Sunday, June 3, 2012

Ardbeg Day (Observed)

Ardbeg excels at two things: malt whisky and marketing. I'd guess there are far more distilleries that match their excellence in malt whisky than their excellence in marketing.

Last fall Ardbeg Alligator was big news -- the ad campaign as much as the whisky, perhaps. Just now it's Ardbeg Day, June 2, which has gone from being a big deal if you happen to be on Islay the last Saturday of the Islay Festival to being a big deal all around the world -- including cyberspace, thanks to the Islay-limpics collectors cards scattered around on whiskey blogs and websites. Anchoring this blitz is the Ardbeg Day whisky itself, available in limited distribution on June 2.

As an Ardbeg Committee member, I am a willing target for all this sort of thing. I was happy to receive an Ardbeg Day poster in the mail (shown on right), even though I wasn't able to put it up in the kitchen (my wife and I voted, and I lost). I was very happy to receive an email inviting me to attend an Ardbeg Day celebration in Washington, DC, on May 30. Twice in the past I'd RSVP'd for a Committee meeting that real life prevented me from attending, but this time I made it.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned in going to the Ardbeg Committee meeting at Jack Rose Dining Saloon was that, if the Metro trains are running just right, I can get from my office parking lot to Ben's Chili Bowl in right around one hour. And if that doesn't sound important to you, then I'm guessing you don't live around here. You should never drink whiskey on an empty stomach, and there are few better remedies for an empty stomach than a chili half-smoke from Ben's.

With this inside, what's a little alcohol going to do?
After a five block walk down U Street, I still made it to Jack Rose's rooftop bar about twenty minutes before the Ardbeg Day festivities were to begin. It was a little warm, and I didn't want to ruin my appetite for whiskey, so I passed the time with a New Belgium Brewing Co. Fat Tire, while watching the bartenders assemble the Ardbegs.

Waiting on Ardbeg bottles to muster is thirsty work.
The Ardbeg Day celebration featured:
  • All the Ardbeg Day Whisky you could drink, one thimble-sized sample cup at a time. (You know that definition of "dram" as "a measure of a host's generosity"? The all-the-thimblefuls-you-can-drink set-up defines a quantity of whisky that measures a guest's self-respect.)
  • Complimentary hors d'oeuvres (the clams with bacon going particularly well with the whiskies).
  • Ardbeg Land Girls handing out swag (I've got pictures of the swag, but not the girls).
  • A couple of shirts and a couple of glasses to help spread the word: Ardbeg.
  • A brief, suitable speech by Ambassador Hamish Torrie -- including an interesting comment that Glenmorangie, which bought Ardbeg in 1997, regards themselves as the "curators" of the Ardbeg tradition.
  • A good selection of other Ardbegs available for purchase, including 10 yo, Alligator, Corryvreckan, Airigh Nam Beist, Uigedail, and Supernovas 2009 and 2010.

They also serve who only stand and wait to be poured.
I had three different Ardbegs over the course of the evening.

Ardbeg Day: Sherry on the nose. The taste is a salty syrup that doesn't get as sweet as it seems like it's going to be. The Ardbeg peat comes out in the second wave. It finishes with a mouthful of grapey smoke.

Supernova 2010: A nose of honey-baked ham, vanilla, and sweet corn. The palate is ethereal (probably due to the 60.1% abv), a sweet white wine well seasoned with salt and pepper. The finish seemed to evaporate with the high alcohol content.

Airigh Nam Beist: My favorite of the three, but I spent more time enjoying it than analyzing it, since my notes only mention the smell of maple syrup and the sea, and a bit of honey on the palate.

Overall, I really admire Ardbeg's inventiveness within the house style. They play with a lot more than peat and age. Their marketing is playful too -- and if sometimes it's a bit of a ham... well, there are worse things not to take too seriously than whiskey.


  1. Great review, Tom. Very cool tasting notes. You got to drink 3 monster drams. Wish I had been there.

    1. Thanks. Are you a Committee member? They had a similar event in Hoboken the same evening.