Thursday, November 3, 2016

What's on the shelf? - Ardbeg 21 year

My blog posts this year have been few and far between (although lengthy and research intensive, in my defense) and that has come with a corresponding drop in page views. I’ve decided to shake things up a bit and start mixing in some shorter posts as well as more posts that don’t involve making tasting notes.

Part of this is going to be a series called “What’s on the shelf?” These posts will discuss whiskies that I’ve come across while perusing the retail shelves. The subjects will be bottlings that I thought were worthy of my commentary, but not worth prying my wallet open for.

First up is Ardbeg 21 year, which I spotted in a store in the suburbs south of Boston. Of course it was the only bottle on the shelf without a price tag. I assumed it was going to be more money than I was willing to part with, but I had to ask just to be sure. Yep, $500. My normal ceiling for single malts is $200, but it in reality I rarely go over $100. I suppose if something was incredibly special I might go as high as $400, but I haven’t come across one of those yet.

What’s special about this whisky is the period during which it was distilled. I’ve covered the various periods of production at Ardbeg in previous posts, so I’ll recap that info as briefly as possible here.

Ardbeg was mothballed in March of 1981 and produced nothing for the next eight years. Whisky made prior to the closure was a product of particularly long fermentation times, and much of it was from floor malted barley (the floor maltings were gradually phased out between 1975 and 1980). Ardbeg dug older peat from deep in the ground, which was further decayed and their kilns had no extraction fans, lending a unique character to their malt.

When Ardbeg reopened in mid-1989 the distillery went into a period of limited production, distilling just two months per year. This lasted until the next closure in mid-1996. Whisky from this time period still saw long fermentation times, but it was a time of neglected maintenance. Supposedly the still’s purifier was frequently not working properly during these years. The use of very old casks, frequently 4th or 5th fill was also common during this period.

When production resumed again in mid-1997, a different yeast strain was employed and fermentation times decreased significantly. The peat level was increased and fresh casks became the norm.

This 21 year Ardbeg bottling would have been distilled in 1994 or early 1995, a precarious time in Ardbeg’s history. Not much whisky was being produced then and a lot of it would have been bottled as the distillery’s flagship 10 year old from mid-2000 until mid-2008, when they transitioned over to stocks produced after the 1997 re-opening.

This is very likely a spectacular whisky. I have a bottle of Airigh Nam Beist which is a product of the same period (distilled 1990, bottled late in 2007) that I’m sipping on now and it’s delicious. Both are non-chill filtered and bottled at 46%. The more heavily used casks employed during this period are usually better suited to longer aging, which also bodes well for this bottling.

When I found the Airigh Nam Beist in 2012 it was a pretty rare item, and I paid just under $100 for it. At $200 I would have snapped up the 21 year in a heartbeat. At $300 I would have seriously considered it. But honestly, after getting burned spending $100 on the 200th anniversary Perpetuum, I’d think twice and look for some trustworthy reviews before pulling the trigger on any high-priced Ardbeg limited release. Speaking of Perpetuum, I’m surprised that Ardbeg didn’t release this last year as a 20 year old as part of their anniversary celebrations. In honor of the same occasion, Laphroaig gave us a fairly unique Cairdeas bottling priced at $75 for the masses as well as a 25 year and a 32 year for the high rollers.

We may still be in a period of high demand, but I think the market is getting a little over-saturated with limited release single malts in the $200-and-up price range. New Hampshire, a liquor control state, lists inventory by store online. I suppose they could have more of something in their warehouse, but the information they publish can still give you a good idea of how special releases are selling. A year after Laphroaig’s 200th anniversary, they’re still sitting on 18 bottles of the $1200 32 year old and 77 bottles of the $500 25 year old. They’re showing 30 bottles of Ardbeg 21, and that number hasn’t changed from when I first saw it a few weeks ago. It will be interesting to check in occasionally to see how long these linger.

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