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.

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