KWM Whisky Advent 2017 Day 18 – Ardbeg Corryvreckan
The Ardbeg Corryvreckan has been my favourite whisky in the Ardbeg core range for the last decade since it was introduced. That was until the Ardbeg An Oa was introduced just a few months ago. Now I’m torn, so here I sit, tasting the Ardbeg Corryvreckan again, to see if it is still my favourite whisky in the core range.
Ardbeg is one of a trio of Islay distilleries to mark their 200th birthdays over the last few years. The iconic Hebridean Island distillery has been on a tear for the last 17 years, and of all the Islay distilleries it has one of the strongest and most loyal cult followings of any distillery in Scotland. Look at the popularity of its annual Ardbeg Day releases (Kelpie, Dark Cove, Perpetuum and so on) if you need proof of this point. Or the sums people are willing to pay for older vintages like the 1974s, recently released Ardbeg 1815 or 17 year old expression. This makes it all the more striking when you consider that the distillery only operated intermittently from from 1981 through 1997, and it could easily have been demolished and lost forever!
Between 1885 and 1887 Alfred Barnard, a beer and whisky historian working for Harper’s Weekly Gazette, travelled across the United Kingdom visiting 162 distilleries (129 in Scotland, 29 in Ireland and 4 in England). He wrote about his experiences and each of the distilleries he visited in his still referenced work, The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom. At the time of Alfred Barnard’s visit Ardbeg was the largest distillery on Islay, producing 1.2 million liters of spirit a year, only slightly less than its annual production today. The distillery first started as most of Scotland’s 18th and 19th century distilleries did as a farm. Although 1812 is the official founding date of the distillery there is some evidence it was operating as far back as 1794.
In 1888 the distillery was acquired by the Hay family in whose hands it would remain for nearly 100 years. In 1973 Hiram Walker acquired the distillery, and Ardbeg’s fortunes turned. The new owners started moving away from barley peated in their own maltings in favour of relying on commercial maltings like the nearby Port Ellen maltings. This shift was most notable in 1974, which is regarded as the benchmark vintage from the distillery. Sadly whiskies from this year are now rarer than hens teeth and commanding huge prices. The onsite maltings closed for good in 1977.
In 1981 Ardbeg was closed. Hiram Walker had a problem, the industry was in crisis, the various whisky companies had vastly overestimated future demand for whisky and there was a glut. Hiram Walker had two Islay disilleries, but they only needed one. That year Ardbeg was closed, while Laphroaig is kept open. In 1989 increasing demand prompted the firm to reopen Ardbeg, but it would only operate intermittently for the next 16 years. In 1996 the distillery is closed again and put up for sale. The next year Ardbeg’s fortunes finally turned for the better. The distillery was bought by Glenmorangie PLC and its iconic 17 Year and Provenance (1974) whiskies are released for the first time. Within a year of reopening the distillery has a visitor center and a new path forward opens up before it. Over the last decade Ardbeg fans have been patiently awaiting the release of older whiskies. It will likely be a few more years before we start seeing expressions like the Ardbeg 17 again, but the future is bright, with a touch of oily peat smoke!
The Ardbeg Corryvreckan is named for the dangerous natural whirlpool between the northern tip of the island of Jura and its neighbour Scarba. The whisky is bottled at a natural cask strength of 57.1% and has been matured predominantly in American oak for at least 10 years. The rest of the recipe is malt that has been matured in Virgin French Oak Limousin casks. This is what gives the Ardbeg Corryvreckan its spicy profile.
Ardbeg Corryvreckan – 57.1% - Bottled August 21, 2017 – Matured in Ex-Bourbon & Virgin French Oak – Andrew’s Tasting Note: “Nose: thick with honey and cream, Irish soda bread, dried fruits and salted caramel; a touch of powdered sugar, juicy malt, apricot and ashy smoke; sweet marmalade, candied ginger, cardamom and ginger. Palate: big, rich, spicy, sweet and fruity; decadent, earthy and peated; massive spices: fennel, hot ginger, cinnamon and cardamom; juicy malt, firm earthy-oily peat and tar; sea salt, clean beach smoke and layers of fruit: oranges, melon and apricot. Finish: long, savoury, oily and coating; tarry peat and juicy malt linger long with sugars, spice and everything nice. Comment: this is a big peaty, maritime malt; a fine winter warmer, and still my favourite core Ardbeg.” - $120 for 700ml – or – $15 for 50ml