Ardbeg is a single malt of dramatic proportions, a whisky that conjures images of an untamed, windswept Scottish coast. Located on the tiny island of Islay in the Inner Hebrides, it has been producing whisky since 1798. When we last reviewed them, one year ago, they had just released Dark Cove ($110), proclaimed to be “the darkest Ardbeg ever.” This year’s limited-edition whisky is Kelpie ($120), “an expression inspired by the myths and legends of the sea.”
Like its famous neighbor, Laphraoig, the spirits made at Ardbeg have a high content of peat. And what is peat? Decayed vegetable matter, basically, found all over the world and used in pre-industrial cultures as fuel. On Islay, it stokes the fires that dry malted barley for distilleries. It imparts a distinctive earthiness and smokiness to the whisky, an aroma and flavor that not everyone tends to like: it is best described, in gracious terms, as an acquired taste. The use of peat is traditional, and it is still included in the distillation process by houses that want to preserve a 19th century style of spirit. Most Scotch whiskies have a phenolic level of 30 ppm (parts per million) of peat. Islay malts are typically around 50 ppm, and bottles such as Ardbeg’s Supernova exceed 100 ppm.
Kelpie has attracted attention for being aged in virgin oak casks from the Adyghe Republic in Russia, which leads into the Black Sea. Little is known about these barrels in the West, except that they are apparently prized by local winemakers and rarely used to age spirits—the standard for Scotch would generally be a charred American white oak cask that had once held Bourbon. Ardbeg says that they impart “incredibly deep flavors” to the whisky, a claim that is subjective and difficult to verify.
Brendan McCarron, Head of Maturing Whisky Stocks at Ardbeg, was kind enough to answer questions about the Black Sea casks. “It has lots of similarities to American oak,” he said, “hence the softer, sweeter, vanilla fudge finish of Kelpie, but it definitely has some French oak style…that is why there are the herbal and salty flavors that first hit your palate.” McCarron explained that Ardbeg is always experimenting with new and different casks, but that the whisky in the Kelpie barrels was ready for release.
Kelpie was bottled at 92 proof/46% ABV. The peat infuses the nose with distinct vegetal aromas, along with whiffs of salinity that overlay notes of tobacco and citrus. The whisky is high-strung and electric on the palate, with alternating flavors of spice and saltiness. It expands in the midpalate with anise, black pepper and hints of chocolate. The finish is long and resonant. A teaspoon of water tames it nicely, achieving a ripe and round texture. Fans of the traditional dram will love this one.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is now available from Black Opal Books. For more information, go to amazon.com.