Ardbeg An Oa

With so many different special releases of Ardbeg that catch everyone’s attention each year (i.e. the annual Ardbeg Day releases such as Kelpie, Dark Cove, Perpetuum, Auriverdes, etc, or the limited release of the 21yo), it’s easily to forget that Ardbeg’s actual core range consists of just three bottlings:  Uigeadail, Corryvreckan, and the 10yo.

Of course, a decade or two ago, a distillery with multiple expressions in its portfolio usually showcased its core range via a diverse spread of different age statements, for example, a 12yo, an 18yo, and, say, a 25yo.  However, as is widely reported and acknowledged these days (see here), distilleries today are increasingly turning to No Age Statement releases to manage their stocks and inventory.   (Talisker is a classic example – arguably one that has gone too far – with core range NAS releases such as Skye, Storm, Dark Storm, Neist Point, Port Ruighe, and 57o North)Given Ardbeg’s chequered history, with such small and sporadic production between 1983 and 1997, it’s no surprise that Ardbeg must also make a virtue of NAS releases.  Fortunately, as anyone who’s tasted them can attest to, Uigeadail and Corryvreckan are two very good whiskies.  But what if you’re a huge Ardbeg fan and you still yearn for something more?  Relief is now at hand…

An Oa is the first new addition to the core range (i.e. a permanent expression) in almost 10 years!  On paper, it immediately arouses curiosity and gets one salivating:  It is a vatting of Ardbeg spirit matured in a tantalising cocktail of different cask types:  Pedro Ximenez sherry casks, ex-bourbon barrels, and fresh virgin oak casks.  However, the secret and the success lies in how they have been combined:  The contributing spirits from the different cask types are combined together and allowed to settle and fuse over time in the so-called Gathering Vat – a special marrying vessel made from French oak.

The Mull of Oa

If you’re wondering about the name, The Oa is the southern tip of Islay – the protruding peninsula that extends out south-west of Port Ellen.  The Mull of Oa is at the far south-western end of The Oa, and features some of Islay’s most rugged and untamed cliffs and coastline.  Yours truly has walked all over The Oa and wandered perilously close to those cliffs:  The American Monument – a memorial to the victims of two separate maritime sinkings in 1918 – is perched at the head of the Mull of Oa and can be reached on foot for those who are keen.  It is a bleak and windswept headland, yet effectively cushions Port Ellen and the Kildalton distilleries (of which Ardbeg is one) from the brunt of the winds and storms off the Atlantic.   Ardbeg’s new release is said to pay homage to the Mull of Oa, contrasting powerful intensity and sweet silkiness to celebrate the location where storm meets calm.

Click on the thumbnails below for Whisky & Wisdom’s pictures taken at the Mull of Oa in 2009

As part of the launch of An Oa, a number of whisky folks and bloggers were provided with a bottle, some glasses, and an oath stone (more on that in a moment), and encouraged to hold a wee gathering to taste and assess the whisky.  Well known blogger (and exceptional photographer) The Whisky Ledger was also amongst this crowd, and so it was that Whisky & Wisdom and The Whisky Ledger combined their forces for a joint gathering.  10 people gathered in the boardroom of a suburban office and put the An Oa through its paces.   For reference and comparison, the standard 10yo was also included in the tasting, and we explored the 10yo first so as to set the benchmark.

An Oa

If a new expression is to be sleeved into a brand’s core range portfolio, it obviously has to have and showcase a point of difference.   The first thing you notice is that the An Oa is softer.  It would be going too far to describe it as being subtle, but – compared to the 10yo – the An Oa seems more gentle and invites exploration.   Peat and smoke are here, but it’s a smouldering camp fire rather than a roaring bonfire.  The distillery’s maritime character is more evident, with strong notes of kelp and drying seaweed on the beach wafting from the glass.   Other expected “house” characteristics of Ardbeg are happily present, such as vanilla, and also citrus, but they manifest themselves in different shades and accents than the regular 10yo.  (For example, the oaky vanillins in the 10yo present as vanilla slice and custard in the An Oa; and the famous lemon citrus of the 10yo takes a subtle turn and presents as orange citrus in the An Oa).

The inclusion of Pedro Ximinez in the cask recipe obviously elicits interest and intrigue, although its contribution here is subtle and complimentary to the flavours, rather than being an obvious or dominating whack of sherry.  However, one thing it definitely does is insert a delectable note of smoky bacon.  Beyond this, the whisky is also strong with aromas and flavours of forest floors, fungi, squid ink, root licorice, some iodine, and good ol’ drying smoke.

As part of the fun of the night, we were provided with our own Oathing Stone  – a traditional Celtic ceremonial symbol for binding people together and to a place.  Clutching our oathing stone, we pledged our allegiance to Ardbeg by reciting the following words:

I swear this oathing stone to be true to my untamed spirit.  To stand with peat beneath my feet; smoke on my lips; a dog by my side; and Ardbeg in my heart. Slainte!

Keen to leave no stone unturned, we also tested the An Oa’s ability to work with food pairings.  The combination with two different blue cheeses worked a treat, and – as one would hope with an Ardbeg – the match with dark chocolate (a 78% cocoa from Lindt) was perfect.

 

An Oa

The group agreed unanimously that An Oa is a softer, arguably more refined expression of Ardbeg.  As you’d intuitively assume, the contribution of different cask types creates a whisky that definitely boasts complexity.  However, it takes a reasonably experienced or capable nose and palate to identify and extract this complexity, and some drinkers may just prefer the bombastic fun of the brasher 10yo. But make no mistake:  This whisky will have its fans, and I suspect it will also turn and win many drinkers to the brand.  For those who might find the 10yo too peaty, the An Oa is slightly more approachable and less confronting.  What’s more, the mouthfeel is exceptionally silky and oily, and it leaves a rich and unctuous imprint on your palate.   Tasted by itself and without any of its siblings around – as I discovered in an unadulterated tasting the following evening – the An Oa is a delicious Islay experience.

An Oa is bottled at 46.6% ABV and has an RRP of $119.  Available now at all good whisky stockists.

With thanks to Ardbeg and EVH for the opportunity.

Photos above by Whisky & Wisdom and The Whisky Ledger

Glen Moray & Mastery

Glen Moray celebrates its 120th anniversary this year, having been founded way back in 1897.   The distillery had humble beginnings and had already endured over a decade of silence and inactivity when it was bought by Macdonald & Muir (effectively Glenmorangie) in 1920.  Glenmorangie held the reins for the next 88 years, during which time the distillery became a workhorse for the many supermarket blends that Macdonald & Muir were behind.   If you believe the folklore, Glen Moray was also the playground for Dr Bill Lumsden, who would conduct all manner of trials and maturation experiments on Glen Moray spirit before transferring his more successful undertakings across to Glenmorangie.

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Ardbeg Kelpie – The 46% Retail Release

With Ardbeg Day now an entrenched part of the whisky calendar, it seems unnecessary to go into great detail about the day itself and what it entails.  Of course, whilst the day itself is a great hive of fun and activity, most people’s  focus and attention is on the special release bottling.  This year’s release, Kelpie, is a belter, and an Ardbeg to make the purists happy.

The Committee Edition release – bottled at a higher strength of 51.7% – was released earlier this year and found many friends.  The commercial or retail bottling, bottled at 46%, will be released on June 3rd to coincide with Ardbeg Day.

Of course, many people make the mistake of simply dismissing the retail version as being a “watered down” version of the Committee Edition.  Chemically speaking, they’re correct, but from a sensory perspective, there’s so much more to it than that.  Yes, whilst the retail version simply has more water added to it to bring it down to a lower strength, the effect of this on the whisky is very pronounced.  The influence of the ABV is huge when it comes to how our palates react to the whisky.  Master blenders and independent bottlers often carry out multiple tastings or samplings to establish whether a special release should be bottled at, say, 46%, 48%, 50%, or 51.5%.  The different ABV’s influence how the alcohols and flavour compounds are balanced, and thus a different bottling strength will pronounce (or, in contrast, diminish) certain aspects of the flavour spectrum.  For example, a whisky bottled at 46% might seem saltier, or sweeter, or fruitier than the same spirit bottled at 48%.

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Ardnamurchan – 2016/AD

It’s hardly shiny or earth-shattering news to write that new distilleries are popping up all over Scotland.  In fact, such a statement is unlikely to pique any interest amongst the more learned whisky enthusiasts.  However, what does become interesting is when you start to look at the geography of these new distilleries.  Many are now re-populating the Lowlands, such as the Glasgow Distillery, or the wee-explosion of distilleries in Fife (e.g. Kingsbarns, Daftmill, etc).  Others are adding to the spectrum of Speyside, such as Ballindalloch or Dalmunach.

When starting a new distillery in these current times, the owners will be looking for some key necessities when deciding upon the site of their distillery.  In addition to the most obvious requirement (i.e. a good water source), other considerations will be existing infrastructure, convenient access, shared resources, a ready-made tourist trail for visitors, and ease of transport for both the delivery of raw materials and the departure of spirit and filled casks.  So – with all these essentials being key to a successful distillery start-up, why would you choose to locate your distillery in one of the most far flung, remote, and inaccessible parts of Scotland?  In the case of Ardnamurchan, the answer is pretty simple:  Because they can.

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2016 Diageo Special Releases

For anyone who’s entered the single malt whisky scene in recent years, the choice and array of bottlings, brands and releases can be overwhelming.  Almost 30 years ago now, the situation was very different when Diageo launched “The Classic Malts” – first into travel retail in 1988, and then into the domestic market in 1989.   Those six whiskies (Glenkinchie, Cragganmore, Oban, Dalwhinnie, Talisker, and Lagavulin) became the vehicle through which hundreds of thousands of people were introduced to malt whisky.  For close to a decade they were almost the definitive collection and – notwithstanding the omnipresence of the likes of Glenfiddich and Glenlivet – it was only by the late 1990’s that other brands and recognisable labels started to consistently appear in regular retail outlets.

Never one to rest on their laurels, Diageo continued (and continues) to expand their range.  The so-called Rare Malts range ran from 1995-2005, and the Managers Choice range also kept hardcore fans happy with its single cask, cask-strength releases.  The original Classic Malts range was also expanded in 2006, adding the likes of Clynelish and Caol Ila, in addition to others that were custom selected for individual markets (e.g. Cardhu for the USA).

One of the longer-term and more interesting projects has been the Diageo Special Releases range, consisting of a specially selected and crafted series of bottlings released annually each year since 2001.  As the name inherently suggests, the releases are “special” and typically include Diageo’s rarest stock, such as whiskies from closed distilleries – Port Ellen, Brora, and Cambus being three examples.

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Ardbeg Untamed and Ardbeg Kelpie

With multi-tasking all the rage these days, this piece combines two distinct happenings involving Ardbeg.  The second of these relates to Kelpie, this year’s new release to coincide with Ardbeg Day.  But before we try and conquer that wee beastie, have you heard of Ardbeg Untamed?

The last three decades have seen the distilleries and the whisky brands take ever increasing and impressive steps to bring us into their sanctums.   Once upon a time, importers and distributors simply held a tasting event and poured out their whiskies for the punters to taste.  Then came the brand ambassadors, who did more-or-less the same thing, except with the assistance of slide shows, which then morphed into the “multi-media presentations”.  With the advent of live webcams, distilleries took us into their production areas and you could get a sneak peek into the workings of a distillery without having to leave your own home.

So, short of hopping on a plane and making your way directly to Scotland, what was the next step and development for distilleries to bring us ever closer to their heart?  The answer is Virtual Reality.  Ardbeg Untamed is one such undertaking.  Courtesy of VR, Ardbeg has launched a series of visual experiences that take you across the water to Ardbeg and through the distillery.  As the fly-through whizzes through the warehouse, you’ll see and hear Mickey Heads, distillery manager, talking to the lads as they go about their daily routine.

Given that so much about a distillery is now available online in the form of pictures and virtual tours that you can enjoy whilst sitting at your desktop, the VR experience is pretty special and certainly adds both a layer of realism and a tangible feeling of being within the space.  Surely this is as close as you can get to Islay without actually being there.

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Hyde Single Grain Whiskey – The Aras Cask releases

Every whisky drinker has his or her favourite category or variety of whisk(e)y.   Once upon time, many were firmly camped in one category and rarely ventured outside it.   You might have been a Scotch person who never touched Bourbon.   Or a fan of the Irish stuff who found the malts of Scotland a bit too robust.   However, with the explosion of whisky bars around the country and diverse ranges of spirits more readily and affordably available to try by the dram, people can now explore categories of whisk(e)y outside their comfort zone without too much grief.   It’s one of the reasons that people are expanding their horizons and – whilst we all still have our favourite – at least we’re embracing other categories.

For obvious reasons, it’s about this time every year that people suddenly decide to check out Irish whiskey.   St Patrick’s Day means different things to different people, but – if nothing else – for whisky drinkers, it’s a good excuse to insert an ‘e’ into the word and try a drop of the pure.

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Paul John: The Man and the Whisky

If there’s one message the whisky industry is sending to Consumerville right now – both implicitly and explicitly – it’s that for malt whisky drinkers looking to try new drams, your options extend well beyond the shores of Scotland. Malt whisky is being made all over the world, both from serious contenders set up for large scale production, and from the plethora of craft distilleries forging small but new ground.

The trouble for many of these newer distilleries is that finances and cash flow almost demand that they put their product out to market early. Yes, we all know that these early releases are works in progress and that these “Hey, I’m here” bottlings at two, three, and four years old are all immature and not a true reflection of what the whisky might one day become.   But one wonders if such producers might do their brand a favour if they were to simply sit back and patiently wait until the spirit was truly ready?  Nonetheless, regardless of the marketeers or the accountants, every distillery has to get through its awkward years of puberty until it can put world class whisky on the shelves.

Meanwhile, one country that continues to press on and build on an already firmly established foundation is India. Paul John is certainly one distillery that has its teething years behind it and is now bottling impressive whisky. Very impressive whisky.   Whisky & Wisdom has previously told parts of the Paul John story, and you can read much of the background information, plus read tasting notes on the core range here.

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Glenmorangie Bacalta

At the start of every year, we all sit down with our calendar and enter all of our annual events and occasions: The public holidays.  Your partner’s birthday.  Your dentist appointment.  Your wedding anniversary.  The release of the next Glenmorangie Private Edition bottling.

Glenmorangie’s Private Edition range is a special once-off release that comes out each year to showcase a new variation of the Glenmorangie flavour profile.   Through the use of different casks or wood regimes during maturation, or by using different varieties of barley (or different peating levels), the usual Glenmorangie DNA is given a tweak and a nudge to explore new and – without fail – delicious flavour territories.  Some  within Glenmorangie (including Dr Bill Lumsden himself) have hinted or suggested that the Private Edition range showcases experimentation but, to my palate, the results are consistently too successful and too good to be mere experiments.  No, this is a product line that knows what it’s doing.  And for those who are curious, in terms of volume, the Private Edition range makes up less than 1% of Glenmorangie’s total annual production, so it is genuinely a very limited product.

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Fets Whisky Kitchen

One of the greatest and most appealing aspects of being a member of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society is the Members’ Rooms in the UK.  With two venues in Edinburgh and one in London, the Members’ Rooms are both havens and heaven.  They’re the whisky equivalent of entering one of the First Class airline lounges at an airport:  Cosy lounges, brilliant food, a comfy fire during winter, knowledgeable and friendly staff, meeting facilities, and – of course – a sensational whisky bar.  New and old SMWS whiskies adorn the shelves and they’re great venues to try the latest releases first without necessarily having to buy a whole bottle for yourself.

Of course, whilst that sounds great on paper, the reality is that for members who don’t live near either Edinburgh or London – and particularly for members who live in other countries (not to mention other continents!) – a visit to one of the Members’ Rooms isn’t exactly a stroll around the corner.

The Society started to address this many years ago with the introduction of “Partner Bars”.  These were existing third party venues, initially the bars inside high-end hotels, but over the years they’ve branched out to include some very formidable whisky bars, dive bars, restaurants and pubs.   Quite simply, the Partner Bars are venues that stock SMWS bottlings which can then be purchased over the bar by the dram.  No, you don’t have to be a Society member to be able to buy a dram but, depending on which country/venue you’re in, many Partner Bars offer the drams at discounted prices for Society members.  (You simply need to flash your Membership Card).

Fets Whisky Kitchen in Vancouver, Canada, is arguably the most well-stocked and extensive whisky bar in Canada.  And whilst whisky-loving folks will obviously focus on the bar, Fets is actually a mighty good restaurant, serving absolutely delicious food.  Operating for over 30 years now, the venue is located just outside and east of the CBD.  The food menu is “southern inspired” and the whisky menu is…well, it’s huge.   The whisky range expanded further in October 2013 when the venue became an SMWS Partner Bar.  There are over 800 different whiskies available by the dram, including an unbelievable 180 different SMWS single cask bottlings!  And for those whose whisk(e)y flavour preferences sit outside Scotland, there is also a huge range of American whiskies (over four pages’ worth of bourbons, ryes, and craft whiskies on the menu), plus impressive selections from Canada, Japan, Ireland, India, Australia, and more.  The bar is also home and host to a large number of whisky tastings, events and product launches that are held throughout the year.

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