The Ardbeg distillery is located on the south eastern coast of the Hebredean island of Islay. It was founded in 1815 by John MacDougall, although records show a distillery operating on the site as far back as 1794. Recent history shows there was no production for large parts of the mid 1980s and the majority of 1996 and 1997, until LVMH took over in 1997. Since then they have created a cult range of single malts and massively grown Ardbeg as a brand. Ardbeg is small with just one million litres of spirit produced each year and the distillery also boasts an award-winning visitor centre and cafe.
"This whisky is a shining example of Ardbeg’s enduring spirit. I’m so pleased we can share it with our members as the Committee have invested much in ensuring the future of the distillery and it’s only right that they share the rewards of its turbulent past."
Mickey Heads - Distillery Manager at Ardbeg.
The Ardbeg 21 years old is bottled at 46% ABV and is non chill-filtered. Bottles were available for sale exclusively to members of the Ardbeg Committee and were priced at £310 each. Unfortunately it sold out within three hours and bottles are now going for at least double the price on various auction sites.
Our tasting notes
The colour is golden yellow and the nose has a lovely mix of initial aromas - think of honey, vanilla, candied lemon, seaweed and tangy acrid peat smoke. Underneath are further aromas such as hints of dried peach, mango, golden syrup and a whiff of cocoa powder and brine.
On the palate this whisky feels soft and viscous, but with a late tangy sharpness. This is most reminiscent of lemon zest and lifts the whisky beautifully. This feels quite smoky for an older whisky and the bittersweet peatiness is never far away - it is acrid and salty, powerful and vegetal, mossy and earthy. Much needed sweetness is supplied by a combination of characteristics including honey, golden syrup (almost maple syrup at times), white chocolate and dried tropical fruit (imagine pineapple, peach, mango and lychee). Late notes of sultana, white pepper, milk chocolate and clove add to the depth and complexity.
The finish is long and the smokiness is the characteristic that lingers most. This seems to increase with time and become slightly more bitter and acrid as it does so. It also has some pleasant chilli-like warmth to it. The sweet and dried tropical fruit notes fade slowly and this aids the effect of the smokiness.
What's the verdict?
It feels like a real treat to sample an Ardbeg of this age, as they are rare these days. We were intrigued to try this 21 years old as we had never tasted one of anywhere near this length of maturation. We were not disappointed.
Ardbeg 21 years old is a sublime whisky and arguably the best limited edition release from the brand for some time. But then it should be for the price. That said, they could have charged even more for each bottle in the current market. The often feisty peat smoke that is found in younger Ardbegs has evolved in to something very classy and coupled with sympathetic casking has produced an exquisite single malt.