The following originally appeared on Guid Scotch Drink December 18-21, 2012:
On Friday, December 7, 2012 I hosted a very special Ardbeg tasting in Moscow, Idaho in the United States' Inland Northwest. The tasting was entitled, "Ardbeg from the Ashes," and we had the pleasure of tasting Very Young, Still Young, Almost There, and Renaissance.
Established in 1815, Ardbeg enjoyed over one hundred and fifty years of success before falling into disrepair during the 1980s and 1990s. After being purchased by Glenmorangie Plc in February of 1997, Jackie and Stuart Thomson were charged with rejuvenating the dilapidated distillery. New make spirit ran on June 20, 1997, and the distillery was reborn.
Ardbeg Very Young, 58.3% Alc.
Distilled in 1998 and bottled in December of 2004 (bottle code L4 351), Ardbeg Very Young was matured in first fill bourbon barrels and bottled at 58.3% Alc. The goal was to show a developing distillery that was on its way back to relevancy (little did they know the cult following that was about to befall them!). Originally released for £25 (approx. $46 in 2004) this collector's bottle cost $535 in November of 2012.
C: 10 carat gold
N: Briny with monkey nuts, bananas foster, toasted marshmallow, and raspberries, but there's also Pine Sol and a bit of acidity on the end of the nose
P: Drying with pine needles, pine tree sap, sage, pencil shavings, and white chocolate on the end
F: Long (despite the youth) with bitter chocolate, cocoa, and licorice
In conclusion: Obviously young but already showing the future Ardbeg house style with monkey nuts and white chocolate.
Ardbeg Still Young, 56.2% Alc.
Distilled in 1998 and bottled in 2006, Ardbeg Still Young was matured in first fill bourbon barrels and bottled at 56.2% Alc. Originally released for £30 (approx. $54 in 2006) this collector's bottle cost $120 in November of 2012. Incidentally, in September of 2009 I picked up several bottles of Still Young at the distillery shop for £35. Oh, how naive I was!
C: 10 carat gold
N: Classic young peat nose (sour milk, ashtray) but with some creamy (salted caramel, crème brûlée) and fruity (banana Laffy Taffy) counter balance, old coffee grounds
P: Like licking stamps but with shredded wheat, flaky salt, and peanut M&M's
F: Long with lemon zest, leather, light ash, light spice, and dark chocolate
In conclusion: Coming from the Very Young the salt is beginning to build and is now extending through the palate. Certainly different from its younger sister.
Ardbeg Almost There, 54.1% Alc.
Distilled in 1998 and bottled in 2007, Ardbeg Almost There was, like the two releases that preceded it, matured in first fill bourbon barrels but was released at the lowest Alc. level of the three: a mere 54.1%! Originally released for £33 (approx. $66 in 2007) this collector's bottle cost $170 in November of 2012. I tried this at The Canny Man in Edinburgh in 2009 and was bitterly disappointed by it. In hindsight, however, it may have been the particular bottle I sampled rather than the release as a whole.
C: 10 carat gold
N: From floral (violets) to sweet (kettle corn and cream soda), meaty (SPAM) to fatty (white chocolate), and all the way to "imitation grape flavoring in the way back," this nose really kept us guessing
P: Then, all at once, it became much more focused across the palate as evinced by cedar, pepper, campfire ash, antiseptic, chipotle peppers, and dark chocolate, with yoghurt covered raisins thrown in for good measure
F: Shorter than the younger two with a "fade to black," milk chocolate, and a hint of cherries jubilee
In conclusion: While it's interesting that the color didn't change from the 2004 release to the 2007 (we had a goldsmith in the room confirming 10 carat gold color from sample to sample) the maturing stock has definitely become more salty and more briny and is beginning to present the scents and flavors we've now come to associate with Ardbeg (white chocolate, chipotle peppers, and campfire ash).
Ardbeg Renaissance, 55.9%
Distilled in 1998 and bottled in 2008, Ardbeg Renaissance signified the celebrated return of Ardbeg as a 10 Year Old offering. Matured in first fill bourbon barrels, just like the three that preceded it, Renaissance was bottled at 55.9% Alc. Originally released for £41 (approx. $78 in 2008) this collector's bottle cost $170 in November of 2012.
C: 10 carat gold
N: Butterscotch on the cold nose but warming to vanilla, pears, figs, and dates, chocolate orange and light brown sugar, fresh sweet pipe tobacco, wet straw
P: Salty with chocolate coated coffee beans but also french toast lightly dusted with powdered sugar
F: Espresso, spent cigarette, salted nuts, more buttery than the younger versions
In conclusion: And so the journey is complete and Ardbeg has arisen from the ashes. As a chap who's partial to very young, highly alcoholic Ardbeg my favorite of the four remains Very Young. What was surprising to me on the night, though, was just how different each of the young releases are from one another. It reminded me of a tasting from exactly three years ago with a lineup of four Lagavulin 12 Year Olds where each of the four releases were remarkably different from one another. It's really wonderful being a thoroughgoing whisky geek and having the opportunity to taste releases like these side by side.
Sincere thanks to the Single Malt Whisky Society of the Palouse for allowing me to arrange such a meeting!
Be sure to check out Tim's amazing Ardbeg Project for a detailed timeline and many, many other Ardbeg details.