The days are getting colder and in my neighbourhood, the smell of burning wood and charcoal is hanging in the night air by 6pm each night. That smell reminds me of the burning peat I smelled in the same dark air hanging over Islay. I imagine the dark cove in Ardbeg Bay. It’s not hard to picture the black outline of a pirate ship hidden in the black ink of the Sound.
When Ardbeg Night passed this year on the 28th of May, it started as each of the last five Ardbeg Days has – whisky fans lined up for the bottles to go on sale and to taste the latest release. But as night fell, the smoke and mist rose up in a late autumn haze and we ducked under the cover of our own darkened den, a safe haven underground called the Jefferson.
The Dark Cove sat side by side in a vertical tasting of Ardbeg Ten, Uigeadail and Corrywreckan. Disclaimer – my favourite of all the Ardbeg releases is the Uigeadail. As soon as I lift the lid of the tasting glass, I can smell the distinctive nose and my mouth waters at the blush pink of salmon blinis lining the tasting table. It’s going to be a delicious night and I’m ready to indulge my memories of Islay already.
Scotch salmon, lemon and salt was one of my favourite meals at the Port Charlotte Hotel in Islay. I’m swept up in nostalgia and excited to talk whisky with other food writers and lovers in this special tasting.
The beauty of this vertical tasting is to explore the Ardbeg Day whisky as part of the Ardbeg story.. as told by many previous releases. Jonny leads us to begin with the Ardbeg Ten. The classic profile is straightforward but big, because it’s all on counterpoint to the traditional Ardbeg smoke.
Nose: Faint vanilla in the air and a ring of citrus that surrounds a firepit of peaty embers and sea salt spray.
Palate: It delivers exactly what’s promised on the nose. Vanilla becomes sweet, citrus becomes distinct as lemon and lime with a smoky, salt brine.
Finish: The sugars develop to leave a lingering sea salt caramel and smoke haze. It’s long.
This Ardbeg is well-balanced and sets the scene for the journey that each consequent Ardbeg will take us on. So to Uigeadail we go. This is bottled at 54.2%, an extraordinarily precise figure that the distillery manager assured me is the perfect cut to enjoy the raisin-rich tones added to the spirit from time in ex-Sherry casks. Once again, those sherry notes capture me.
Uigeadail is named for the Loch from which Ardbeg draws its rich, peaty water. It means ‘dark and mysterious place’ and the water that runs from the loch is tinged dark from the peat it runs through. This whisky has intrigued and wooed me from first tasting, a multi-layered and complex whisky that comes from
Nose: Ground coffee beans, dark sugars, oats and cereal with classic peat profile.
Palate: Dark, sweet fruits hit first. Cereal and oats on the nose become a mouthful of malt, with the sweetness of honey around the edges. Quickly the smoke and peat emerges, leaving the crack of peated barley on the tongue.
Finish: Long as Ardbeg tends to be: the sweet dark sugars emerge again into dark caramel and malt. The Ardbeg smoke rounds with touches of espresso coffee.
Now we move on to the Corrywreckan, named for the monstrous whirlpool that sits off the north west coast of Islay. Various warnings exist for seamen daring enough to approach, but the best visage is offered from the air. The currents of the sound meet in an extraordinary surge. Such it is with this malt, the peppery, smoky air of Islay churning in the glass. Of the extreme whiskies, this is an extreme example. Every flavour is blown to an extreme, no surprise given that it’s bottled at an astounding 57.1%.
Nose: Dettol and plastic, roasted fats and salt, butter on potatoes and light, herbal notes like a pine tree blowing in the breeze.
Palate: This malt buzzes on the palate with fresh tangy fruit, pepper, spice and then a smooth creamy nature that belies the alcohol percentage. I get a orange note at the backend that feels juicy and sweet, while maintaining the tartness of the fresh peel, bitterness entering at the end.
Finish: By the end the story is all medicinal, salt, cream and fresh fruit. It’s long but not as long in my opinion as the Uigeadail, but it’s also not as mysterious. Everything about Corrywreckan leaps out and smacks you in the face. The peaty element will fly past you, but chili, asphalt, bbq smoked meat and salt will linger long.
You can read the Dark Cove tasting notes here. There’s obviously some sherry cask (PX, for my money) in the Dark Cove. It’s perhaps my most favourite of the Ardbeg Day releases since Ardbog, which was peaty, earthy and bold.
Where to next? Personally, I’d love to see the Ardbeg team take the citrus notes to another level or explore that edge of salt and medicinals that make the malt so distinctive. I want to see what happens with a chocolate and coffee emphasis balanced in sherry casks or dare I say, a wine finished Ardbeg whisky that I am certain is sitting in a warehouse on the coast of Islay. Ardbeg gave us space whisky. Keep giving us the future Bill.