Is it possible to create a better set up for a Saturday night than a blind test between 18 different Ardbeg releases? Well, we tried it, and it was glorious! This is a recap of the test and what we found out.
Once again me and my friend ventured into to the Islay region with our eyes closed. This time we had 18 different Ardbeg releases up for scrutiny. We have done several of these themed shoot-outs before and they always surprise us and puts new perspectives to our respective whisky journeys. Both of us have tried several hundred different whisky expressions and are pretty clear about what we think constitutes a good dram, but our preconceptions will once again be put to the test.
The line-up ended up in a nice mix of old and new, both special and core range, releases.
5 YO Wee Beastie
19 YO Traigh Bhan (Batch 2)
21 YO Committee Release (2001)
Arrrrrrrdbeg Committee Release
Blaaack Committee Release
Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseur’s Choice 1995
Supernova Stellar Release 2009
Scorch Committee Release
The favourites and the dislikes
Well, looking at the setup there were 8 samples from releases I hadn’t tried before the test. It was about the same for my friend, but not the same 8 though. From those I had tried I must say that I generally like them all. The 5 YO Wee Beastie is the only one I found a bit mediocre, but in no way does it qualify to be called a bad whisky. I would say that Corryvreckan was my favourite core range release closely followed by Uigeadail, which was my friend’s favourite going into this exercise. When it comes to the special releases tried before the shoot-out, all are really good, but no one stands out as being the best. It needs to be addressed that none of us had previously tried any of the old releases with distillate made before the Louis Vuitton/Moet Hennessy takeover in 1996, which would make a huge impact on the shoot-out, since the difference is noticeable for sure.
The YouTube whisky review show “Scotch Test Dummies” have done a couple of blind shoot-outs and the method used here is theirs. Four brackets with four or five whiskies in each and the winners battle it out in a grand finale. This will not give a 1-18 ranking of the expressions, but will give the best expression, and individual lists within the brackets. This is a good method for finding your favourite whisky. It would not be possible to test eighteen whiskies in one huge line since the flavours easily overthrows each other while tasting. Especially since this is eighteen whiskies derived from the same distillery and the same distillate.
We chose not to add any water to any of the whiskies, because we wanted to do this in their original state. One could argue that some expressions are better with a dash of water, but since the tasting samples were so small (~7.5 ml) the water added would be hard to control.
In this shoot-out both of us thought that there was a clear division into three levels. The Corryvreckan was the shining star and we agreed on it being in sort of a league of its own. It was a heavy hitting rowdy one with a great balance between heavy peat and cask influence. We also agreed on the next two levels albeit we had the whiskies within them in different orders. The second and third place were both very good, but to me, Still Young was a bit too young and spirity when comparing it to the top two. It did have nice power to it, but I felt that it lacked some complexity to be a top contender.
The two on the bottom did end up a bit behind the other three. We didn’t agree on the order, but to my friend, the Gordon & MacPhail bottling came out a bit flat and that the low ABV did it a big disservice while I thought that the Perpetuum was the one which was a bit flat and trailed behind the other ones.
I must state (which I probably will do in all of these reflections) that all of them are very good. When it comes to saying that a couple of them fell short, they are still very good whiskies.
The second bracket was a diverse one with a lot of difference between the expressions. Once again, we agreed on a clear winner. The Uigeadail outshined the other three by a big margin. It just felt really well made with just the right amount of cask influence to give the peat a run for its money without stifling it. But that’s where the agreeance ended. The other three we placed in completely opposite order of each other. I put the 17 YO in second place and my friend put it last. It’s a very different expression from the others and it does suffer from its 40 %, but oh my what a nice fruity and tasty dram it is. It’s less peaty than other Ardbeg releases which made it stand out even more. I understand why my friend put it last though. It was sort of a shock to us since none of us had tried it before the shoot-out.
So, let’s talk Supernova. It needs a paragraph on its own. This is a 100 ppm+ whisky which totally relies on its peatiness. In a shoot-out with 17 other peated whiskies its main feature gets diminished (which in most cases are good when you try to pick out other nuances). When it comes to Supernova it just became a bit uninteresting, young and spirity and I declared it my least favourite of the entire shoot-out. But this is a whisky which needs to be had without interference because when it’s had on its own, it’s a way better dram. Anyway, my friend put it in second place, and I had it last behind the 5 YO – Wee Beastie, which was my least favourite before this shoot-out. And that statement still stands.
Oh, did I mention that there are no bad whiskies in this shoot-out? They are all great drams.
To both agree and disagree in such a way that the lists match except the place of one whisky happens quite often when we do these lists. But this one was especially interesting since the culprit was a 19 YO Ardbeg. To me, the 21 YO Committee Release and the Kildalton 1980 stood out as some of the best whiskies I’ve ever tried. My friend definitely agreed on the 21 YO and also thought highly of the Kildalton. But he also put the 19 YO Traigh Bhan in there while I put it in last place, because to me the Traigh Bhan came out a tiny bit bland (Which I know it isn’t since I’ve had it before and reviewed it).
It took me a couple of days of pondering until I finally found a possible reason to why I didn’t put it higher; All the different flavours were probably cancelled out by the other whiskies. This can happen in these shoot-outs when whiskies have similar profiles. Normally this doesn’t matter because the better whisky often wins the individual battle anyway. In this case all the other whiskies had notes which probably overrode the 19 YO. The 21 YO and Kildalton (which is a 23 YO whisky), both had better notes connected to the age perspective and also a better fruitiness (which was a common trait of all the Ardbegs of yesteryear in this shoot-out), Blaaack and Scorch are more recent, younger and rowdier, the Scorch has a stronger burnt wood note etc.
So, that’s the theory anyway. But in no way would I hold it higher than the two at the top. The Kildalton would probably win all the other brackets, it just got knocked down by another truly amazing whisky.
Oh, by the way. There are no bad whiskies here. All great. No duds. Just pure joy.
So, let’s start with the 10 YO and its placement both by itself and in relation to the An Oa. I placed it third and my friend put it last, and both put it beneath the An Oa. There’s no way I would say that the An Oa is a better whisky than the staple 10 YO before this shoot-out. It comes down to the same thing as the Supernova, I think. The refill ex-bourbon matured 10 YO relies mostly on being peaty and that doesn’t cut it in a shoot-out with 18 peaty competitors. Additional features are often needed. But then again, Almost There, which I had at the top has similar characteristics but higher ABV, which in this case makes all the difference in this bracket. The big punch competitor was a speciality aged in rum casks. I do really like the Arrrrrrrdbeg Committee Release, but rum cask-aged whisky is seldom my favourite. I’m just not a big rum guy. My friend on the other hand likes rum and put the Arrrrrrrdbeg in the top spot. Once again, we disagreed on one whisky and agreed on the order of the other three. We also agreed on this being our least favourite shoot-out.
But you know this by now. All of them are tasty whiskies for sure.
The grand finale
When reading the reflections above it’s easy to forget that all the opinions were made before we knew which whiskies we were talking about. The names of the whiskies are used in the text but in the blind test, they were just numbered miniature bottles. This is why it’s quite satisfying to see that three out of the eighteen whiskies ended up in both of our finals.
Otherwise, the conclusion here is rather easy. You can’t go wrong when you choose to buy an Ardbeg. Their core range is certainly one of the strongest in the game. Both me and my friend took both the Uigeadail and the Corryvreckan into the finals and it’s well deserved. Of course, there are old releases with a lot of age in casks which are utterly impressive, but even the 5 YO Wee Beastie held its own quite well in this blind test. That said, the Ardbegs of the past are better than the new releases and the winner was not contested at all. The 21 YO Committee Release (2001) won easily.
So, basically, if you want a really great Ardbeg just go and buy a core range one. If you want an utterly fantastic Ardbeg, go to an auction house with your pockets full of money.
If you made it this far, thank you for reading the article and as always; Do this yourself with any whiskies, all the whiskies, with themed whiskies. It’s one of the best ways to learn how whisky works.