Friday, January 29, 2016

Ardbeg, Airigh Nam Beist

stats: single malt Scotch, Islay, distilled 1990, bottled 2008, 46%, $90

I occasionally have grandiose ideas about stringing together multiple blog posts in order to make thought provoking connections and paint a broader picture of the topics I’m exploring. When I recently uncorked the bicentennial Ardbeg Perpetuum I was keenly interested by its description, which stated that what was in the bottle “represented Ardbeg’s past, present and future”, and that it “took inspiration from the differing styles of whisky produced by Ardbeg over the last 200 years”.

The Perpetuum post focused on comparing and contrasting that whisky with Laphroaig’s 200th anniversary bottling; the 2015 Cairdeas. But before I wrote that piece, my mind had been set to pondering the bottles in my collection. I had squirreled away a bottled of Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist about three and a half years ago. Last bottled in 2008, it was becoming scarce when I snapped that one up and can likely only be found on the secondary market for a hefty price today.

A follow-up post focusing on the Airigh Nam Beist could include a comparison of all of the Ardbeg bottlings I had at hand; and Perpetuum would be the one that unified them all. A slight problem with this plan arose when I actually tasted the Perpetuum. It was one of the more disappointing bottles of whisky I had come across through the years, especially when taking price and expectations into consideration.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Ardbeg can currently be found from three distinct periods of production at the distillery. The first is from the early 1970’s through March of 1981, when the distillery closed for eight years. Much of the whisky from this era was made with barley malted on the traditional floor maltings, which were gradually phased out between 1975 and 1980. The lack of extraction fans in Ardbeg’s kilns and the fact that they harvested very old, heavily decayed peat from deep in the ground lent a unique character to their malt. This was also a period of particularly long fermentation times.

From mid-1989 through mid-1996 Ardbeg saw production limited to just two months a year. This was a period of neglected maintenance (the spirit still’s purifier was said to not be working properly much of the time during these years) and the use of very old casks, often fourth or fifth fill.

The third period, from mid-1997 onward, saw much investment in the distillery and is characterized by shorter fermentation times with a different yeast strain, fresh casks and an increased peat level.

The premise for this post was nearly scuttled when I was let down by Perpetuum. But I only had a last precious half-ounce of whisky from my bottle of Uigeadail. The production code on that bottle dated it to 2008, meaning that a good part of its older, sherry cask matured component was drawn from stocks distilled in the earliest production period mentioned above.

Airigh Nam Beist was a temporary part of the distillery’s core range for three years; 2006, 2007 and 2008. But those releases were all vintage-dated with a distillation year of 1990, making it a prime example of the middle period of production. I also have some current 10 year Ardbeg and a bit of Corryvreckan; both from the latest period of distillation, which started in 1997. Considering the rarity and expense of whisky made at Ardbeg before the 1981 closure, this would probably be my only chance to compare the three distinct periods of distilling at Ardbeg in the post World War II era.

When Ardbeg was purchased by Glenmorangie in 1996, they had to work around the limitations of and eight year closure followed by seven years of limited production and another year of being closed. That led to Ardbeg 17 year acting as their flagship bottling from 1997 until 2000, when it was joined by a new 10 year old. The 17 year, which was drawn primarily from stocks distilled in 1980 and 1981, grew older than its age statement as the years ticked by, until it was discontinued in 2004.

Viewed as a replacement for the 17 year, Airigh Nam Beist was a non-age stated bottling which carried its distillation year as a Vintage, as well as showing its year of bottling on the label. Over the three years it was produced, it would have been roughly 16, 17 and 18 years old.

Ardbeg’s source water travels a long journey, starting at Loch Uigeadail and following the Ardilistry River to Loch Iarnan before arriving at the distillery via the peat bogs of Ardbeg Burn. Loch Iarnan is locally known as Loch Airigh Nam Beist. This name translates from Gaelic as “shelter of the beast” and evokes legends of a primeval creature that is said to lurk there. The alternate translation, “resting place of the cattle”, is probably a bit closer to reality.

I’m going to start with the 46% abv 10 year old and work my way back.
The aromas are dense but uplifting, with a pine-like edge to the peat smoke and perhaps a hint of a floral note.
On the palate a touch of sweetness shows upfront. In spite of being a bit weighty in nature the character of the spirit is clean enough to give the peat plenty of room to express itself. The smoky intensity builds with plenty of char and a touch of bitterness.
Complex in a peat-driven sense, it evolves nicely as it moves through the long finish while a burst of iodine also appears.

The nose of the Airigh Nam Beist shows much less intense peat aromas, with a round character driven by soft, woody notes, coastal brine and subtle hints of spice.
On the palate, peat smoke and oak notes are deftly balanced and intertwined. Wonderfully complex spice notes come to the fore on the mid palate. The flavors seem to ride a fine line where they carry on with just enough backbone but don’t reach the point of being too sharply intense.
There’s a delicate, graceful evolution of the flavors as they move into the drying finish while maintaining sublime balance.

The Uigeadail bottling combines older sherry cask matured whisky with younger bourbon barrel aged whisky. At 54.2%, has a seemingly sharp, volatile nose but careful inspection reveals what it has to show; damp oak and dunnage floors, dry sherry notes and mature peat smoke.
Big and chewy in body, the palate shows great depth and range. The sherry casks express themselves with dry, dark fruit and a bit of oxidized nuttiness. Spice notes and maltiness join in enthusiastically and the peat notes bring great complexity, from bacon and tar to campfire and kelp. It holds a firm grip on the palate, evolving but refusing to fade as it moves through the finish.

Next up is Corryvreckan. This moniker was somewhat of a coup in terms of marketing; it was named for a notorious whirlpool which forms in the Sound of Islay and is easily visible from the Caol Ila distillery, on the other side of the island. Corryvreckan was introduced in 2009 as a replacement for Airigh Nam Beist. It is aged in a combination of ex-bourbon barrels and new French oak and is said to be between 10 and 12 years old, though it carries no age statement.
At 57.1% abv, the nose is surprisingly less intense than that of the Uigeadail. Light and slightly floral peat smoke aromas stand out with just a hint of tree fruit and tropical fruit. On the palate it comes out of the gate showing a sharp, angular nature. Once it settles in, dry spice, leather and smoldering beach fire notes become the main players. Notes of sandy soil and subtle fruit come out as well.
The long finish mingles vanilla and warming spice notes with lingering peat smoke. As different as this one is, it still has more in common with the 10 year than it does with the other two.

And finally, a quick revisit to 47.4% abv Perpetuum.
The nose has a coastal, briny edge and somewhat restrained peat notes which are sort of vegetal in nature while remaining dry and earthy.
As it did on my previous tasting, the palate shows a Jekyll and Hyde-like nature, starting off sweet and malty before abruptly turning astringent with sharp, cutting peat smoke and jarring iodine.
On the finish it drifts further from the balance that it never really had, with overt notes of barrel char and burnt toast taking center stage.

While it was interesting to compare such radically different expressions of Ardbeg, it wouldn’t be particularly realistic to view this as an outright comparison of the brand’s different distilling periods. With such a variety of ages and cask types used in these bottlings, there were just too many other variable at play.

I’m fully aware of the fact that Ardbeg had to sell off most of the great quality whisky that came with the distillery after its 1996 sale in order to rebuild the brand and remain profitable. Consequently the timing for putting together a special bottling to commemorate their bicentennial was pretty horrible. Sure, they restarted operations in 1997, 18 years before the big event, but back then everyone’s attention was focused on the survival of the distillery. By the time success was assured, it was a little too late to plan a special whisky in advance.

It’s ironic that bottlings like Airigh Nam Beist and early (pre 2010) Uigeadail, which served to build up the reputation that Ardbeg enjoys today, would have been perfectly worthy of commemorating its 200th anniversary, but we got stuck with Perpetuum.

While I view the description of Perpetuum as being mostly marketing-driven hyperbole, I couldn’t resist looking for a deeper meaning. If it truly represents the future of Ardbeg, that could be viewed in two different ways. If high priced, non-age stated bottlings which bear the flaws of overproduction are the future, then I fear for this iconic distillery. On the other hand, if some link to the past is the way to the future, there is hope. Hope that at least for a portion of the production season some of the old ways could be revived; a resumption of floor malting and the use of the third kiln (the only one which hasn’t been repurposed yet) with hand-cut peat from those deep, ancient layers. Maybe even some lengthier fermentation times and long aging in refill casks. This distillate could be separated out for special limited releases. Ardbeg is just one of many distilleries that I think could find their future by looking back to their past.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Cragganmore 12 year vs. Craigellachie 13 year

Cragganmore, single malt Scotch, Speyside, 12 years old, 40%, $59
Craigellachie, single malt Scotch, Speyside, 13 years old, 46%, $55

Cragganmore and Craigellachie were both established in the late 1800’s (1869 and 1891, respectively), during a booming period of distillery construction and expansion in Speyside which was fueled by the penetration of new railroads into the region. With only 11 miles separating the two distilleries, one could be tempted to call them neighbors, but that might be a bit of a stretch as there are 10 other active distilleries between them, following the course of the River Spey.

While they started off with different owners, Cragganmore was sold in 1923, with the company that owned Craigellachie (partially on its founding, fully by 1916) acquiring a 50% stake. That company had full ownership of Cragganmore by 1966. The common ownership wasn’t always obvious on paper though as the parent company held its many distilleries through a variety of subsidiaries and licensees.

A complicated series of mergers and acquisitions between 1987 and 1997 led to the creation of Diageo, which became the world’s largest producer of spirits. The new company’s whisky holdings were viewed as a monopoly though, so they were forced to sell off the Dewar’s brand along with Craigellachie and three other distilleries. This group package was quickly picked up by Bacardi in 1998.

The 75 year period of shared proprietorship between Cragganmore and Craigellachie is an interesting bit of history, but there’s another commonality between these two distilleries which has prompted me to compare their flagship single malts; worm tubs. This old-style method of cooling the vapors produced by a pot still and re-condensing them back into a liquid is said to add a unique meaty quality to the whisky. While Cragganmore and Craigellachie are both in the minority group of Scottish malt distilleries that continue to use them, every time I read a piece on worm tubs I seem to see a different number stated for the size of that group.

Clearly, I was going to have to roll up my sleeves and put together a comprehensive list of active malt distilleries that continue to employ worm tubs. But first I’ll go over how they work and explore the differences of their more modern counterpart.

The worm part of the equation is just a very long (about 300 feet) copper tube which is fashioned into a coil roughly 10 feet in diameter and 10 feet in height. The tube itself starts with a diameter of about eight inches and gradually tapers down to two inches or so over its length. This whole assembly is submerged in a large vat of cooling water; the tub. The traditional tub is an open-topped wooden vessel. Cold water pours in from the top and sinks due to its greater density. As heat exchanges through the copper coil, the water warms and rises to the top, making its way to the drain which has an opening near the water’s surface. All the while, the vapors moving through the worm are cooled and liquefied.

The shell-and-tube condenser, which is the more modern equivalent of the worm tub, was actually invented in 1825, but its usage didn’t become widespread until the 20th century. This piece of equipment consists of a large number (upwards of 100) of straight copper pipes of relatively small diameter (half an inch or so) all running parallel and arranged in a circular pattern. These pipes are six to ten feet in length, and held in place by passing through a round copper plate at each end. This whole arrangement is contained in a copper shell which is two to three feet in diameter, with capped ends forming chambers that are separated from the center portion by the above mention round plates. Cold water is pumped into the bottom chamber, and forced up through the copper pipes, making its way to the upper chamber and exiting via an outlet pipe. The vapors from the still enter the central cavity, passing through the outer shell near the top of the condenser, but below the upper plate. Surrounding the water filled cooling pipes; the vapors turn back to liquid and fall to the bottom of the center chamber, where they drain out.

The picture below shows the back of the Springbank stillhouse, where you can see two shell-and-tube condensers working alongside a traditional worm tub. Well, it’s mostly traditional; the wooden tub has been updated to a more modern stainless steel version, but rest assured, the worm inside it is still copper. As you can see, the modern condenser takes up much less space. This allows the option of placing the condensers inside the stillhouse, while worm tubs are always located outside. I’m also under the assumption that the more efficient shell and tube condenser can perform the same job with less cooling water.

The important difference between the two types of cooling equipment, in terms of how the whisky will end up tasting, is a matter of copper contact. A worm tub, with its large diameter copper tube, actually puts the vapors in contact with less copper before it condenses. The small diameter of the tubing used in a modern condenser increases the ratio copper surface area to spirit vapor volume. More copper contact equals more refinement and purification of the spirit.

When the gaseous spirit comes in contact with a copper surface, chemical reactions occur and the heavy, undesirable compounds (primarily sulfur based) combine with the copper and precipitate out of the spirit. This happens both in the still and beyond it, during the condensing process . The pictures below show the spirit safe at Springbank, and all of the blue-green stuff you see is copper sulfate that has come out of the spirit.


Getting rid of these sulfur compounds is good, to a certain extent. There’s nothing wrong with producing a very clean spirit, but in the small quantities that are typically left behind by the use of a worm tub, these sulfur compounds can add a rich, meaty, rustic quality to the whisky.

To figure out which distilleries are currently using worm tubs, I took my recently composed list active malt distilleries and did Google image searches of each distillery name along with the terms “worm tub” and “condenser” to get visual confirmation of which method they were using. I then went a step further and did the same for the newest crop of Scottish distillers which have gone online over that last three years.

I came across some interesting bits of information along the way. As mentioned above, Springbank is unique in that it uses a mix of both methods. While traditional wooden tubs can be found at places like Glen Elgin and Talisker, there are several examples of rectangular shaped cast-iron tubs housing the copper worms. This is actually the case at both Cragganmore and Craigellachie. In this type of arrangement the worm can snake back and forth in the tub, or be set up as more of a squared-off coil.

As I searched, I realized that in most cases where shell-and-tube condensers were located outside, they had replaced existing worm tubs without any coinciding structural changes being made to the stillhouse. For newly built distilleries or a reconfigured stillhouse where shell-and tube condensers were being used, they would almost always be located inside. Bunnahabhain has a mix of these two scenarios; the original worm tubs were replaced with outdoor condensers but the second set of stills added at a later date have their condensers located inside the stillhouse. Most distillery tours don’t go out behind the stillhouse, so the condensers located outside are often unseen and infrequently photographed. My search for images of them was quite frustrating at times.

The traditional arrangement for a shell and-tube-condenser is to have it standing vertically, but there are a small number that are oriented horizontally. Glenallachie has all four of its condensers set up this way, while two distilleries employ a combination of both orientations; Dalmore having theirs outdoors, and Macduff with theirs inside the stillhouse. The condensers should work the same either way; these setups are simply dictated by the space that was available when the equipment was installed.

Another interesting example is the Royal Lochnagar distillery, which has worm tubs but runs them at a relatively warm temperature. This is done simply by having a slow inflow rate of the cooling water coming into the tub which has the overall effect of raising the average temperature of the water in the tub. In turn, the spirit takes longer to condense and remains as a vapor much further down into the worm, increasing the amount of copper contact.

Conversely, for a period of time the Dailuaine distillery had stainless steel shell-and-tube condensers connected to two of its six stills. I believe spirit was vatted together from all three sets of stills before being entered into casks, giving an overall effect similar to the use of a worm tub. Following that lead, the relatively new Roseisle distillery has some of its stills connected to two condensers; one copper and one stainless steel. This gives them the flexibility to create different styles of whisky, depending on which condenser they run the spirit through.

Surprisingly, some distilleries have changed the type of condensing equipment they use in recent times. Dalwhinnie went through a period of modernization in 1986 and switched from worm tubs to shell-and-tube condensers. After nine years it was decided that the character of the spirit had changed too much, and the worm tubs returned in 1995. The original tubs had been the rectangular cast-iron type, but the more traditional round wooden style was chosen the second time around, primarily for the visual appeal to visiting whisky tourists. With an even more recent change, Glen Scotia appears to have switched over from worm tubs to shell-and-tube condensers around 2011 or 2012.

Amazingly, 11 new distilleries have begun producing whisky in Scotland since the start of 2012. Only one of those, along with one other recently established (2008) distillery employ traditional worm tubs. I’ll start my list with these new outfits, followed by the other independently owned facilities and then move on to those owned by the big whisky groups.

Independently Owned
Abhainn Dearg


Inver House

Glen Elgin

So, 18 out of 110, or a little over 16% of the distilleries are using worm tubs. As for Craigellachie and Cragganmore, both distilleries spent much of their histories supplying whisky to blenders rather then being bottled as single malt. The first official bottling of Cragganmore was the 12 year old that we still see today, when it became part of the Classic Malts range in 1988. A Port Cask finished Distiller’s Edition followed in 1997, and several limited edition bottlings have appeared since 2000. The first official bottling of Craigellachie was a 14 year old that was part of the Flora and Fauna range for most of the 1990’s. That was replaced by another official 14 year old bottling which was produced between 2004 and 2007. Then, late in 2014 the distillery’s owner finally decided to capitalize on the brand’s single malt potential. They released a full range, which includes the flagship 13 year old, along with a 17 year, a 19 year (travel retail only) and a 23 year. A 31 year old bottling is also in the works and set to be released very soon.

Comparing the two visually they are similar, with a golden/honey yellow color. The Cragganmore does appear to be a touch darker though.

The nose is bright and fragrant, primarily showing tree fruit (pear and apricot) along with some floral notes (lavender?).
The palate is complex, with cereal grains, waxy fruit and a slightly perfumed floral character. Delicate nuttiness and just a subtle whisper of peat smoke add to the complexity.
As it moves through the finish the nuttiness intensifies and spice notes emerge.
Overall, this isn’t a style of single malt that I’ll ever love, but I’ve gotten to a point where I can appreciate it as a good quality whisky in spite of its strong floral notes and my aversion to them.

This one is weightier on the nose, with malty, gingerbread-like grain notes. Its tree fruit aromas stay more in the background, perhaps with a bit of that meaty quality emerging.
On the palate it’s more full bodied. There’s a complex mix of dark, weighty flavors; malt, Demerara sugar (but not in an overtly sweet way), roasted meats and a touch of fruit cake.
The finish starts off with sweeter notes before it evolves into a dry, slightly nutty ending that has much more intense spice notes than the Cragganmore.
Overall, it shows more depth and intensity, and I find it to have better integration, with its various characteristics tied more neatly together. I have to admit that it also has a flavor profile which I’m more agreeable to.

I’m under the impression that the heavier compounds left behind by worm tubs are more susceptible to being stripped out by chill filtration. Part of the difference in character between these two may be down to the fact that the Cragganmore is chill filtered where the Craigellachie is not. Tasting a higher proof, non-chill filtered example of Cragganmore is fairly high on my list of priorities.