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%.
And so, for those who think they “know” Kelpie, based on the Committee Edition, you need to re-acquaint yourself with this whisky. Because the 46% version is quite a different beast. And, whilst I didn’t expect myself to say this…I actually think the 46% retail release is the more enjoyable whisky to drink.
For the production of Kelpie, a number of the casks used in the vatting were virgin casks sourced from the Adyghe Republic in Russia. These have been coined “Black Sea oak casks”. The spirit from these was then married with traditional Ardbeg from ex-bourbon barrels.
It’s amazing how quickly each year comes around. It doesn’t seem that long ago that Ardbog was still front and centre, and yet Auriverdes, Perpetuum and Dark Cove have already come and gone since. It’s also easy to forget that Ardbeg has just three expressions in its core-range – the 10yo, Uigeadail, and Corryvreckan. As such, each year’s annual release is a fantastic opportunity to try Ardbeg in a new light or in a different shade. Debate often rages over the annual releases as die-hards argue the merits of each release or the lack of an age statement. I’m no apologist for any brand, but I think such arguments miss the point. If you’re a fan of the distillery and you like peated whisky, the annual releases showcase Ardbeg in new and exciting ways.
Whisky & Wisdom sat down with the 46% retail version, and for optimum results, tasted the whisky in Scotland! However, before diving into the minutiae of sensory perceptions, I’ll summarise with this: I’ve been privileged to visit Ardbeg Distillery on six separate occasions over the years. Of all the Ardbeg Day releases to have been issued to-date, Kelpie is the release that most instantly transports me back there. The aromas from the glass and the chunk of peat in the spirit resonate the most and trigger the hippocampus in ways unlike others. If you want to know what the distillery smells like; if you want to imagine what it’s like to drink Ardbeg whilst standing in one of its warehouses or whilst standing on the pier, then Kelpie is the whisky you need to drink.
Ardbeg Kelpie, Retail Release, 46%.
Nose: Signature Ardbeg! It’s sweet, smoky, and dry, yet with a dank, mossy scent in the background that instantly gets you interested. Vanilla/dark chocolate notes waft through the smoke also.
Palate: Whilst the Committee Edition was big and bold on the palate, this version seems more refined and sophisticated. It’s exceptionally sweet, making it incredibly easy to drink. More importantly, for Ardbeg fans, there’s great, traditional Ardbeg peat: Creosote; hot-mix bitumen; and then charcoal and ash the morning after the camp fire the night before. The mouthfeel is oily, slick, and engages all corners of your palate and mouth cheeks. There are hints of vanilla in the picture, and perhaps a hint of citrus, but the peat and smoke are the main real heroes here.
Finish: High quality, bitter dark chocolate. Ardbeg has often been a fine match with dark chocolate, but this expression simply exudes it.
Comments: The thing that strikes me most about this whisky is just how dangerously drinkable it is. It’s both a whisky to sip and savour, yet a real quaffer that you can happily gulp down. Rather than putting your glass down, you find yourself clutching the glass close to you and going back for repeated nosings and sips. And, with each sip, the dram simply gets sweeter, smokier, and sweeter. Compared with previous annual releases, it probably leans closest to Perpetuum, yet with the volume a little louder. The Black Sea virgin oak casks have obviously influenced the whisky’s final character, making for deeper, possibly rougher flavours than you might associate with the more refined and sophisticated 10yo. And, frankly, the whisky is all the better for it!