Sunday, May 31, 2015

Ardbeg, Blasda vs. 10 year

Blasda: single malt Scotch, Islay, 40%, $105 (typical 750 ml price, 50 ml pictured)
10 year: single malt Scotch, Islay, 46%, $47 (typical 750 ml price, 50 ml pictured)

I recently proclaimed that I would begin writing shorter, less research-intensive pieces in order to post more frequently. And then I failed miserably at that resolution with my last effort. Let’s try this again. I also mentioned in that most recent post that it was time to open the last of the bottles that I had brought back from Scotland. That statement was actually in reference to the Bruichladdich bottles covered therein as well as a set of miniatures I picked up at Ardbeg featuring the 10 year and their Blasda bottling.

Before the modern resurgence of Islay as Scotland’s most highly regarded distilling region, Ardbeg, much like Bruichladdich, nearly went the way of Port Ellen which was permanently decommissioned in 1983. Thankfully Ardbeg was rescued from the edge of extinction, as was Bruichladdich, but there were some differences in the circumstances of their respective reprieves.

Ardbeg is located on the island’s south shore, near the village of Port Ellen and along the same stretch of road as its neighbors Lagavulin and Laphroaig, which are 1 mile and 2 miles away, respectively. The distillery was officially licensed in 1815, but it may have been operating as an illicit farm distillery as far back as 1794. In spite of being bought and sold a few times, Ardbeg remained in private ownership for almost 160 years, and with the exception of 1932-1935 appears to have produced whisky continuously during that period. In 1973 the distillery was purchased jointly by Hiram Walker and DCL, with Hiram Walker taking full control in 1977. Four years later, in March 1981, the distillery was mothballed.

In 1987 Hiram Walker was taken over by Allied Lyons (which became Allied Domecq after a 1994 merger, and was then acquired by Pernod Ricard in 2005). Ardbeg was restarted by Allied in 1989, but production was limited to just two months each year. Allied also owned Laphroaig at the time and with that brand being promoted heavily as a single malt, Ardbeg was viewed as an alternate source of peated malt whisky that could satisfy the demands of the blenders. This period of production was only to last seven years though, with Allied closing the distillery and putting it up for sale in 1996.

Fortunately, true salvation for Ardbeg came quickly in the form of a sale (for £7 million) to Glenmorangie PLC early in 1997 and the distillery was operating again after a production gap that lasted just over a year. Glenmorangie (which was acquired by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy in 2004) had the resources to invest in much needed upgrades at the distillery. The aging stock of whisky in the warehouses was Ardbeg’s biggest asset to its new owner, just as the case would be at Bruichladdich when it was sold four years later. In both instances there were some incredible casks from the 1960’s and 1970’s. But where Bruichladdich was restarted after being out of production for seven and a half years (late 93 through mid 01) and had a six year gap in existing stocks (78 through 83), Ardbeg was restarted with a one year gap (mid 96 through mid 97) preceded by seven years of limited production (mid 89 through mid 96) and eight years of non-production before that (mid 81 through mid 89).

Ardbeg had been bottled as a single malt at least as far back as the mid 1960’s and the 10 year old seems to have been the most commonly available age but I’ve seen examples of 12 year and 15 year olds that pre-date 1997. When the new owners bought the place, there was nothing in the warehouses that was 10 years old, but they did have different styles of whisky produced during different time periods.

The whisky from the 60’s and early 70’s was produced in the old school way. Ardbeg’s floor maltings were still in use back then and the malt was dried with local peat composed of older layers of the organic material dug from deep in the ground. This produced spirit with a heavy, oily quality and a tarry, espresso like character. Ardbeg began buying malted barley from Port Ellen Maltings (which would have been dried with younger peat) as early as 1975, but they transitioned away from their floor malting rather slowly, using them for the last time in 1980. The spirit distilled from 89 to 96 was still quite fruity, but was entered into heavily used casks, some being filled for the fourth or fifth time. This is often seen as a detriment, but it can result in lovely whiskies at much older ages. Since production was restarted in 1997, more aggressive yeast strains and shorter fermentation times have changed the character of the whisky. Fresh bourbon barrels are now commonly employed and the peat level has been increased slightly.

Everything that was bottled for the first three years under the new regime was either a vintage dated expression from the 70’s, or the highly regarded 17 year old that came from distillate produced in 1980 and 1981. The 17 year was actually bottled until late 2004, and even though the whisky in the bottle became progressively older, the age statement remained the same to at least give the appearance of consistency. A 10 year old was released in 2000, becoming Ardbeg’s new flagship bottling. In 2008, the 10 year transitioned from Allied produced spirit to that made under Glenmorangie’s ownership. Other than the 17 year, which was bottled at 40% abv, Ardbeg’s new leaders had also move away from chill filtering.

When Ardbeg’s Old Kiln Café and new visitor center opened in 1998, they helped make the distillery an important destination for whisky tourists. In 2000 the Ardbeg Committee was officially formed. This fan club, which is similar to the Friends of Laphroaig, gives members exclusive access to very limited release bottlings. The more popular ones often go on to become regular distillery releases. While most of the vintage releases from the 1970’s had dried up by 2004, Ardbeg successfully transitioned to a series of non age-stated, cask strength bottlings that have proven to be quite popular. Expressions such as Uigeadail, Airigh Nam Beist and Corryvreckan have taken Ardbeg from strength to strength.

While Ardbeg is known as a peat monster, there have been some variations in, and even exceptions to, its peat level. As I mentioned above, the peat character was different in the floor malting days. Even though the peat level was high, it was probably inconsistent as that’s part of the nature of floor malting. From 1979 through 1996 the malt bought from Port Ellen was peated to 42 ppm. When production restarted in 1997, the peat level was raised to 55 ppm. A few batches of lightly peated (no ppm numbers available) Ardbeg were distilled in 1980 and 1981. They were bottled 24 years later under the Kildalton title, at cask strength. I had the pleasure of tasting one of them when visiting the distillery. Occasional runs of lightly peated spirit have been produced in the modern era as well; I’ve read that they were done in the late 90’s, 2002 and 2005. I suspect that pattern has continued. Appearantly they took the peat levels in the other direction too, as evidenced by the 2009 release of Supernova which was peated to at least 100 ppm.

In 2008 Ardbeg released the lightly peated Blasda. It was a limited release of several thousand bottles that was supposed to be available for about three years, but it seems to have lasted a bit longer. This was a fairly polarizing whisky; some people really liked it but others were unhappy about the fact that it was chill-filtered and bottled at 40%, on top of being non age-stated. It was somewhat expensive, but I think they hoped it would be viewed as a cheaper version of Kildalton (It was selling for $75 at the distillery in 2012, but the price listed above was the average going rate in the U.S. as far as I can tell).

As a non age-stated whisky, I’m guessing that it’s a vatting of a few different vintages. It could be a vatting of different peat levels as well. And this is where things get a little confusing. The ppm numbers (parts per million phenols) usually refer to the malted barley. Once in a while a producer will refer to the ppm level of the new make spirit. After mashing, fermenting and distilling, the ppm number typically drops by more than 50%. As the whisky ages that number comes down even more each year and on rare occasion the ppm figure is given for the finished product. Unfortunately, these numbers are often stated without reference to which part of the process they come from.

If you look at the page on Ardbeg’s website that describes Blasda, they note that it is at 8 ppm, compared to the usual 24 ppm. Wait! I thought most of their malt was peated to 55 ppm? Checking a trusted reference I see that Ardbeg’s new make spirit has a peat level of 24 – 26 ppm (and it was 16 – 17 ppm when the malt was peated to 42 ppm). That would indicate that the malt used for Blasda was peated to 18 ppm, at least on average. But I also came across a review of Blasda stating that 8 ppm was the peat level of the whisky in the bottle and that the malt was peated to 25 ppm. That review also had a comment from someone who had worked at the distillery and said that the lightly peated whisky distilled at Ardbeg in 2005 had been made from malt peated to 10 ppm.

Clearly, the actual peating level of Blasda is a very debatable topic. I should just see what it tastes like:

The nose is clean and bright, moderately peaty and shows grassy and malty notes. The aromas seem to be drier in nature than I expected. It is medium bodied. While there’s a honeyed character up front that balances the smokiness, it fades quickly leaving the peat notes to stand on their own. The phenolic character isn’t too intense, but stands out as it is more dominant than any other flavors present at the moment. In this regard, I would liken it to a toned down Caol Ila. A somewhat youngish malt quality appears on the mid palate. Then, late on the finish, fiery spice notes start to build up, adding complexity to the peat that is now reminiscent of the embers of a long neglected campfire.

It’s an interesting expression of Ardbeg, but it still pales in comparison to the Kildalton. This is one that I didn’t really need more than 50 ml of. For where it was priced, non chill-filtered and at least 46% abv would have been more appropriate, as well as some detailed technical information about its composition. Hopefully they are letting more of this lightly peated spirit age much longer. Let’s see how the 10 year compares:

The nose is surprising less expressive than the Blasda. The peat is there though (maybe with a pine-like quality). The aromas seem dense and compacted, like they’re waiting to open up and attack. It is medium bodied, with seemingly little to show right up front aside from a touch of sweetness. But the smoky intensity starts to build quickly. I wouldn’t call it oily, but there is a resinous, slightly bitter edge to the phenolic character. The peatiness expands as each layer builds on top of the last. Smoke and char, dry grass and wet leaves added to the fire. Its complexity is all very peat driven. The finish is long and evolving.

The character of Ardbeg may have changed since the 1970’s distillate (perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to sample it some day), but the modern incarnation is quite impressive in its own right. Where the lack of background flavors in the Blasda seemed to let the peat character stand out, with the 10 year it’s more like the peat has enough intensity to easily overshadow the other flavors that are certainly there.

Well, so much for writing more concise blog posts. At least I managed to put up four of them in a calendar month for the first time in a long time.

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