If you’ve read enough pieces, opinions, wisdom – and certainly reviews – on Whisky & Wisdom, you’ll have noticed a subconscious, underlying nostalgic tone occasionally. When you’ve been enjoying whisky for over twenty years and observed the very significant changes and growth that has occurred in the industry in that time (even in just the last ten years), it’s hard to look at and comment on current whisky affairs without inadvertently glancing backwards to how things once were.
Such observances even pervade one’s thinking when it comes to Johnnie Walker. Once upon a time, the Johnnie Walker stable was a pretty simple and well-defined house. Just four simple colours: Red, Black, Gold, and Blue. (Yes, there was the occasional sighting of something different (e.g. Swing), and let’s not forget the rumours of the elusive Grey Label that did the rounds back in the mid-2000’s.)
(Or everything you wanted to know about Ardnamurchan but were afraid to ask!)
In this digital age of whisky websites and social media activity, there are very few secrets left in the whisky industry. Once upon a time, a new distillery would suddenly appear and no one knew much about it except for what might have been published in a subsequent book. Today, by the time a new distillery’s first release is bottled, it seems we’ve all followed the journey of the distillery breaking ground; building the stillhouse; installing the stills; starting production; and filling the casks. We’ve done the virtual tour of the distillery before the Visitor Centre has even opened its doors!
One of the primary reasons for this is simply because most of us will never get to make the journey to the distillery, and thus we live and drink vicariously through what we read and view online. Consider, also, that not all distilleries are blessed by geography: Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie, for example, are an easy bus ride from the big city centres of Glasgow and Edinburgh respectively, but things are trickier for the more remote distilleries that sit well off the tourist trail or are located on the fringes of Scotland’s reaches.
Ardnamurchan is one such distillery. If you’re looking to start up a new distillery, your choice of location is fairly critical. 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 materials and the departure of spirit and filled casks. So – with all these essentials being key to a successful distillery venture – 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.
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.
For people being introduced to whisky, the textbooks and the brand ambassadors teach you that whisky engages your senses. We look at the colour. We smell the aroma. We feel the mouthfeel and the texture in our mouth. We taste the flavour.
That’s all good and well. But when did you last actually listen to your whisky?
Listening is a skill. And, as any parent with young kids can tell you, listening is different to hearing. Hearing is easy; listening is not. Consider the following sage words:
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”. (Stephen Covey)
“The word LISTEN contains the same letters as the word SILENT”. (Alfred Brendel)
If there’s one word to describe the Scotch whisky industry right now it’s diversity. When it comes to expressions available, new releases, and new flavours/styles being developed and marketed, diversity is the name of the game at present.
Of course, amongst the community of whisky drinkers, most of these diverse pursuits focus on the single malt category, but neither can the blends afford to be caught standing still. In this respect, the Johnnie Walker stable has been growing and expanding significantly. If you thought the Johnnie Walker range consisted of Red, Black, Green, Gold, and Blue Label, then you’ve not kept up with the times.
Ardbeg. That wonderful Islay distillery with a cult following so devoted, over 120,000 fans from over 130 countries have pledged their allegiance to ensure the distillery never closes its doors again. Again? Yes, Ardbeg has quite a tale to tell…
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 the second smallest! With just one pair of stills churning away, its potential annual production capacity is just a trickle over 1.1 million litres.
As is widely known across the whiskysphere, 2016 sees the Lagavulin distillery celebrate its 200th Anniversary. No one celebrates a 200th birthday lightly, and Lagavulin has been widely praised for the release of its limited edition (but widely accessible and affordable) celebratory 8yo in honour of the occasion. Whisky & Wisdom had an early taste of this, and wrote up a piece about the distillery and the whisky back in April. You can read that piece and the review on the 8yo here.
However, more recently – and closer to home – the 8yo had its local launch in Australia just a few weeks ago. Held at The Wild Rover in Sydney’s Surry Hills, the launch was not just the unveiling and tasting of the whisky, but it was also an incredible virtual reality (VR) tour of the distillery.
Keen observers of the malt whisky industry will have noted the kaleidoscope of ever-expanding and diversifying product portfolios amongst the various brands. The days of a distillery featuring just a 12yo and an 18yo bottling are long gone…today it is de rigueur for serious distilleries to offer an entry-level NAS, a peated NAS, a 10yo with a wood finish, a 12yo, a 14yo port wood, a 15yo cask-strength, an 18yo sherry wood, a 21yo, a 25yo that no one can afford, and finally a release with a fancy gaelic name that will be mispronounced around the world.
Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is subjective, and there are pros and cons on both sides of the argument. The marketing departments argue that they need more bottles on the shelf of liquor stores and bars so that the brand stands out. It also gives the warehouses and blenders flexibility with stock. And, for the consumer, the range of choice, variance, and price points forever increases. My personal view is that the industry is self-generating a consumer base that becomes increasingly fickle and with a shorter and shorter attention span, but that’s a piece for another day.
In the meantime, it’s been interesting to observe that the same pressures and marketing ideals have extended to the blends. Even the most traditional blends are having to come out with variations and new expressions to maintain interest and keep up with the Joneses. Or, in this case, the Johnnies.
The Australian Malt Whisky Tasting Championship is a bit like the internet. It’s something you might think is a relatively “new” thing, when the reality is that it’s been around for decades longer than you gave it credit for.
In actual fact, the Australian Malt Whisky Tasting Championship has been around since 1989! As the name suggests, it is a tasting competition, and had its origins in Adelaide, South Australia. The competition’s principal format and structure has remained largely unchanged over the years: Competitors are presented with eight whiskies pre-poured before them, and supplied with a list of nine possible whiskies – in other words, the eight whiskies that are on the table, plus one red herring. Competitors are then given 30 minutes to identify which whisky is which and to write their answers on the answer sheet. Of course, having a list with all of the possible contenders in front of you makes the exercise seem a little easier, but the challenge is also in establishing which whisky of the nine on the list is not on the table!
Ardbeg Day is just around the corner again, which means it’s time to shake off the Autumn blues (or dust off your Spring hat if you’re in the northern hemisphere) and gear up for all the fun and excitement of Ardbeggian delights.
I’ve written much about Ardbeg’s history, the Ardbeg Committee and Ardbeg Day in the past. So rather than fill up space by repeating it all on this page, you can re-visit those pieces here (Ardbeg Day 2015 report), here (Perpetuum review) and here (Ardbeg Day 2014 & Auriverdes review) if you need to fill in any blanks. For the purposes of a concise read, let’s cut straight to the chase and get stuck into Ardbeg Day and the annual release for 2016. If you’re here just to read the review on the Dark Cove release, scroll further down.