Peter Ranscombe grabs his crook as he prepares to meet the black sheep of the Ardbeg Islay single malt family.
TO SAY Ardbeg’s fans take their whisky seriously would be an understatement.
Earlier this month, after I mentioned that I’d mixed Ardbeg into a daiquiri, one stalwart emailed to describe my actions as “unforgivable”.
I think maybe only half his tongue was in his cheek when he typed the message.
That loyalty from fans hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Islay distillery’s owner either.
Glenmorangie – which bought the site in 1997 – even launched a fan club, the “Ardbeg Committee”, in 2000 to consult members on limited edition releases.
Those special bottlings are usually unveiled on “Ardbeg Day”, the final Saturday of Islay’s Fèis Ìle or festival of music and malt.
The coronavirus lockdown may have put pay to this year’s fèis taking place face-to-face on the island, but that hasn’t stopped Ardbeg from marking the 20th anniversary of its committee’s foundation.
Instead, the celebrations have moved online, with the fun kicking off today at 7pm on the brand’s Facebook page.
Back to blaaack
And, of course, there’s a special edition whisky to mark “Ardbeg Day” too.
This year’s offering is Ardbeg Blaaack (£94, Ardbeg.com), which spent its final few months at the distillery maturing in pinot noir wine casks all the way from New Zealand, Scotland’s Antipodean twin, where sheep outnumber people by seven-to-one.
Beyond the amusing name, the liquid could lay claim to being the black sheep of the family too; while I never ceased to be amazed by the balance of Ardbeg Ten (£47, Tesco) – famed for the smoky aromas and flavours from its peat, but also full of floral aromas, lemon and tangerine notes, and a light colour and mouthfeel that belie its power – Blaaack is a different kind of beast altogether.
While the wine casks may have been used in New Zealand before making their way to Islay, I suspect that they started life in France, judging by the amount of vanilla, caramel and toast on the nose, with a hint of dried fruit too.
Its colour in the glass is far more caramel than the Ten, hinting at the caramel, honey and vanilla flavours on the palate, along with dried apricot and roast meat.
Blaaack is far more tannic too, not just producing a dry finish but also a lot of dryness with the liquid is still swirling around the cheeks and gums.
It’s a whisky I’d be happy to take neat and, at 46% alcohol-by-volume, that’s manageable for me; adding a drop of water emphasised the smoke on the nose – although very much more log-fire focused than Ardbeg’s traditional peat-reek – and added a slightly weird metallic note on the palate.
It’ll be fascinating to see what fans make of it tonight during the online “Ardbeg Blaaack Whisky Trials” and in the weeks to come as they begin to taste it.
Read more of Peter Ranscombe’s whisky, wine and beer reviews on his drinks blog, The Grape & The Grain.