MASH BILL – 100% malted barley
PROOF – 114.2
AGE – NAS
DISTILLERY – Ardbeg
PRICE – $76
WORTH BUYING? – Oh yes!
Toward the start of my whisky journey I bought a bottle of Ardbeg Ten. A fellow who ran the cafe down the street from me was closing up shop and heading to New York. He always treated my partner and I like family and he was a scotch fan, so I gave the Ardbeg to him as a thank you and farewell gift. I never happened to return to Ardbeg after that. No particular reason, simply that my focus was shifting toward bourbons and ryes.
After a recent dry week (I take a week off all things booze every three months) I wanted to return to whisky with a splash of something new. So I picked up this bottle, named after a famous whirlpool north of the Islay region. The full story goes like this:
The whirlpool is named after the Viking Prince Breacan, who perished when he attempted to prove his love for an Islay princess by lasting three full nights on a boat in the whirlpool’s swirl. A goddess, Cailleach Bheare, guardian of the whirlpool, took pity on Prince Breacan and brought him down to her dark lair at the bottom of the sea where he has slept ever since. Lo and behold, he has finally awoken in a bottle of whisky.
That all sounded suitably dramatic for my tastes. I’d been enjoying a bottle of the excellent and elegant 2015 Lagavulin 12 Year Limited Edition recently and was ready to try a peated scotch that was perhaps a bit on the wilder side.
At uncorking I was struck by the restraint of the nose. The peat was there, and a distinct dark smokiness swirling around chocolate covered caramel. The taste was then full on smoked dark chocolate cake, very dense, decadent without going overly sweet. Wow. Two of my partner’s friends were over and I shared a pour with them. Their senses went straight to smoked chocolate cake as well.
Now it’s two days after uncorking and already a handful of pours into the bottle. Once again the San Francisco Summer sky is draped in grey clouds and the ocean is reflecting subtle shades of slate. Perfect for another spin in the Corryvreckan. Using a traditional Glencairn, here are some notes in brief.
COLOR – a brassy and buttery yellow reflecting everything around it and leaving lingering drips on the glass when swirled
NOSE – peat, smoke, crystal clear spring water, sea salt, a tart caramel custard, fresh thick cream, smoked meat like the charred ends of a brisket, intense yet restrained enough to keep me nosing it forever…
TASTE – vibrant right up front with an initial wave of the caramels, custards and creams, then immediately a gust of smoke laced with peat, only a faint ashiness, a nice sweet tang to it like some kind of hybrid tart citrus fruit born of lemons, grapefruits and tangerines
FINISH – a peppery burn kicks up on the sides of the tongue, outlining a central ashy smokiness, with baked peach and nectarine wafting by, and then that dense dark chocolate cake sets in…
OVERALL – both decadent and earthy, this is indeed quite a ride
I absolutely understand why a teeming whirlpool was tagged as the namesake for this seaside dessert. It’s confident, strong, has a wildness to it that is nevertheless structured and consistent. It demands attention and rewards savoring.
I couldn’t help but pour some Lagavulin 12 Year to compare. With open bottles of each on hand, the similarities make a comparison irresistible. They’re both Islay whiskies, of course, and their proofs are neck and neck—114.2 for the Ardbeg and 113.6 for the Lagavulin, a mere 0.6 difference. But immediately they look different—a hint of what’s to come—with the Lagavulin pale like straw and the Ardbeg richer like melted butter. Both leave splashes of oily droplets behind when swirled.
Nosing them back and forth side by side, the Ardbeg initially overpowers the Lagavulin. When I slow down with the Lagavulin, light creams and a bright saltiness come forward with a subtle edge of lemon zest. Going back to the Ardbeg then, it’s similar only much more forward. Tasting them, the Lagavulin is edgier, pricklier, and saltier despite its overall elegance, whereas the more overtly brash Ardbeg washes its flavors smoothly over the palate. Then on the finish, the Lagavulin is warm like a ruggedly woven but soft wool blanket, leaving soft smoke, peat, oyster shell and a dollop of creamy custard. Unsurprisingly, the Ardbeg finishes with less reserve, allowing stronger smoke and ash around its core dark chocolate cake note.
From a consumer standpoint, with the Ardbeg Corryvreckan both readily available and half the price of the Lagavulin 12 Year, the choice is a no-brainer. From a tasting experience standpoint, both are mature in their delivery, with each offering a distinct journey on the same terrain. So if you want something brash, go for the Ardbeg. If you want something more debonair by comparison, go for the Lagavulin.
It’s worth noting that my partner and her two friends—none of them big whisky fans and certainly not familiar with the whole Islay peat thing—all enjoyed these whiskies. The prickliness I pick up on the Lagavulin that doesn’t show in the Ardbeg, they described as “hotter.” None ventured a favorite, which I also take as telling. Why limit oneself to a single favorite? There are no gold or silver stars to be won here. Just two whiskies to be enjoyed.
This has been such a spectacular introduction to Ardbeg, I’m both excited and hesitant to explore the brand further. How high has the bar been set by the Corryvreckan?
Only one way to find out…!