Whisky Odyssey
Old-fashioned with a twist of the modern 

The Whisky Odyssey Fèis Ìle 2024 Special
Ardbeg Day: a homage to Ardbeg people

My first introduction to Ardbeg I may well have forgotten, but I will never forget when I was introduced to one of best Ardbeg expressions out there. It was Bert Vuik who handed me a generously poured glass of this 1974 vintage, which incidentally was also my first ever clash with a Samaroli bottled whisky. The location was a whisky festival in a beautiful old church in the Dutch city of Leiden. I tasted the pale nectar on the spot, and fell desperately short to tell Bert what I was experiencing, picking up from it, tasting on my tongue, what the finish was like. My mind was blown. In a sample bottle he gave me a 1972 Brora from the Douglas Laing Platinum Collection. ‘Taste that one at home’, he said with a wink. Now, that was an introduction to the joys of whisky. Experiences with fellow Dutch Whisky Connection hero Michiel Wigman are quite the same. Today, that one Samaroli Ardbeg will conclude our session, while we will kick off with a bottle that actually has Bert’s (and Michiel’s) face on it.

Ardbeg comes from Islay and sometimes Ardbeg gets taken back to the island. You might even think the hit television show Lost was based on this. When my good friends Henk and Helen visited the island way back in 2011, they randomly grabbed me a few festival bottles (those were the days!). Of course, a Caol Ila because I started collecting the Fèis Ìle bottles, and then just what their arms could carry. Among the stash was an Ardbeg 1998 fully matured on PX-casks, famously dubbed “The Bull”. Upon returning to Islay in 2014, I took some leftover sample back for tastings that we would do at the cottage we stayed at. And, when visiting Ardbeg Distillery, I ran into Jackie Thomson. Approaching with a glass, I offered her a sip, and her eyes started to twinkle like stars in the night sky. ‘Is this the Bull?’, she asked, knowing the answer before I could give it. I saw her delight on a new meet with this expression.

We are going to officially end the Fèis Ìle Special today with three fantastic Ardbeg expressions. It is indeed Ardbeg Day, and it feels fitting to pay homage to all these wonderful people surrounding this brand, this iconic Islay malt whisky, that takes some flak for being silly sometimes, but never boring.

A Rare Dram But Extremely Good (A.R.D.B.E.G.) 2009, bottled at 53,3 % abv by Michiel Wigman

Makeup: Matured in an ex-sherry cask. The vintage is July 2009 and 238 bottles were filled 14 years later, in July 2023. The label shows the Giants of Whisky Knowledge, bottler Michiel Wigman himself in the background and Ardbeg-specialist and Japanese whisky connoisseur extraordinaire Bert Vuik. Bottled to commemorate “5 Years Start Of The Dutch Whisky Connection”.

General impressions: Very bright and farmy peatland rising from the glass. The sherry cask gives a hint of earthiness to this Ardbeg, where you can feel the more fruity notes of the distillate trying to emerge. The cask also seems to be giving off the slightest hint of sour cream, but it is mostly the peat smoke that gently presides over all matters in the glass. The taste starts off delicately sweet, before moving on to a more ashy, warming finish

All seems textbook Ardbeg, but with a sharp edge and extreme balance that is rare to find in a single cask. With water more malted influences, which honours the core ingredient. I also get a weird sensation like … smoked glue, or paint? After a good 20 minutes in the glass, we finally get some lemons. Obligatory with Islay malts these days. With a small drop of water, this Ardbeg turns juicy and fruity, with hints of all kinds of berries. But the smoke on the finish leaves no doubt that this is a briny, maritime Islay single malt whisky, in this case made by Ardbeg!

Conclusion: The danger of going back in time to those moments in church where Bert and Michiel let you taste whisky from an almost unholy quality, is that you might think excellent whisky is something from the past. ‘They don’t make it like they used to.’ This Ardbeg proves that sentiment wrong.

Score: 91 points

Ardbeg 1998, Fèis Ìle, bottled for the Fèis Ìle 2011 at 55,1 % abv

Makeup: Matured in just two Pedro Ximénez Sherry Butts and 1200 bottles were filled.

General impressions: “Don’t turn your back on it…” the label reads, so we confront it head-on, this Ardbeg that made Jackie Thomson smile. My last ever 1,5 cl from it? Let’s hope we run into it again, one day somewhere in the future. Beautifully dark in colour, this Ardbeg provides straight away the experience from walking in a damp warehouse, choke-full of all kinds of casks filled with Ardbeg. With my eyes closed I can see former manager Mickey Heads wander between the casks, valinch in head, cracking open whatever comes to mind. A rare 1981 sherried (unpeated) Kildalton expression perhaps? The tropical fruits fill the room.

Not like the Bull in my glass though. That is dark, brooding, full of smoked wood and furniture polish. These PX butts were not the red fruit monsters they are today. The dance between the cask and the peated Ardbeg spirit is a violent tango. When I take a sip, I just don’t want to swallow, so raw and powerful is the mouthfeel. Chocolate, wood, coffee, all with a layer of smoke, and the purest cacao from Latin America on the finish. A hint of mint lingers on. With water some red fruit sweetness does come out to play (nose, taste and finish), but it also releases some farmy notes and dirtiness. You can have it either way, this Ardbeg is just always ready to deliver.

Conclusion: Amazingly straightforward sherried whisky, which in Ardbeg’s case is still not that common. I have to say, from all Islay whisky, I think Ardbeg works perhaps the best with sherry casks. But while writing that, I know at least a handful expressions of any other distillery that could swing with this Bull. So yeah. We are spoiled again and I will just leave you with the score.

Score: 93 points

Ardbeg 1974, bottled at 59 % abv by R. W. Duthie & Co. (RWD) for Samaroli

Makeup: Matured in sherry wood, R.W. Duthie made 2400 bottles for legendary independent Samaroli. Don’t be alarmed, but this is just a 9 year old whisky, bottled in 1983. For reference, I was 2 years old in that year. The vintage is 1974.

General impressions: Duthie was a subsidiary of William Cadenhead’s so we know more or less where the casks came from. Mister Silvano Samaroli had a great nose for picking whisky, and his philosophy that a whisky is at its peak between 18 and 21 years of ageing is still a guideline for me. He probably ignored this Ardbeg 1974, that peaked well enough in less years! Anyway, I have been intimidated by samples before, but now is the time to quite delaying and taste this giant again.

Sweet lord, what a nose. So different to modern day Islay whisky, this is very mineral of quality, with a metallic undertone. Pure grease from the dipstick in the engine of your car. Lots of freshly churned tar. It seems very dry too, after a while I get notes of sundried rope in Port Ellen Harbour. Very maritime. It plays well with the sherry wood indeed, adding complexity beyond reason. Water brings out an ozone note. There is fruit there but I find it difficult to describe. It is all covered in ashes.

The taste is worth its own paragraph. This is incredibly peated, so pure and unbothered, just being pure smoke. Did I mention tv-show Lost before? If the smoke monster was a whisky, it would be this Ardbeg. It is absolutely salty tasting as well. The underlying fruits must be discovered by adding some water. I do pick up some blood orange then, peaches maybe, and … Champagne? I also have to think about taking a paracetamol pain killer, and you fail to swallow straight away, and then it melts on your tongue. This distinct bitterness is palpable on the tongue. Water turns it into a more recognisable whisky for today’s taste buds, some brine, seafood and sweetened wood.

Conclusion: Not a tasting but an experience. What was the PPM on this beast? In any case, this comes close to a perfect whisky, where you don’t think about cask, spirit or age, but just wonder: ‘What a beauty!’ Because truly, I would not immediately guess this was matured in sherry wood. It is just an amazing example of a sum of all parts situation. A must try for every aficionado!

Score: 95 points

Disclaimer: all samples taken from samples shares with friends. With kind regards.

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