Last week we kicked off our Peat Month with a single cask Springbank that was lightly peated using Islay peat. Today we’re going to jump head first into the peat bog with one of the core releases from Ardbeg. Ardbeg is located on the southern coast of the island of Islay a short walk down the road from Laphroaig and Lagavulin, which coincidentally all began commercial production around 1815. All three distilleries feature well-peated single malts, yet despite their proximity, they might as well be from different islands. While Lagavulin tends to focus on smooth, balanced whisky with an understated maritime and peat smoke influence, Laphroaig and Ardbeg give you the full bore peat smoke and oceanside experience. We would argue that Ardbeg is the most medicinal and herbal of the three.
To match this hearty, smoke fueled flavor, Ardbeg features dark, mysterious, and often whimsical branding. One special bottling, Supernova, was purported to contain drops from a batch of whisky that was sent to the International Space Station (ISS). Recently, L. had a chance to talk to the former distillery manager at Ardbeg and can confirm that, at the very least, actual whisky was shipped to the ISS. We had a chance to visit Ardbeg during our 2016 trip for lunch in their restaurant and the distillery provided an engaging mix of experimentation and unabashed confidence in the boldness of product. Peated to a level of around 40ppm, Ardbeg 10, the flagship expression, is a glassful of Islay, and the company makes no attempts to mellow the experience.
In addition to the 10, Ardbeg has an ever increasing range of core expressions, including several no age statement varieties. Such bottlings allow the company to produce a wider variety and quantity while using younger whisky. Ardbeg seems to favor more experimental varieties aged in different combinations of casks over the usual age range. As we have mentioned before, age is no guarantee of quality with a whisky, and with Islay style whiskies younger can often be better.
The first thing to note about Corryvreckan is that it is bottled at cask strength, or 57% ABV. From what we could find, Ardbeg creates Corryvreckan by taking flagship Ardbeg 10 and combining it with whisky aged in fresh French oak. Corryvreckan is the mythological name for an actual whirlpool that exists near Islay. The packaging is full of over-the-top lore relating to the whirlpool, and the whisky exudes intrigue even before it has reached the glass.
On the Eyes: Corryvreckan pours a warm honey color and has a rich texture leaving long lasting legs in the glass.
On the Nose: The first impression was straight from the harbor, a combination of sea salt peat reek, oil, and moss. Beneath the maritime layer, however there was a strong undercurrent of cloves and cinnamon. With a few drops of water, cinnamon dominates and the grassy peat aroma vanished, with butterscotch and olive oil competing for attention.
To the Taste: Corryvreckan is a full tour of flavor. At first we picked up a combination of charred oak and bitter flavors that evoked a random image of dandelion greens grilled on a wood plank. Immediately after the oak phase, we were met with a wave of cinnamon and sugar. With water, the flavor became much sweeter: a mix of hard cinnamon candies and a lemon zest.
And the Finish: The finish brought back echoes of oily, medicinal peat balanced with lingering sweetness and baking spice. With water, the finish was very similar minus the peat.
In recent years, we have observed several distilleries incorporating Celtic or Viking lore into their branding to build a certain aesthetic that might not match the product in the bottle. In this case, Ardbeg has chosen a very apropos title for the whisky. A dram of Corryvreckan is like being in a whirlpool, with flavors and aromas mixing and changing constantly. We’ve had this whisky several times and no two glasses have been alike. With so many flavor involved, one might expect the dram to come across as chaotic, like someone randomly banging on piano keys. Instead, it is as if those random notes somehow always form a balanced, peat laden chord. The mix of the classic Ardbeg peat flavor with the spices and sugars from the French oak create a dram that is incredibly complex and drinkable at cask strength.