Uigeadail: single malt Scotch, Islay, 54.2%, $80
Corryvreckan: single malt Scotch, Islay, 57.1%, $75
I recently compared Ardbeg’s flagship 10 year old to their moderately peated, limited edition Blasda bottling, while at the same time going over the history of the distillery. Now I’m going to have a closer look at Uigeadail and Corryvreckan, the two Ardbeg bottlings that, along with the 10 year, currently make up the brand’s core range. But first a quick overview of how the range has evolved during the last 18 years.
As you’ll recall from the post linked above, when the mothballed Ardbeg distillery was bought and restarted by Glenmorangie in 1997 there were stocks of whisky from two distinct periods in the warehouses; the early 1970’s through March of 1981 and mid-1989 through mid-1996. The latter period was limited to two months of production per year. The new owners would also have the whisky they began producing themselves from mid 1997 onward as that spirit came of age. Production methods differed for each of these three periods giving three distinct styles of Ardbeg that would shape the evolution of the brand’s offerings for years to come.
The only bottlings put out by Ardbeg in 1997, 1998 and 1999 were their 17 year old and a series of vintage releases dated to the mid 1970’s. The 17 year is often said to be made up solely of distillate from 1980 and 1981, but I have seen a quote attributed to Glenmoranie’s Dr. Bill Lumsden stating that the 17 year also contained distillate laid down between 1975 and 1977.
The 17 year old and the 1970’s vintage bottlings continued on until 2004, but they were joined by a new 10 year old offering in 2000. This bottling was the first use of whisky from the period of limited production between 1989 and 1996.
Another annual release was started in 2001; Lord of the Isles was a vatting of whiskies from 1976 and 1977. It was part of the lineup until 2007 and much like the 17 year, its label stayed the same but the whisky grew older with each subsequent bottling.
The next significant addition to Ardbeg’s lineup was Uigeadail, which first appeared in 2003. It was described at younger bourbon barrel aged whisky vatted with much older sherry cask matured whisky.
Then there was a series of bottlings which tracked the progress of the whisky that the new owners began distilling in 1997. First was Very Young in 2004 which was followed by Still Young in 2006, Almost There in 2007 and finally Renaissance in 2008.
There were two very limited releases of lightly peated, cask strength Ardbeg Kildalton. The one in 2004 was distilled in 1980 and put into 700 ml bottles. The 2005 release was distilled in 1981 and only bottled in miniatures.
The next addition to Ardbeg’s standard lineup was called Airigh Nam Beist. It was bottled for three years, 2006, 2007 and 2008, but all of them were vintage dated to 1990. Many people viewed Airigh Nam Beist as a replacement for the iconic 17 year.
At some point in 2008 the flagship 10 year old was transitioned from distillate produced between 1989 and 1996 to distillate produced from 1997 onward. There was a change in the label design mid way through 2008 that is generally considered to indicate when the transition took place, but some people claim to have tasted the change in the flavor profile several months before the labels were modified.
Another lightly peated release called Blasda was bottled in 2008, 2009 and 2010. It was non-age stated, but said to be about 7 years old.
Corryvreckan was the next addition to the lineup, arriving in 2009. Upon its introduction it was touted as the replacement for Airigh Nam Beist. This bottling is aged in a combination of French oak and American oak ex-bourbon barrels. It is non-age stated but said to be in the 10 to 12 year range (making it all from post-1997 distillate).
There seems to be some conflicting information about the French oak aged portion of Corryvreckan. It was actually first seen as an Ardbeg Committee bottling in 2008 using first-fill French oak casks (either Burgundy or Bordeaux casks, I’ve seen mentions of both). Most reputable sources now state that Corryvreckan uses new French oak rather than first-fill French oak (along with the bourbon aged component). I’m not sure if this was a gradual transition over a few years or a sudden change when it became part of the regular lineup, but the bottle of Corryvreckan I have from 2009 seems to show little if any wine cask influence. While I was at the distillery in 2012 I was told that Corryvreckan was aged in toasted new French oak.
The limited releases have continued from Ardbeg as well. There was the more heavily peated (100+ ppm) Supernova in 2009 and 2010. Also released in 2010 was Rollercoaster; a vatting of the first ten years (1997-2006) of the new owners’ production. Next, in 2011, was Alligator; a vatting of ex-bourbon barrels and heavily charred, new American oak barrels. 2012 saw the release of Galileo, which was distilled in 1999 and aged in a combination of bourbon and Marsala casks.
Recent years have also seen wider releases of the annual festival bottlings from Ardbeg; Day (2012), Ardbog (2013), Auriverdes (2014) and Perpetuum (2015).
With all of these limited releases and changes to the core lineup, it can be pretty tough to keep track of what was bottled when at Ardbeg. And that has led to the Ardbeg Project. This privately run website attempts to catalog all official Ardbeg releases by their corresponding bottle codes and provide additional information when possible.
In the case of Uigeadail, the Ardbeg Project is particularly helpful. When it was first bottled in 2003, the sherry cask component of Uigeadail was distilled in the 1970’s and aged to about 25 years. I haven’t seen any information about the age of the bourbon barrel component of the early bottlings of Uigeadail, other than the generalization of it as being “young”. At that time though, most of the limited production from the 1989-1996 period was probably being used for the 10 year old, so it stands to reason that the bourbon barrel aged whisky in Uigeadail would have been distilled after the facility was restarted in mid 1997 and at about 6 years old.
Of course, with limited stocks of whisky from the 1970’s which were becoming increasingly more valuable as time marched on, it was inevitable that the recipe for Uigeadail would change. Perpetually on a quest to taste new whisky, it’s rare for me to purchase the same bottle twice. But I was so enamored by my early bottle of Uigeadail that I picked up another a few years later and would recommend it to anyone who asked. At the time all of this history was unknown to me, but the second bottle I had, while genuinely impressive, didn’t seem quite so magical as the first. I originally heard about the change in recipe from a tour guide while visiting the distillery in 2012.
More detail of Uigeadail’s changing formula can be found in this 2013 interview with Dr. Bill Lumsden (at the 23 minute mark), where he states “I’ve tried to gradually drift the recipe to a more appropriate age profile”. I’ve read on other blogs that the most highly regarded bottlings came from 2003 through 2009, and the most noticeable change happened across 2010, 2011 and 2012. I pulled the bottle from my shelf which had just enough liquid left in it for a few drinks, and checked the code against the information on the Ardbeg Project. Much to my surprise, it had been bottled on March 23, 2008. Next it was up to the attic to find my first (and long empty) bottle of Uigeadail. That one dated to April 20, 2005.
I’ve read that the sherry cask component accounts for 35% to 45% of Uigeadail, and that the percentage hasn’t really changed over the years. Having youthful, bourbon barrel aged whisky in the mix is part of what makes this bottling what it is, so I suspect that component has remained around the 6 year mark. I’m also speculating a bit on the sherry cask portion, but I feel like they must have started transitioning it away from late 70’s / early 80’s distillate pretty early on. Remember though, during the 1989-1996 period production was limited and intended for blending, so there was probably little if any sherry cask whisky from that time available for Uigeadail. The biggest shift of the sherry cask component to 1997 and newer distillate likely took place across 2010, 2011 and 2012.
If I’m correct, over the course of 10 years the sherry matured component of Uigeadail has drifted down in age from roughly 25 years to around 15 years. Not only that, but it has also transitioned across three distinct periods of Ardbeg’s history, each with its own style of distillate.
I feel quite fortunate to have some 2008 Uigeadail left to taste today:
The nose is sharp and biting. It almost seems astringent at first but shows its true nature upon more cautious inspection; dense, chewy peat smoke aromas are intertwined with dry, nutty, oxidized sherry notes. The palate shows incredible depth and complexity. While the peat smoke is the most obvious element, there’s so much more going on along with it. There’s a gingerbread-like maltiness, mint and wide range of spice notes. The sherry fruit character is dark and moderately dry, with a hint of nuttiness. A touch of brine rounds out the flavor profile. The lengthy finish evolves without losing balance and maintains a good level of grip even as it fades.
Corryvreckan (bottled 2009):
There are some nice aromas on the nose, but a healthy dose of alcohol riding along with them. The peat smoke is somewhat light and floral in character and is accompanied by some subtle tree fruit and tropical fruit notes. There is less heat and aggressiveness on the palate than expected considering its nature on the nose. Notes of dry spice and leather come to the fore and add complexity to the smoke of driftwood burning on a beach. A bit of earthiness and a subtle stone fruit element come into play as well. The finish is long and warming, with a building spice element and lingering peat notes.
Comparing Uigeadail and Corryvreckan to the 10 year, its peat smoke stands out more on the palate. But that is, in my opinion, a matter of the other two having wider ranges of accompanying flavor elements. And while the Corryvreckan stands nicely on its own, it simply pales in comparison to the Uigeadail.