(This distillery feature was written by Toronto Whisky Society member Stephen Sheps. Thanks to him once again for letting us publish his experiences on Islay!)
Day 2 of my trip to Islay was a memorable one to say the least – while nothing could top the stunning high of our visit to Bruichladdich the previous afternoon (saving the best for the last review), we knew that the Port Ellen side of the island would treat us well. We visited all 3 active distilleries, though only 1 was a scheduled tour/tasting, and took advantage of the lovely walking trail that connects all three distilleries. We started with a dram in the shop at the stunning Laphroaig distillery, which might have the prettiest grounds on the island, followed by a thoroughly disappointing pop-in to Lagavulin and then ended the day with an Ardbeg visit that simply demolished all of our expectations. In the interest of keeping this recap as an organized monstrosity, all the reviews will be included at the end.
Expectations were relatively low going into Laphroaig for both my brother and our friend. For whatever reason it’s just not a distillery either have spent too much time with. However I love the Quarter Cask, have had a couple stunners from the Cairdeas line over the years and went in with very high expectations. That said, none of us were prepared for how pretty the distillery grounds were. Once we saw the incredible bay beside the distillery visitor’s centre, we all began to realize that Laphroaig might actually be under-rated despite its history and its reputation. Many photos were taken, and for good reason. Needless to say we all walked away happy.
We wandered into the Laphroaig lounge and were greeted by a very friendly bartender who poured each of us a dram of the distillery exclusive Cairdeas 15 Year, on the house. While a little bit under proof (only 43%), it was a perfect breakfast dram. From there she let us try small tastes of essentially anything we wanted at no cost before we all settled in for a real dram. Our friend settled on the Lore, while my brother and I each had the recently released 10CS batch 11. I ordered it due to price (£6); my brother tried a different Cairdeas (don’t remember which one) but having had a sip of mine realized that it was exactly what he wanted as well. I was sad I didn’t have any more room in the budget (or my luggage) for a bottle to bring home, but holy crap was I impressed. After hanging out in the lounge for a bit longer than we planned, we realized we would barely have time to walk to Lagavulin, have a dram and then get to Ardbeg with enough time for lunch before our tour.
The walk between the distilleries was perhaps the best part of the journey to Lagavulin. The path was stunning, the rolling hills, the gnarled trees, the sea. It was perfect. The distillery experience itself was… well, not. We found it to be a classic Diageo experience; disengaged staff, very corporate feeling (though quite pretty) and the most disappointing of all the whiskies we tried. My brother genuinely couldn’t care less about Lag and didn’t have a dram of his own. while our friend opted for the distillery exclusive 19 and I ended up trying the Offerman Edition because it was only £5. Not gonna lie, the Offerman was the superior dram. All three of us had tastes of both and all agreed that the 19 was a hot mess, totally unbalanced and not worth the price of the dram or the bottle. The Offerman however was a well composed and perfectly ok ex-Bourbon Islay, but really neither were all that great.
Upon finishing our Glencairns of disappointment, we got back on the path towards Ardbeg. My brother cleverly called the distillery to pre-order our lunches from the Old Kiln Cafe (I had the salmon plate – it was delicious), which bought us a bit more time to relax on the walk and really enjoy the scenery. Many fields of sheep were passed, and then suddenly from nowhere, a small herd of Deer emerged from the trees, looking as majestic as one would expect. We took this as a sign that something great was about to happen, and it did.
Our tour at Ardbeg was the Ardbig tour, but this iteration of the Ardbig was going to be a little different. Over the last few years, we’ve cultivated a pretty good relationship with the Ardbeg folks and Jackie, the visitor centre manager/committee bottle release gatekeeper, decided to lead our tour herself. Often the Ardbig tour has a bunch of old classics with age statement and then you finish up in warehouse 3 with the chance to try a few of the more rare committee releases, but thanks to my brother, all those who signed up for this Ardbig had a very special lineup. Rather than a couple age stated expressions and several NAS vatted malts, we tried the 23, the new 19 and then 4 single cask samples – a 10 year fresh Bourbon, a 14 year first-fill Oloroso, a 16 year first-fill Manzanilla and mostly due to my own inadvertent look behind the table where I discovered another duty-paid sample bottle labelled NFO, a 14 year New French Oak. I really only wanted to know what NFO stood for, my intent was to actually ask Jackie if we could try the Supernova from the giant bottle sitting at the table. In the end, Jackie decided that the NFO would be a bonus dram.
Ok, so now that you’ve made it this far, it’s probably time to review some scotch, right? Ok. here we go.
Laphroaig 10 Cask Strength Batch #11, 58.6% ABV, ex-Bourbon
Nose: Pine forest, moss, sea salt, mint, heather, rosemary.
Mouthfeel : Viscous, medium bodied.
Taste: Burning embers, peat smoke, burnt toffee, cedar plank grilled salmon though more the cedar plank than the salmon.
Finish: Campfire coals, salted caramel, smoke. Lingers for a long time.
Overall: If a cask strength peat monster could be a daily dram (and for some, I’m sure it is), it should be this.
Lagavulin 11 Offerman Edition, 46% ABV, & Lagavulin 19 Year Old Feis Ile 2019 Release, 53.8% ABV
No detailed notes were taken. None were necessary. I rated the 19 a 76 and the Offerman a 79.
Ardbeg TwentySomething 23 Year Old, 46.3% ABV
The stocks used for this release are listed as being distilled between 1994-2017 – in other words, it’s old Ardbeg, using stock from the Allied Distillers days. The final vatting is a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-Oloroso barrels, but the mix is closer to 70% sherry. The Uigeadail uses a similar ratio now, though the stocks used for the Oogie range from 10-12 years.
N: Vanilla, mint, toffee, cereal, macadamia nuts, peat smoke.
M: Thick, chewy.
T: Vanilla, bourbon, toffee, grilled pork, embers, a hint of melon, tobacco.
F: Smoke, ash, Werthers Original hard candy. It’s dry, lingering and very complex. More peat notes than I normally taste from something this old.
Note: Water makes this dram better, not something I often say about something at this proof. It doesn’t tame it so much as makes the best notes even more pronounced and tasty.
Overall: A very good start to the tour, but I’m not convinced it’s even close to worth the MSRP.
Ardbeg Traigh Bhan 19 Year Old, 46.2% ABV
Also a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-Oloroso, but leaning towards bourbon. This is composed of newer Ardbeg stocks.
N: Oh, this is a weird one for an Ardbeg! Fresh cut grass, vanilla, tangerine, milk chocolate.
M: Creamy, lactic, a bit thin.
T: Hot cocoa, melon, grilled pineapple, peat, smoked paprika.
F: Short, sweet, less smoky than expected.
Note: Water turns it into a pineapple bomb the way I think people expected drum to taste. The fruit juice and smoke becomes much more pronounced and the finish lasts longer.
Overall: The trouble with this one is that it’s quite tasty and unique for an Ardbeg, the age statement is enticing as well, and I really liked the fruit and peat combo. It totally works! And yet it also isn’t good enough for the price they ask (£169). It’s delicious, but it’s not $320CAD or so good. The price of a regular committee bottle at MSRP (£90)? Hell yes. That said, I’m really glad I tried it.
Ok, now on to the crazy stuff.
Ardbeg 10 Year 2009 First Fill Bourbon, 57.9% ABV
The Ardbeg 10 is a core staple. If you like peat and don’t want to spend a ton of money on a bottle for your collection, the obvious choice is the Ardbeg 10. The vatting is composed of a mix of 50% refill bourbon and 50% first fill bourbon. This was a sample from a first fill barrel – essentially the purest expression possible of Ardbeg 10 – like a Laphroaig 10CS, Ardbeg style.
N: Vanilla bomb! So much vanilla, along with cinnamon, a gentle whiff of peat and fresh cut grass.
M: Oily, coating, lactic.
T: Vanilla bean ice cream, cocoa nibs, oak, sweet cherry.
F: Classic Ardbeg – smouldering ash and embers, tannic, astringent, long.
Overall: This is everything I hoped it would be, showing exactly what an ex-bourbon Ardbeg is capable of delivering.
Ardbeg 14 Year 2005 First Fill Oloroso, 56.7% ABV
This is a remnant of a previous batch of Oloroso barrels used for the Uigeadail, which according to Jackie is ~11-12 years old normally. Anyhoo, I’ve been on an Oloroso kick lately, so when I discovered we would be trying this one… well… expectations were sky high.
N: Raisins, dark chocolate, orange, brown butter in cast iron, sticky maple syrup, no peat at all.
M: Molasses, tar. Extremely thick.
T: Syrup, Orange, honey/maple roasted pecans, Oloroso funk, cherries, peat
F: Ash, chill chocolate, smouldering peat. Long.
Overall: Best Ardbeg Ever.
Ardbeg 16 Year 2003 First Fill Manzanilla, 50.5% abv
After trying and falling in love with the Bunnahabhain Manzanilla cask the day before, but having also just tried literally the best Ardbeg ever, I wasn’t sure how I’d react to this one. That said, I’ve had the delicious Ardbog, which is where this barrel came from – it was one of the Manzanillas from 2003 that they ended up not needing (or decided to keep for themselves rather than include in the Ardbog committee release, perhaps because it was too good to share?)
N: Raspberries in cream, salt, milk chocolate, orange, X-Mas cake.
M: Creamy, full, luxurious.
T: Strawberry white chocolate cheesecake, mellow peat, oak, very round tannins.
F: medium length, wisps of peat, dry sweetness.
It’s weird, I could go either way between these two Ardbeg sherry bombs. Makes me wish they’d actually release things like this from time to time – yes I know I just complained about how overpriced the 19 and 23 are, but I’d spend 23 money on a bottle of either of these and not even flinch. They were both exquisite drams. I give the edge to the Oloroso because the Manzanilla might have been just a bit too much of a dessert dram, but I am blown away.
Ardbeg 14 Year 2005 New French Oak, 53.5% abv
As this was the final dram of the day and Jackie had to close up the warehouse, my notes are almost non-existent. However I can tell you that this was a remnant from a batch used for the Corryvreckan that got approximately 3 extra years to age. It was the strongest in terms of kick-in-the-face peat, and I wrote down 89 in my whisky journal.
And thus ends my second trip to Islay, but not my review series. The next post will be about a trip to Bruichladdich that was so unique and special that I’m still not over it. Stay tuned.