There’s a special kind of time they talk about at the end of the long road to Ardbeg. They call it Islay Time. The kind of present that is so closely linked to the past, everything slows down. It’s not hard to imagine the life of Celtic monks who found refuge from raiding Norsemen, or the Lords of the Isles, clan kings who ruled for nearly 300 years on the peaty earth of Islay from Loch Finlaggan. Their bloodline stretched through to the MacDougall’s, founders of Ardbeg itself. Humble monks, noble kings and those not afraid to find a way around the law – Islay’s history is Ardbeg’s history. It was in Ardbeg’s rocky cove that the early Scottish distillers smuggled their illicit aquavitae out to black-painted ships moored just off the shore, ready to sail to Scotland’s mainland and beyond, hoping to avoid the British tariffs.
There were perhaps no more hated men in all of Scotland than the excisemen who taxed and measured every drop of uigse beatha, for they often exercised the most extraordinary, brutal power over local communities. Excisemen were to be feared and being caught, avoided at all costs. But the pirates, those rugged islanders, Spainards and enterprising business people – they were to be admired. Often, their illicit trade supported the backbone of these isolated communities.
There’s tell of elaborate signal systems to warn when the excisemen were out on patrol. The ring of a church bell here, the flickering of a lantern over there. Village people roped into elaborate decoy plans and fisherman called upon to sink barrels of amber gold in the bay, only to be retrieved at a later date.
I grew up beside and dreaming of the sea and standing on the shores of Ardbeg on a still day, I wonder if I dreamed of pirates and adventure all along. I have seen the current that runs between Islay and the mainland. Swift, deep and deceptive on a dark night it could trap uncanny sailor or lure unwary captain into the storm. It is not hard to imagine the gentle lap of the bay becoming the roaring crash of tide against inky black rock. There is adventure here.
I smell salt, seaweed, earth and musk. The irrepressible spirit of Ardbeg hovering in the ocean air and breathing out of those warehouses. In one of those warehouses, the Ardbeg Dark Cove aged, cloistered in the dark. I tasted the Committee Release (bottled at 55%) while at Ardbeg and now, in the comfort of home – I’m going to share the tasting notes for the general release, the darkest Ardbeg ever, which happens this Saturday 28 May.
I invited a friend and fellow whisky lover to share their tasting notes too. Two opinions for the price of one. Riley is bar manager at my local drinking spot and we regularly converse on the latest rare bottles to make the shelves. Why share the tasting notes? I’m always interested in giving people a reason to try something new, especially something rare like this. You’ll have the chance to sample it yourself on Ardbeg Day, so why not know what to expect and see if you can find the same flavours we did, or something altogether different?
The Ardbeg Dark Cove (Ardbeg Day 2016 release). 46.5% abv.
The first comment is that in this case, while the general release is only cut by less than 10%, it does make an remarkable difference to the palate and finish. I couldn’t tell you that I preferred one over the other, but it’s interesting to know that the sweetness and citrus was much more present in the Committee Release, while the general release seems to more robustly whisper “I’ve been in a PX cask”.. although that’s my opinion and unverified.
Riley: Light gold, caramel.
WhiskyGirl: Agree, although we could argue about the shades. For something being talked about as being the darkest ever, with a mix of sherry and bourbon casks being publicised, I’m expecting to see a deeper hue in the glass, but that is hint number one that it’s perhaps got some Pedro Ximenez casks in there.
Riley: Passionfruit. Orange Blossom. Lemon Sherbet. White Smoke. Cherry wood? Molasses. Treacle. Barbecue. Bacon fat?
WhiskyGirl: Sticky, sweet brown sugar caramelizing, with cooked out apples. Actually it’s a lot like a good vanilla custard. Then definitely get orange and lemon – before more savoury notes emerge. I agree with the bacon fat and woodhouse smoke. Almost manuka-like but more sweet and dark, with spice notes starting to appear.
Riley: Palate reflects Nose. Grapefruit (White?). Lemon. Peat is balanced. Spice (Allspice). Baked Banana & Vanilla. Toffee Apple.
WhiskyGirl: Reminds me of an orange and almond cake I make. Caramelised vanilla sugar crust with the sharpness of citrus developing. Now I taste elements of Persian orange water. Slowly more baked apple emerges with cinnamon and nutmeg. Big, tobacco leaf and old leather starts to emerge out the back where the peat overtakes any leftover smoke. Now it’s starting to feel like a true Ardbeggian expression.
Riley: Long to medium. Opens. No flavours develop, but all are present.
WhiskyGirl: Agree it’s a relatively long finish. Dry too, with peat and faint hints of medicinal aroma and old leather hanging around a core sweet vanilla custard.
Riley says: Surprisingly for a whisky that purports to be “The Darkest Ardbeg ever”, this little beauty is a light caramel colour with a hint of orange around the edge of the glass. The nose is bursting with exotic fruits, hints of passionfruit, orange blossom, lemon sherbet and even a suggestion of baked apple once a touch of water was added. Underneath this sits the heavier murky Ardbeggian influence of molasses, black treacle and the kind of smoke you only get during an exceptional barbecue; rich, unctuous and full of delicious fatty tones. The flavour mirrors this with bright citrus notes of grapefruit and once again lemon. The peat is in harmony with the other flavours and doesn’t overshadow them, instead adding a depth of flavour and beautiful palate-warming spice. The finish is long and amazingly expressive. As the smoke dissipates the fruit flavours swarm across the palate and you are left with a flavour that for me at least is straight back to the barbecued banana with vanilla ice cream I loved as a kid. Whilst I don’t quite understand why it’s called “Dark Cove”, it’s a delightful whisky, that I’m intrigued to see develop now it’s open, to see if (like last year’s Perpetuum) it can get even better.
What I love about the Ardbeg Day whiskies is the core expression of Ardbeg that almost always finds its way into the glass, no matter how good the story is.
Ardbeg Day – Saturday 28th May
Stocks of Dark Cove will sell out super fast but you can purchase yours at any of the Embassies below or join me at The Jefferson, New Zealand’s only Ardbeg Embassy bar from 6pm to try the Dark Cove and maybe ask for a cocktail or two.
Auckland – House of Whiskey, 38 Courthouse Lane from 11am to 4pm, The Jefferson, 7 Fort Lane from 6pm til late
Wellington – Regional Wines, Beers & Spirits, 15 Ellice Street, Mt Victoria from 11am–4pm
Christchurch – Whisky Galore, 834 Colombo Street will be hosting Ardbeg Day come Night from 5:30pm- 8:30pm.