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.
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.
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.
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