Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Ardbeg Corryvreckan and Airgh Nam Beist head to head.

Last week I discussed Ardbeg's resurrection at the hands of Glenmorangie's brilliant master distiller Bill Lumsden in my post about Ardbeg Alligator. The emerging Ardbeg house style involves No Age Statement whiskies featuring young spirits of enormous power, sharp sweetness, and fierce young peat. These heady brews are then subjected to interesting barrel management techniques. The resulting expressions are then given a cool Celtic name and back story, a massive price tag, and then hyped to high heaven by an aggressive and effective marketing crew while whisky enthusiasts either grumble or cheer. Yet they invariably cough up and imbibe the stuff with gusto. The origins of this pattern come out of the big gaps in production caused by periods of closure, the recent enormous demand for Ardbeg's products, and the fact that youth is often an advantageous attribute for peat monsters. But it hasn't always been this way for Ardbeg. Enthusiasts should study the amazing pages at The Ardbeg Project - particularly the history page.

But much of the history and the issues contained therein can be summarized in a nutshell by looking at the capstone regular edition Ardbegs over the past decade: Airgh Nam Beist from 2006-2008 and Corryvreckan from 2009 on. Nam Beist was a 1990 vintage release that took the whisky community by storm. Powerful, peaty, yet fragrant and richly flavored - it marked the Ardbeg for greatness. It was also sold around $60-$70/bottle which was a fantastic value. Releasing the distillate from a single year over the course of several years is inherently limited however, and stocks were destined to run out. In 2009 the successor, a No Age Statement powerhouse with a fancy Burgundy wine cask finish barrel management angle with a great Gaelic name and back story angle and new, higher price ($85 official) set the pattern in complete detail. The real discussion, as always, takes place in the nose, on the palate, and in the glass:

Ardbeg Airgh Nam Beist 1990-2007 46%

Ardbeg Airgh Nam Beist (in the shelter of the beast) was made from old (pre-Glenmorangie) 1990 vintage stocks from 2006-2008. Thus it is 18-16 years old depending on which bottling. (these details from The following tasting notes are for a 2007 example. If you've ever compared Islay peat malts of different ages, say Laphroaig 10 and 18 or Caol Ila 12 and 18 you'll know that age tones down the peat heat and malt sugars and dials up oak influence, perfume, tannins, and complex spices.

Color: Light Gold

Nose: tight at first, but with a 10-15 minutes of air an intense honeyed and floral (roses and honeysuckle) aroma magically appears. The floral sweetness is the foreground and then apricot citrus with brine, iodine sea air, and the industrial putty and clay aromas of peat play well to the rear. This is an extraordinary nose for an Ardbeg - quite distinct from the currently offered NAS expressions.

Palate: Intense grassy off dry opening, unexpected from the sweeter nose (and later sweeter Ardbeg expressions) with a potent peat attack and spirit heat assault fast on its heels. The entry is heather, gorse and meadow sweet, but not honeyed. The mouth feel is silky but light. The honey comes with a burst of rose floral right before The mid palate's explosion of hemp and tar flavors with a light citrus acidic overlay which meld with the earthy burn to turn to ash with herbal anise and eucalyptus at the finish. The melding of grassy and floral sweet with acidic notes and peat burn combine to yield glints of lime flavor: aromatic sweet and acid and dark. It is this melding that is the secret to Nam Beist's yummy magic.

A few drops of water banish the silk from the mouth feel but turn the entry towards a wan sweetness, loaded with a sophisticated herbal complexity, lime, and nutty oak.

Ardbeg Corryvreckan 57.1 %

Corryvreckan shows its Burgundy wine finish in its color

Color: rich gold to old gold

Nose: Sweet meadow grasses with heather and blooming gorse and thicket but sharp and darkened by green lemon, fresh snapped green peas, wet hay, damp clay, and the mineral putty smell of peat. There are also heady phenolic notes of smoke, hemp ropes, iodine and salt sea airs, razor clams and the dangerous razor edge of fierce spirit heat. This is Ardbeg from 50 paces... with pistols.

Palate. Zoom! Pow! You came looking for an intense flavor experience and here it is. Young tongue forward intense sugars and zesty citrus malt, raw clams in sea water and then the white pepper bite of powerful spirit heat and a big robust expansion of gooey tar which blazes into powerful ash. The mouth feel is rich and silky. There are wine influence flavors of berries and bramble in play - mixing with the iodine and maritime and mineral notes to bring some flavors of olives and sea - but all subservient to the massive wallop of peat burn and reek.

This is a rich, seductive, full bore peat monster that skirts the edges of too much. It begs for some water. A dash of water ramps up the razor sweet into a richer, more honeyed, direction. It also makes the spicy peppery heat of the mid palate even hotter. The maritime airs of sea salt, brine, and lemon citrus on salty clams vibrant as ever. The tar-peat expansion is a tad less brutal after water- but still ranging and challenging. This is an intense kick-butt Islay peat monster of the first rank.


Tasting these two head to head shows clearly that something has definitely been lost in the vintage gap and the coping mechanism of releasing young spirit in a carefully crafted, nicely barrel managed way. There is a grace and beauty and balance in Nam Beist that is absent in Corryvreckan. In its place is a vibrancy and sheer raw power that operates on a much bigger scale. A brilliant string quartet is replaced by a couple of electric guitars and a wall of amps. So something is lost - but something, too, is gained. Corryvreckan is a monster dram. Drinking it is very much like quaffing Bruichladdich's Port Charlotte offerings. These are big peat monsters that challenge and delight. But they are not the graceful beauties of old. Time will tell if evolving styles and powerful market forces mean that those old and stunning flavor notes are gone for good.


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