Lord of the Isles
By Franz Scheurer
Islay, a small island in the west of Scotland, is a Scottish whisky region. It is home to some of the greatest single malts produced anywhere in the world, and produces whiskies that are so distinctive they are easily recognised by the discerning malt aficionado. They are strong and smoky and as the whole island is covered in a layer of peat that turns the groundwater yellow, intensely peaty.
Distilleries on the island are Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnhabhain, Caol Ila, Lagavulin and Laphroaig, whose names are rapturous music to seasoned single malt drinkers’ ears. Once you have experienced the mouth-filling, palate coating sensation of an Islay whisky and your tastebuds have adjusted to the assault of ‘wet bandages’, iodine, sea salt and peat, it’s hard to go back to the smooth, well-behaved cousins from Speyside. Islay whiskies from the north of the island are milder than the ones from the south, with Bowmore pretty much in the middle of the flavour profile.
Start with a Bruichladdich, a mild malt, sometimes called ‘a beginner’s malt’ and work your way systematically through all the others. It will be a journey of discovery and pleasure.
If I think back to the many drams I’ve tasted over the years it is the Islay whiskies that stand out. I will always remember a Bowmore Seadragon (30 y/o – 43%), a Bunnhabhain 1969 (26 y/o – 52.6%), a Gordon & McPhail Caol Ila 1966 (sherry cask, 15 y/o – 40%), the wonderful, relatively easily obtainable Laphroaig (15 y/o – 43%) and every single Ardbeg I’ve ever tasted.
Ardbeg, a neighbour of Lagavulin and Laphroaig near Port Ellen on the south-eastern tip of the island, produces whiskies with an overwhelming complexity and strength that need some getting used to. Ardbeg’s whiskies, contrary to most, benefit from very long ageing. Established in 1815 at ‘smuggler’s cove’ it belonged to the McDougall family until, in 1977, it was sold to Hiram Walker, who promptly closed it 4 years later. It reopened in 1989 but alas, without the distinctive, malt houses with their ventilator-less pagoda style roofs, which were responsible for exposure to extra smoke during the malting process. Modern expression of Ardbeg certainly taste slightly different but are still ‘in your face’. Glenmorangie bought the distillery in 1997 and injected a lot of money and expertise. The future for Ardbeg looks good, indeed.
Below a list of tasting notes of some of the Ardbeg expression that I particularly like:
Ardbeg 10 y/o
This is the easiest to obtain expression of Ardbeg. Very light in colour, almost translucent it nevertheless packs a punch. Heather, peat, smoked cold-cuts, black rye bread and yet more peat on the nose, it attacks your palate with a rush of iodine and seaweed reminiscent of fresh sea urchins. Quite hot with a long, dry, complex and slightly acidic finish this is a terrific 10 y/o.
Ardbeg Lord of the Isles
25 y/o (minimum), 46%
This really is the child of the beauty and the beast. Incredibly complex, full of layered tastes, this is a very well behaved Ardbeg. It’s as elegant as a Highland Park, as spicy as a Glenturret, as sweet and smooth as a Royal Brackla, as lush as a Longmorn, as dry as an Auchentoshan and as in your face as only an Ardbeg can be. It’s the real fist in the glove. I’d be surprised if many would guess what this was if it were served blind. It’s colour is honey gold and water definitely brings out citrus, floral and spicy notes. The finish is long with a lingering taste of Christmas pudding.
1993 special vatting, 54.2%
This is the brute in the Ardbeg line-up. Definitely not for the beginner. It’s sheer strength and power is astounding. It takes its name from the Loch, which provides the peat-laden water for Ardbeg. A fist without the glove it nevertheless shows raisiny flavours (from the old sherry barrels) and vanillin and coconut from the Bourbon casks. The cask strength gives it texture and mouthfeel and it might take your tongue a little time to recover from the first taste, but I promise you, that if you persist, you’ll be glad you did! What a dram!
Ardbeg 21 years old
From 12 selected casks, 56.3%
With a dusty yellow colour reminiscent of a field of mustard in bloom, the nose promises hazelnuts, marmalade and slightly overdone toast. The nuttiness is confirmed on the palate with delicate shades of rotten grapefruit, not unlike what you would find in an overblown, woody Chardonnay. Heather and kipper envelope the end of the palate and the finish is salty, briny with a touch of antiseptic. This must be my favourite Ardbeg to date and as Jim Murray says: “we all have bad days, weeks, months in our life when we wonder why we were put on this earth, then you open a bottle like this and discover the reason. This is a dram of drams, an inspiration and a reminder that something doesn’t have to be perfect to achieve greatness”.
Ardbeg Committee Reserve
20 y/o (minimum) Bottled in 2002, 53.3%
Very pale straw colour. Nose of salt water, iodine and white pepper, followed through on the palate. On the second sip chocolate and caramel flavours develop, finishing with an almost Vienna coffee like creaminess. Faint aromas of heather and drying grass come out with a little water. Long, powerful finish. This is a classic Islay with chocolate balls.
Bottled in 2003 from 8 selected oloroso casks, 46%
Colour has been described as ‘satisfying gold’ it smells of freshly spun sugar and squashed apple kernels. At once sweet and salty its aromas make you believe that this might be a milder expression until you take your first sip. This is easily the sweetest Ardbeg I’ve ever tasted. Instantly palate coating it has a very distinctive texture, almost like a very old Cognac or Armagnac but never letting go of the peaty, salty, sea flavours with a hint of sugar cane. A touch of acid at first sip converts into an almost Szechwan pepper like ‘prickly’ sensation on your tongue. Its finish is tarry, salty and almost invasively long. This is a dram to enjoy on its own, not in a line up of other whiskies.
Gordon & McPhail, Connoisseurs Choice, bottled in 2003, 43%
A lot darker than usual, this jarrah-coloured dram surprises with an aroma of maple syrup and freshly baked shortbread… served in a hospital. It’s mouth filling and slightly oily but the initial sweetness persists with orangey and fig undertones, with a long and lingering finish of salty vanilla and maltose-coated oysters.
I find it absolutely amazing that such an incredible variety of expressions all come out of one distillery. There is an Ardbeg for every mood and occasion.
None of the Ardbeg whiskies are chill-filtered, which, in my opinion makes a huge difference to the flavour and I happily cope with a little cloudiness if you add cold water. It is worthwhile to taste the whiskies first neat, then with a little water added to appreciate the difference. Sometimes water can bring out flavours that are not recognisable otherwise. Adding water is called ‘releasing the serpent’ in Scotland and its rights or wrongs are the basis of many a nightlong debate over many a dram.
I suggest you go and get yourself a dram and
May the best you’ve ever seen
Be the worst ye’ll ever see;
May a moose ne’er leave yer girnal
Wi’ a tear drop in his ee
May ye aye keep hale and he’erty
Till ye’re auld enough tae dee,
May ye aye be juist as happy
As I wish ye aye tae be