Go ahead, say that out loud a couple of times…..Ardbeg….Ardbeg…..
Ardbeg is a name that just conjures up images of a rugged, remote and ancient Scottish whisky distillery….unless you’re confused and think this is “National Talk Like a Pirate Day”.…Arrrrrrd, Beg! Oh, nevermind! 😉
Anyway, for the many fans of powerful Islay single malt whiskies, the name Ardbeg also evokes all of the island’s beauty, the intense and demanding flavors, and the uncompromisingly brawny peatiness that so many Peat Heads around the world appreciate and desire.
Before we dive in to this whisky, though, let’s start by going back to the beginning for a quick bit of the history of this Islay distillery. Located along the southern coast of the island of Islay, one of the Inner Hebrides islands off the west coast of Scotland, the Ardbeg distillery has a long history (well documented on the Ardbeg Project site – click here) that starts in 1798 when Duncan McDougall rents the farms of Ardbeg, Airigh Nam Beist and Ardenistiel along with half of the Lagavulin farm.
In 1815, McDougall & Co (Duncan, along with sons John and Alexander) opens the Ardbeg Distillery. Duncan McDougall dies in 1835 and son John takes over the farms, while his brother Alexander assumes responsibility for the distillery. After a series of insolvencies, restructurings and partnership changes that occurred during the period from 1837 to 1855, John Ramsay ultimately became the owner and landlord of the farms and the Ardbeg distillery. According to available accounts, Ramsay was a good landlord, setting up long-term leases and ensuring water rights were properly secured. By the time of his death, in 1892, Ramsay had become owner of Laphroaig, Lagavulin and the Ardenistiel distilleries to go along with Ardbeg.
Like many distilleries, Ardbeg has had some rocky patches. It was closed from 1932-1935 due to the Great Depression and Prohibition in the US. Restarted in 1935, the distillery managed to survive until March 25, 1981, when it was closed again. It remained closed until 1989, when it re-opened, but sadly, during the period from 1989-1996, production ran only 2 months a year until it was closed once more by then-owner Allied-Domecq.
Fortunately, the last closing was of short-duration as the distillery was acquired in 1997 by Glenmorangie, PLC, who quickly restarted production and also undertook a number of expansion and enhancement projects, including the opening of a café and visitor center in 1998.
Since Glenmorangie became owner, and operating under the watchful eye of Dr. Bill Lumsden, (see an online interview here) Ardbeg has issued a vast number of single cask and Vintage releases, as well as an exhaustively numerous range of NAS bottlings (Provenance, Still Young, Almost There, Renaissance, Blasda, Rollercoaster, Alligator, Ardbog, Airigh Nam Beist…and the list goes on!). The only standard” age-stated release issued by Ardbed is the 10 year-old,which first became available in February 2000.
Getting off-track for a moment, and going back to a topic I first raised in my review of Glenmorangie Tusail (here)…..Glenmorangie has established an almost comical – and in some ways insulting – reliance on NAS (No Age Statement) whiskies. Like its sister distillery, Ardbeg has become almost synonymous in the whisky world for NAS releases, however Ardbeg has perhaps even eclipsed Glenmorangie because not only are they releasing these NAS bottlings, but they do so with extraordinary marketing concepts so chock full of overly contrived, sometimes bizarre, and increasingly far-fetched schemes that they almost defy belief…can you say Ardbeg in Space???
Okay, so getting even a little further off-track, Ardbeg in Space is the “story” of Ardbeg’s participation in an experiment that consisted of sending vials of their new-make distillate to the International Space Station in 2012 where it remained until returning to earth in 2014. The objective was to test some of the organic compounds (terpenes) commonly found in whisky, evaluating and comparing the interaction of these compounds and the charred oak used in whisky barrels in both normal gravity on Earth and “micro-gravity” on the Space Station.
As shown in the image at right, this whole Ardbeg in Space experiment was then leveraged into the back story of their 2014 Galileo release.
At the same time, despite the growing grumbling within certain factions of the whisky community, these Ardbeg releases are eagerly anticipated and often sell out in a matter of hours after their official release. What is sad, and frustrating about this is that far too many purchases of these latest releases are by buyers whose intent is solely to quickly flip the bottle for a profit. It is amazing that these bottles will show up on various whisky auction sites the very same day they become available, often at ridiculously inflated prices. So the market demand is not necessarily for the quality of the whisky, or for the enjoyment of drinking what may or may not be a good whisky, but simply for the potential quick buck that might be had, sold by “get rich quick” investors who do nothing for the market except act like those despised, computerized event ticket brokers who buy up all the tickets to a concert and then resell them for a profit.
To me, both the ticket brokers and these buy-sell flip artists are a similar type of leprous, degenerate, inbred, motherless, half-witted, despicable scum balls. All theses unscrupulous worms do is contribute to unrealistic and ridiculous price levels.
Which raises another question…..should lynching still be outlawed?
Well, that is another topic for another day!
Geez, now I’ve raised my own blood pressure! Take a couple of deep breaths!
Okay, I’m better. Let’s get back to the reason we’re here, Ardbeg’s Corryvreckan, that should help.
According to the Ardbeg marketing hype, “Corryvreckan takes its name from the famous whirlpool that lies to the north of Islay, where only the bravest souls dare to venture. Swirling aromas and torrents of deep, peaty, peppery taste lurk beneath the surface of this beautifully balanced dram. Like the whirlpool itself, Corryvreckan is not for the faint-hearted!”
Strategically, in the grand scheme of all things Ardbeg, Corryvreckan replaced Airigh Nam Beist, which was released from 2006 to 2008. And despite Ardbeg’s initial description of Corryvreckan as a Limited Release, (don’t get me started on that!) this whisky has been readily available ever since it first hit the shelves in 2009. In fact, the 2011 release of Corryvreckan, which we are reviewing here was 5,000 bottles. Not exactly exclusive, but I guess it qualifies as a finite amount……so….Limited.
Oh, wait, before we continue, I have one more quick little bit of whisky-geekery. Note the strength of this whisky: it is bottled at 57.1% abv. Now 57.1%, in the spirits world, is not just some arbitrary number or a a fluke cask strength – 57.1% abv is equivalent to the old 100 British proof. The old British proof standard was 7/4 the abv rate,which differed from the US proof which was simply double the abv percentage. Nowadays, the UK and US use the same proof/abv percentage standard.
Now, of course you all know that the minimum abv standard for whisky is 40% abv, right? and that below 40% abv it cannot be classified as whisky – right? So why bring this up? Well, on occasion you might see an older whisky bottle that says 70 proof. If you applied the current standard proof definition, you might conclude that the abv of this bottle was 35% (1/2 of 70 proof), which would mean that it would not qualify as whisky because it was under the minimum 40%. However, the day is saved because with your new-found knowledge, you would know that this bottle was defined under the old British proof standard, and that by applying the 7/4 calculation, 70 proof equates to 40% abv, so this 70 proof bottling still meets the definition of whisky!
Okay, I’m done! No more math!! No more divergences! No more rants! On to the review!
Review: Ardbeg Corryvreckan, Single Malt Scotch Whisky
The bottle of Ardbeg Corryvreckan that I am reviewing today has the bottle stamp L11 157 12:15, meaning it was bottled in 2011 (L11), on June 7 (157 days) at 12:15. As to what is in the whisky, Corryvreckan is a vatting of whiskies matured in French Oak, first-fill and refill ex-Bourbon casks, bottled, as noted above, at 57.1% abv.
Color: pale gold with slight orange tint.
Nose: You are greeted first by a beautiful smokiness, burning grass or distant campfire, but as you dig deeper there is a rich fruitiness, a delicate vanilla, some brine, a bit medicinal, Werther’s toffee candies, a dry earthiness, fresh oak, some soft floral and herbal spice notes, damp rope, and more campfire smoke. After a few minutes there is some tar, more smoke, salted fish. Water brings out slightly more of the earthy peatiness and the fruits pick up, but this remains a sweet and smoky nose tempered by the soft herbal spices….it is a really nice nose if you’re a fan of Islay whiskies, full of peat, smoke, and the elements.
Taste: Sweet lemony-vanilla on the initial arrival. Hints of orchard fruits, maybe a bit of banana. More lemon, salty, spiced, smoked and salted fish, an elegant sootiness. Big and aggressive. Water soothes the savage beast a bit. The vanilla is richer, sweeter and more pronounced, the lemon toned down. Ripe orchard fruits, lemon, salty, some BBQ sauce – spiced and sweet, and then the drying ashiness. With a few more minutes the sweetness grows even more.
Finish: Ashy and sweet vanilla, smoky and fruity, ashy/sooty and drying. Quite long.
Overall: This one is sweet and spiced, fruity and smoky, youthful, aggressive, and evocative. This is unmistakably Islay. Now I admit that as a relative late-comer to Scotch, I have not tasted any Ardbegs of the 1970’s, an era in which, by many accounts, some of the greatest Ardbeg whiskies were produced, but I have tried a number of “recent” Ardbegs, both age-stated and NAS, including Supernova 2010, Ardbog, Auriverdes, Alligator, the Feis Ile 2011 release, Galileo, and a few releases of Uigeadail. While I love the Uigie, and several others have been good, there is something about Corryvreckan that hits the sweet spot for me. The Uigie presents more sherry influence, and I do love me a good sherried-peater, but the Corry’s crispness, its fresh fruit, herbal spice and vanilla sweetness commingled with the smoky, salty, peaty notes is just on the mark for me.
Now, the other question…..does this whisky justify a price point that is basically double the price of the Ardbeg 10 yo when we don’t know the age of the whiskies the make up Corryvreckan? This is a very good whisky, possibly my favorite between this one, the standard 10 yo and the Uigeadail, but I’m not certain it is worth twice the cost of the 10 yo or 30% more than the Uigeadail. And furthermore, this one has helped set the stage for the ever-rising prices of the Ardbeg annual release NAS whiskies. The 2015 release, Perpetuum, which is released to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the distillery is reportedly going to have a retail list price of $105.
As for Corryvreckan, this whisky gets a fairly high rating from me because I like it, but please understand that this is a price-exclusive conclusion. If I were to choose based on cost, the 10 year-old is a far better value, and a very good whisky, to boot.
Type: Single Malt
Maturation: French Oak, first-fill and refill ex-Bourbon
Price: Approximately $90 (Specs, locally)
Availability: Readily Available
Sample Source: My own bottle