Many whisky commentators today make reference to cult whiskies or distilleries with cult followings. As best as I can tell, such references really didn’t exist until 1997. Then Ardbeg was reborn.
Ardbeg has a weight, a brand, a persona, that is bigger than itself. It has a reputation for huge, bold, peaty whiskies, and its name travels so far and with such reverence that you could be forgiven for thinking it’s the biggest distillery on Islay. In truth, it’s actually one of the smaller ones. With just one pair of stills churning away, its potential annual production capacity is just a tick over 1.1 million litres. But as we all know, size doesn’t matter: It’s what you do with it that counts.
Fans of Ardbeg can rejoice this Christmas, with the distillery launching a new release of Supernova. Supernova is Ardbeg’s super-peated expression. The malt used for “regular” Ardbeg is peated to a phenol level of 55ppm, whilst the Supernova-make ups the ante to over 100ppm. It was first released in 2009, with a follow-up release in 2010. After nearly four years’ absence from the scene, Supernova returns with a bang.
The return of this Ardbeg is timed with the return of another Ardbeg spirit – the widely publicised vial of Ardbeg that was launched into space in October 2011. In a fantastic experiment designed to study the effect that gravity has on maturation, two identical vials of Ardbeg were created. One, the base sample, was left on Islay; the other was sent into space where it has been orbiting the earth for just under three years aboard the International Space Station. Having returned to earth this month, the space vial can now be reunited with its sibling, and the two will be sent to Houston, Texas for scientists to study and compare how the space spirit and the earth spirit molecules interact with charred oak.
Of course, most of us will be happy to let the scientists have all their fun in the lab. In the meantime, fans of heavily peated whisky can look forward to Supernova once more tantalising our tastebuds. I was fortunate to receive a sample of the new Supernova this week (tagged SN2014), and I’ve given it a good thrashing to test its credentials. My tasting notes for this are further below.
One of the reasons Ardbeg has such appeal is that, despite its high peating levels, it has never been one dimensional. In addition to the mandatory peat and smoke, Ardbeg’s whiskies typically deliver delicious complexity that take the form of sweetness, citrus, vanilla and floral notes. In recent times, we’ve also been privileged to taste Ardbeg in many different forms and at various different peating levels. Comparing Ardbeg with different levels of peat influence gives you some insight into the actual base spirit and the character of the distillery. The original Kildalton release in 2004 (with spirit distilled in 1980) was the first OB to showcase very lowly peated Ardbeg (it was a vatting of both lowly peated and non-peated Ardbeg), and then Blasda came along in 2008 with the phenols downplayed to 8ppm. Members of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society were particularly lucky, as the Society bottled quite a number of single casks from all three variants, i.e. Blasda, regular, and Supernova casks in 2011 and 2012. All three types made it on to the Australia Outturn over that period. Cask 33.118, released by the Australian branch of the Society in early 2013, was a young 7yo cask of Supernova-make Ardbeg, and no doubt from the same distillation runs that are contributing to this new 2014 Supernova release. So how does this new release, bottled at 55% ABV, stack up?
Colour: The colour is pale, bordering on the lightest of straw gold, suggesting a relatively young age and/or bourbon-cask maturation.
Nose: Earthy peat and carbon notes waft out of the glass and hit my nostrils before I’ve even finished pouring my first dram. The signature sweet creaminess and vanilla is immediately evident, and very soft lemon citrus follows shortly afterwards. There are mint & pine sap notes wafting around, together with charcoal pine. It’s that glorious aroma of waking up next morning and smelling the charred remains of the camp bonfire that was lit the night before.
Palate: Unmistakably Ardbeg! Whilst the nose put the peat to the foreground and the smoke to the background, the palate – and finish, for that matter – reverses the roles, and this is massively smoky. The sweetness takes the form of dark chocolate (obviously, a dark chocolate that’s not overly bitter), and it strikes me immediately that this was dram would pair deliciously with any number of chocolate desserts.
Finish: The finish is dry and ashy, leaving the sort of oaky footprint more commonly associated with much older whiskies. But that oakiness, regardless of age, is undeniably burned, seared, and charcoaled. I’m not sure I’ve ever sucked on a lump of coal in my life, but I reckon the finish it would leave behind would be akin to this.
Comments: 55% ABV is the perfect strength for this whisky – it carries the weight superbly, and at no stage in the experience does one feel it overbearing, aggressive, or hot. Instead, it is smooth, sultry, and delivers an experience not unlike liquid smoke wafting and draping over your tongue. I enjoyed this tremendously and found it worked both as a pick-me-up dram for a quick quaff, and also a contemplative dram for long and enjoyable assessment.
This dram is a winner. More importantly, it achieves and delivers precisely what it is supposed to do: Give Ardbeg fans a massive whack of peat and smoke. It’s a high-octane effort that differs significantly enough from the regular 10yo release to be an essential resident on your whisky shelf. Given it’s a limited and special release, it’s unlikely to be widely available through regular retail stores, but you should look for it via the Moet Hennessy Collection at http://moet-hennessy-collection.com.au in December. Listed RRP is $240.