special release with “Yeah but have you tasted the Committee Release bro? Bro… If that committee release is that good, why wouldn’t they just bottle it “as is” and show the world how good their whisky is?

There are others who will say Ardbeg is one of the whipping boys of the whisky world, yes it can be all too easy to throw jabs their way since the marketing arm of the company seems to think so highly of itself. Yes even when they’re trying to be whimsical & “groovy” man.

At this point you’re probably wondering what makes me qualified to talk such, nothing other than I am coming from a place of love and respect for this distillery’s products. In a recent review of Ardbeg An Oa, I wondered what the point of that expression was, it was enjoyable and technically well-made but felt it was vatting the character out of Ardbeg. Shouldn’t it be time that LVMH/Glenmobeg start releasing other age stated versions in their line-up besides 23+year old casks they have purchased back from Indie bottlers to then release as ultra premium?

A return of the 17 or even a 15 yr old Ardbeg showcasing what happens to the spirit as it “naturally” softens up rather than blunting it with oak and PX? How about a cask strength version of the 10, I know I can’t be the only one who wonders what that could be like? Why would they do that when they can continue to serve young NAS malts at inflated prices and they still make a killing doing that, all the while perpetuating tired borderline racist tropes of a fun “Caribbean” theme? Yet I still always approach any whisky on the merits/faults of the products at hand not the hype.

Nose: Diesel fuel, nutmeg,It’s sprightly, a kind of fusel note, a very sweet nose that turns to a mineral/coconut oil vibe. A bit of ash and anise and a slight artificial banana note.

Palate: Sweet, ashy, licorice and vanilla. Pears, gum drops and then it gets bitter and earthy. Rough, leaves you with vinyl, new plastics, a creamy eggy feeling, a bit like an overcooked custard. Banana leaves, glycerin, anise, rotting grass.

Finish: Cashews, more of that plastic character, brown sugar. An unpleasant astringency, charred oak and camphor but everything starts to fade out not leaving any lasting impressions. The empty glass has a lot of petit grain, rice pudding and coconut tanning lotion.

Notes: Not great, but that’s just my opinion, there are notes I would find pleasant if they were meshed well with the more austere side of Arbdeg but this just flies in all directions. Stick with the superb standard line-up, at least they haven’t messed with those too much.

Ardbeg Drum

46%ABV

77/100

Highland Park Valknut “Sweet Home Valhalla”

Everyone loves to talk trash about Highland Park, more so than Macallan. I think it’s largely in part to how far they’ve leaned into this whole Viking mythos, coupled with the sheer volume of new releases.

I personally don’t mind the whole Viking thing that much. What’s at issue along with other Edrington properties is that one feels as though the marketing department has taken over all aspects of the product. Anyone who’s watched early episodes of Mad Men will be familiar with the kind of cynical marketing techniques that cares very little about the actual product itself.

With this series they’ve combined several tried and true marketing techniques. “limited” editions (15,000 to 20,000 bottles isn’t really that limited), creating a new series of 3-4 scheduled releases and finally a story or myth to bind them all together. With the promise of more “sherry” and more peat what could go wrong? Let’s lean into this one.

Nose: Burnt hay, peameal bacon, it’s a bit closed at first, then opens up with vanilla & seaweed. The sherry eventually shows up and takes over the proceedings. Lots of dried grape, and grape candy, yeast, a bit of ink and plasticine and sulfur.

Palate: Ashy, mineral very sweet like glycerin and honey. Further time brings, vynil, old books, wine gums, faint smoke a touch of BBQ pork. Sour oak, stir fried broccoli, then the return of a lot of sweetness.

Finish: yeasty, grape reduction, a touch of balsamic and seaside. The finish is medium in length but mouth drying.

Blab: Underdeveloped nose. Sharp and stuffy peat. There’s sulfur but no depth to the sherry. Plenty of that weird plum/grape sweetness that is almost cloying like PX. I never thought I’d say that I missed dark origins but I do.

Benromach Peat Smoke 2006/2016 “Orchard Fire”

While Benromach has won over many with their old school style malt, it hasn’t quite stirred up the frenzy that each Springbank release has caused. It might seem unfair to compare them but I believe them to be related in many ways. Family owned, longer fermentation styles, less automation, good cask policy, both are the distilling arms of Independent bottlers. The 10yr old and it’s Imperial strengths counterpart are confirmed winners, let’s dive into the range.

This 2006 Peat Smoke is part of what they’ve dubbed their contrast range, peated malt in the 67ppm range (no source listed), first fill bourbon casks, 46%, no mention of chill filtration though.

Nose: Farmy, earthy peat when first poured, then abruptly a surprising note of pears, apricot paste, it’s very unusual. Underneath all of that the it’s very close to the grain, a touch of old lemons, glycerin & talcum powder.The smoke is there but not overwhelming once it subsides there is a bit of oak and vanilla but surprisingly isn’t dominant for a first-fill bourbon. A nice nose, very round, the peat doesn’t dominate.

Palate: Sweet, dark, jujubes, that instant peaches & cream oatmeal with smoke blown over the top. There is a bit of citrus, linseed oil & powdered sugar with loads of grain and a touch of oak, the texture is a bit thin.

Finish: It keeps bouncing between earthy tones, plantain, mezcal and a strange sweetness, almost artificial, like those swirled strawberry and yogurt candies. The oak is most present at the end.

The Blab: It’s a nice take on the genre (young heavily peated bourbon cask) its different than the Islay style in that it has no maritime influence but I think it’s much closer than peated whiskys by Glendronach or Balvenie for example. Yet it’s not distinct enough, it doesn’t really pull you in like the 10 yr old, perhaps if it was at higher proof like some of their single barrel releases it would be more effective. The 10 yr old is a tough act to follow, it’s a testament to how well it is vatted together.

Benromach Peat Smoke 2006-2016

46%ABV

83/100

Laphroaig – Triple Wood “Fewer calories, thrice the oak”

This is basically the quarter cask with an additional rest time in refill sherry casks. I know many reviews panned this for being less brash and in your face than other Laphroaigs, now that it’s discontinued, it might get more love?

Nose: Cough lozenges, black licorice, antiseptic, that note of germinating grain, vanilla, loads of sweet oak, salty, the nose feels a bit closed.

Palate: Oily, astringent grain, smoked fish, and carbolic give way to sweetness, currants, dried fruit & spices. The palate is soft, all in vanilla, menthol and earth.

Finish: Rich, oily, grassy, licorice & strawberry candy with sweet smoke.

The Blab: The medicinal elements seem to sit tight amidst the successive oak treatments, the ashy smoke is what is replaced by the sweeter elements. Not the one for those looking for that Laphroaig slap in the face but if you like the the distillers editions of Lagavulin and Talisker this is a winner.

Laphroaig Triple Wood

48%ABV

84/100

Ardbeg – An Oa “The baker’s eating Kippers”

This expression is the first to be added to Ardbeg’s regular line-up in many years. A vatting of different cask types (ex-bourbon, virgin oak, px), all finished in Ardbeg’s new European oak marrying tun.

It’s received a fair bit of flack, let’s see what the fuss is all about.

Nose: A hint of Ardbeg’s coal and diesel smoke, then sweeter, cookie dough?Jordan almonds, vanilla, candied fennel seeds, menthol a bit of ginger. It’s nice if a bit subdued.

Palate: Ashy right out of the gate,vanilla. prune sauce some cinnamon. It has some bite, soot, sweet dough, a tin of smoked herring being opened in a bakery. It’s got many of the hallmarks of what makes Ardbeg good but pushed down by the oak.

Finish: Green branches, the astringent lemons show up late to the party. lots of oak, char, vanilla, loads of ginger, a tiny bit or earth.

It’s not neutered like Laphroaig select but it is a more rounded version of the kildalton crusher. They’ve tamed the feisty young Ardbeg spirit, making it sweeter and smoothing over the mineral and maritime edge.

I don’t hate this, it’s well made and enjoyable but at a time when so much Scotch is being homogenized. I would prefer they embrace the challenging nature of their whisky rather than blunt it.

Ardbeg An Oa

46.6% ABV

84/100

Smokehead “Kippers & Bits”

This is an NAS single malt from an undisclosed Islay distillery. This brand comes from Ian Macleod’s company, who’s portfolio includes, Isle of Skye, Glengoyne & Thamdu among others.

Like most of these type of releases there’s much speculation on the origin of the casks for this whisky. Many speculate that this is a vatting of young casks of Ardbeg that don’t quite meet the company’s standards. Let’s see.

Nose: Smoked herring, damp cellar, creosote, it leans towards Ardbeg or Laphroaig heavy smoke. Salt, a smidge of vanilla, a little mercurochrome nothing else…maybe salt ham.

Palate: Acrid, earthy, sharp, kelp, oysters, beach bonfire, latex, milky, peat reek.

Finish is all on ashes, saltpetre, brine.

Good uncompromising stuff, all oily fish, milky/latex and ashy smoke. It ticks off all the peat freak boxes, don’t look for subtleties. I like this it’s very honest.

Smokehead Islay Single Malt

43% ABV

83/100

Lagavulin 8, 200th Anniversary Edition “A Mezcaleria in Port Ellen” 

Lagavulin 8 “200th anniversary Editon”

48%/ABV

86/100

 

This whisky was released to much fanfare in the whiskysphere, with reason. There is so little lagavulin variety on the market, the masses are starved.

It provides things fans of the 12yr old love, little to no cask play (the color is like Sauvignon), it’s served at a decent proof (48%ABV) and lastly that resounding 8 yrs age statement all bold and brash youth instead of an NAS with a fairytale name.

We know from many other contemporaries that young Islays can be superb and explosive (if a bit narrow in profile at times).

LAg8

Nose: Mineral, green, diesel fumes, burnt hay, almond oil. Its very mezcal like, génépi, bakelite, ashy smoke. With time freshly shucked oysters, a smidge of powdered sugar and pears

Palate: Dark, sharp,oily, acrid smoke. Bitter plants and artichokes, toasted and salted marcona almonds and lovage.

Finish: Bitter, inky, wet wool and grapefruit pith, it’s medium in length very drying. The quality of the distillate is without reproach.

Somedays this is really superb, firing on all cylinders. Other days it’s kind of hangs on to one note and goes with it. I wasn’t crazy about this bottle at first. I didn’t gas it and I find the final half much better although I don’t think it’s changed dramatically. A good young uncompromising whisky. I’m not convinced this was only a cash grab.

That said, as many feared (or wanted) this has become part of the regular line-up. At prices like I’ve seen in some states (45-65$) I would buy this again. Locally it’s a 100$ at that price point it competes with many other whiskys and the 16yr old is 129$, I am unlikely to buy a replacement soon.

 

Franck