Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Ardbeg Alligator: A Soft Sweet Pussycat


Ardbeg was saved from closure by the 1997 sale to Glenmorangie - a step that brought Bill Lumsden's creativity. Lumsden, master distiller, is a pioneer and genius with wood finishes and interesting mash bills at Glenmorangie. Some have said that this creativity was rendered necessary there because Glenmorangie suffered a loss of flavor complexity in its base distillate over the decade prior to his arrival in the mid 1990s. I haven't tasted very old Glenmorangie yet so, personally I can't say. When Lumsden took over at Ardbeg he faced a similar problem to the one Jim McEwan had at Bruichladdich. New production not going to be ready for years and a gap in production timing. Lumsden responded in a similar way: with innovative wood finishes - and also with a strategy of releasing no age statement expressions that vatted some of the mature stuff with quantities of the younger stuff made since reopening. At the same time, the popularity of malt whisky has exploded and appetite for Ardbeg's richly peated flavor signature has reached a sort of mania. Old bottlings have become insanely expensive. Even the new no age statement stuff retails for quite a high price. Some resent this as gouging - others tolerate it as supply and demand. The resentment fixates on Ardbeg's rather prominent marketing efforts. Is Ardbeg over priced and over hyped? Maybe so. Is the whisky delicious and worth it anyway? You're not going to get an argument on that score from me.

Ardbeg Alligator, is universally reviewed with some mention of alligators (the animals). The marketing famously centers on them and their fierce snapping jaws. But, as has been pointed out extensively the name is due to its being crafted by aging sweet 'n peaty Ardbeg in barrels that have been so intensively charred that an "alligator" pattern of char burn has formed inside the casks. Thus, in this example we see the full spectrum of Ardbeg's issues: hyped, extensively marketed with a gimmick, no age statement, expensive ($99/bottle), limited (and mostly sold out), and made with a fascinating new wood barrel angle. What's the verdict?

Ardbeg Alligator Committee Reserve 2011 51.2%


Color: rich full gold

Nose: honey malt and phenolic "industrial putty" peat dominate the nose. There are also salty sea airs with wafts of iodine, clams and low tide flats, cut hay, and a gentle distant hint of wet dog. I'm well aware that this is the kind of descriptive language that make non-whisky people literally laugh out loud at us, but this is a lovely Islay nose that I found perfectly appetizing.

Entry is momentarily sweet with malt sugar and then with the darker sweetness of char. This is the sweetish burn essence of charred wood. The midpalate expansion is gentle for a dram of this proof with rich creamy lactones and a silky mouth feel. Peat takes over as the mid palate reaches full swing with an earthy burn. The peat drives the turn the finish as gentle wood ash. Ash and oak tannins and a lingering herbal malt mark a fairly long finish as you'd expect of a big cask strength peated Islay from deeply charred casks.

Adding a few drops of water thins the body but sweetens the hello. Where is the spirit heat? This among the more gentle and smooth Ardbegs I've had. It drinks a lot like Ardbeg 10 with an array of additional char flavor notes added along side.

I'm a sucker for this sort of thing. Delicious, but a very small incremental step up from the base expression. As such, close to 5 stars.

****

It's stunning that the flavor signature of the charred barrel is so readily apparent. Striking too, was the young nature of the spirit with fresh sugars and fresh phenolic flavors. However, the gentleness I detect stood up in a head to head comparison with another Ardbeg in the speed tasting organized by Graham of the Perfect Whisky Match:
http://www.cooperedtot.com/2012/07/speedwhisky-4-drams-in-15-minutes-then.html

In the speed tasting it was quite clear that Alligator's favor density and peat attack were well behind that of Ardbeg's sherried Uigedail expression.

Anyway - close to academic. This item is sold out pretty much everywhere.


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