Independent bottlings from Ardbeg are a rarity, especially those unmistakeably bearing the distillery’s name. According to Whiskybase, a mere nine independent bottlings of Ardbeg graced the market in 2023. The bulk of Ardbeg’s output tends to stay in-house, contributing to their core range, a handful of notably expensive single casks, and sought-after limited editions like the Ardbeg Day releases (which we’ll be delving into shortly). As a fan of Ardbeg and with fond memories of my first visit to their Islay distillery, I’m delighted to compare two independent bottlings side by side in this review. So, without further delay, let’s explore the Ardbeg Ar5 from Speciality Drinks, released in 2014, and the Ardbeg 2007 33.140 bottled by the SMWS at the end of 2023.
Ardbeg Ar5 Elements of Islay Speciality Drinks Review
Speciality Drinks, now known as Elixir Distillers, introduced several Ardbeg expressions in their Elements of Islay series from 2008 to 2016. The focus of our review today is on the fifth edition, aptly named Ar5, which was released in 2014. Made from distillate said to be originating in the early 2000s, this particular single cask underwent maturation in an oloroso sherry butt. Bottled at its natural cask strength of 57.8% and presented in smaller 50 cl bottles, it remains unchill-filtered with no added colour. However, it’s worth noting that this release is now a relic of the past, and if you’re seeking to acquire one, be prepared to shell out a sum likely exceeding £200/€250 in the secondary market.
Neat: Notes of coal smoke, crushed seashells, smoked bacon, and a medicinal quality with antiseptic, fresh gauze, and iodine. Additional hints of a rubber band, smoked grapefruit, cooked (and burnt) apricot, traces of vanilla, and salted soy sauce.
With water: Reduction introduces lemon juice and a farm-like aspect reminiscent of a stable full of cows.
Neat: The palate reveals salty peat, a kick of chili, grapefruit juice, and lemon. More subtle notes of smoked ham and smoked salmon, cocoa powder, and raw liquorice. The wood presence is evident but not dominating, and the mouthfeel is thick with a slight chalkiness.
With water: Adding water brings out hints of icing sugar, along with an increased saltiness. The profile also unveils notes of very dark chocolate.
The finish is characterised by the warmth of hot chocolate with milk (not water), accompanied by ash, spices, and a hint of lemony sourness. It lingers for a medium length on the palate.
Excellent Ardbeg expression, showcasing its distinctive characteristics that are easily recognisable. The influence of the oloroso butt doesn’t overshadow the essence of Ardbeg; the distillery’s character shines through. Regrettably, I only had a sample and not a full bottle. Unfortunately, it’s no longer available, and the prices on the secondary market seem higher than what I consider reasonable for a bottle.
Ardbeg 2007 SMWS 33.140 The Spaniard, the American and the Ileach (2023) Review
It’s becoming increasingly uncommon to come across an Ardbeg bottled by the SMWS, despite this being their 140th cask release. The preceding one, 33.149, saw its bottling in 2020, and its predecessor in 2019. Distilled in 2007, this Ardbeg underwent initial maturation in an ex-oloroso butt, followed by a finishing period in a second-fill oloroso butt. The result is an outturn of 615 bottles, boasting a robust 60.7% ABV at the age of 16. This particular Ardbeg is still accessible on the UK, EU, and CH SMWS websites, priced at £395, €458, and CHF540 respectively. Further discussion on the pricing can be found in the comments below.
Neat: Displays a stronger Oloroso influence compared to the Ar5. It carries a slightly earthy quality, featuring musty wood, rancio, smoked figs, coal smoke, crushed seashells, tiger balm, herbal ointment, and smoked bacon.
With water: The addition of water accentuates more smoke and introduces a farm-like aspect. The presence of mouldy wood becomes more pronounced as well.
Neat: The palate presents a robust and spicy entrance, with a thick, meaty character and considerable smokiness. Notes of tar, soot, wood spices, tannins, 80% chocolate with a touch of cherry liqueur, and hints of chili or even Tabasco sauce emerge, along with raw button mushrooms.
With water: Adding water briefly reveals a subtle sweetness. The mouthfeel takes on a creamy texture, accompanied by nuances of dentist casting paste and ash.
The finish is characterised by soot, smoked dark chocolate, persistent spices, and a lingering note of fungi. It extends for a good duration, providing a warm sensation.
Exhibiting more Oloroso influence than the Ar5, this whisky remains of good quality but may stray slightly from the ‘pure’ Ardbeg profile, in my humble opinion. It doesn’t quite echo the Ardbeg Ten as closely as the Ar5, though I acknowledge this comparison might be a bit of a stretch. It seems that in this instance, the wood exerted a slightly stronger influence on the distillate, even though Ardbeg is generally known for its robust character. There’s a touch of austerity to it.
Considering the price point, £400/€450 might seem disproportionate for a 16-year-old single cask, even from Islay. However, the SMWS pricing is relatively reasonable when compared to official single casks from Ardbeg, which tend to be considerably more expensive, sometimes for whiskies half as young. Alternatively, one could opt for the official 19-year-old, bottled at 46.2% and not a single cask, available at half the price.
Thanks Cyrille! Bottle pictures: Whiskybase & SMWS.