E-pistle 2009/12 – Ardbeggeddon Ten

By Euan McPhee and Davin de Kergommeaux

There’s Cirque du Soleil, Blue Man Group, Zumanity, and David Copperfield, but for one weekend in January, the most exclusive ticket in Las Vegas is to a private whisky weekend called Ardbeggeddon.

The PLOWED Society’s annual gathering of the clan, the tenth Ardbeggeddon, was held January 15 to 19, 2009, and one of the highlights was a head to head tasting of 13 different batches of Ardbeg 10yo.  How fitting.  We all talk idly about batch variation but what better way to test it than to get a bunch of peat freaks around an Ardbeg-laden table and have a go at them?

Ardbeggeddon began when a bunch of internet chat buddies decided to bring their best bottles together for some heavy dramming.  The A1 drams were spectacular and friendly competition has kept it that way ever since.  Each year around December the whisky chat rooms are abuzz as people who’ve heard of the event begin to hint for invitations, because admission is by invitation only.

But, if you have to ask, as they say …  It’s not that Ardbeggeddon is secret – anybody who’s been around the malt whisky web for a couple of years has heard of it – it’s more private, and attendance is limited to the number of beds in the chosen venue.  And as the years have gone by, Ardbeggeddon has become as much about friends as whisky.  It’s a tight little group with its own lore and lingo.

There’s S’tan, a PLOWED Ringleader, loveable as a teddy bear and generous to a fault with his drams.  S’tan goes for flavour, not label, and has some ripping ancient old bourbons and Canadian whiskies in his truckload of contributions.  He also has a shrine.  Loco, of the Local Barley earned his moniker inventing the oft-honoured PLOWED tradition of lipping the local barley.  But then another PLOWED tradition is not to honour all the traditions.  The aptly-named Dr. Entropy maintains the PLOWED website and grants occasional dispensations to wayward Ringleaders who let business get in the way of dramming.  You see once you have attended Ardbeggeddon you are expected to show up at every one thereafter or pay the price.  And on the final night of A10, long after some had already gone to bed, the fabled FOAF appeared with a box of bottles that quite simply, was staggeringly good.

But an excellent though common malt also got plenty of attention from the finely-tuned PLOWED palates as well.  Among whisky fanatics, and particularly those with a completion bent, there is a certain element who look for every minute distinction among bottlings in order to taste one of each.  So last year when Jim Murray, published notes in his Whiskey Bible about an Ardbeg Uigaedail that was so different from others’ knowledge of Uigaedail, many believed it must be a batch anomaly.  This led, in turn, to a world-wide search for various Ardbeg batches, using the little code at the bottom of the bottle to differentiate one batch from another.  The batch code on the bottle Jim Murray reviewed was L7 325 XXXX 4ML.

Ardbeg’s Davinia Small acknowledged that batch variation is absolutely normal, and confirmed a little code breaking by some semi-professional hackers, including at least one PhD, that led to the conclusion that L7 means the whisky was bottled in 2007, just as L1 means 2001, L2 2002 and so on.  Armed with this information a call went out to PLOWED Ringleaders to bring their Ardbeg 10yos to A10 for comparison, and a list of bottling codes was assembled to avoid duplicates.  But why Ardbeg 10 and not Uigeadail?  Well A10 gives a broader sample, being in its tenth consecutive year of bottling since re-opening. While the average consumer who buys one or two bottles a year may never notice batch variation, the finely-honed palates of PLOWED all agree which A10s are the good ones and which ones are even better.

But for a blow-by-blow description and explanation of the really startling results we turn to Euan McPhee, the guy who planned and organized what is probably the most unequivocal test of batch variation ever reported.  And believe me, at least among batches of Ardbeg 10yo, variation is huge.

Davin: Euan, we’re here at Ardbeggeddon, a virtual whisky shrine with unimaginable malts on the table and you’re drinking Ardbeg 10.  Are ya daft, man?

Euan:  Well at first glance, that’s a reasonable question.  We have  300-400 whiskies here and many of them are legends including some that  are rare and nearly unobtainable.  However, good availability and reasonable price are not black marks against a whisky and as all of us here have a tremendous appreciation for Ardbeg, the OB Ardbeg 10 year old is an excellent benchmark.  And we are celebrating the 10th gathering of the PLOWED Clan, so we sought to bring many Ardbegs to the table.  Over the years, many of the PLOWED Ringleaders have noted variations in Ardbeg 10.  This is certainly my experience.  When Ardbeg 10 first appeared on the market, I liked it, but didn’t love it.  I was comparing it to the other Ardbegs I had previously tasted like the Provenance, the Gordon and McPhail 1974 vintage 22 year old, and some of the first Douglas Laing OMC releases – which are all stunning, of course.  But it’s taken me a long time to realize that you need to take each whisky on its own merits.  So in subsequent years, as I bought a fresh bottle of Ardbeg 10 every year or two, my appreciation for this expression grew. 

I thought this was my palate until few years ago when I purchased a bottle of Ellenstown Cask Strength 10 year old that is reputed cask strength Ardbeg..  So to see for myself, I opened the Ellenstown along with two fresh bottles of Ardbeg 10.  The Ellenstown tasted very much what I would expect from a higher proof Ardbeg 10 – but what was shocking was how different the two bottles of OB Ardbeg 10 were from each other.  I knew they were different bottlings because they had different packaging inserts, so I examined the bottles more carefully and observed that they had different bottling codes as well.  I could roughly date them relative to one another because one package had an insert advertising the Ardbeg 17 while the other package insert advertised the Uigedail, indicating that this was a more recent bottle.  This was the beginning of my bottle code interest.

Davin: So are you ready for Ardbeg 10?

Euan:  I’ve been sipping Ardbeg since about 7:30 AM, so I’d say I am warmed up.

Davin:  Goodness! Are you in any shape to taste another flight of Ardbeg 10s?  We have 13 bottles of Ardbeg 10 on the table!

Euan:  Yes, I’ve taken a 2 hour break and have enjoyed a hearty lunch.  I’m ready for more Ardbeg!  Let’s do the 10s.  I think we will be pleasantly surprised at how many nuances we find.  We have bottles here dating from the launch of the Ardbeg 10 back in 2000 all the way to the most recent bottle available here in the US purchased about 4 days ago.

Davin:  But Euan we all know how hard the master distillers and master blenders work to make sure all the batches taste the same. Isn’t it just a waste of good whisky to open a dozen Ardbeg 10’s at one sitting?

Euan:  That’s the story we almost always hear from the distillers, particularly from marketing people.  We’ve all heard the line about how “our whisky has not changed a bit since it was made hidden in the glen by smugglers, assisted by fairies”.  But anytime I hear that, I know they’re pulling the bunny fur on my sporran.  Single malt whisky is made in batches and as hard as distillers and master blenders apply their considerable skills towards attempts to make a “brand” taste the same batch after batch, they vary.  The Ardbeg folks will tell you this themselves.  And the sources of variation are numerous, so instead of pretending they all taste the same, let’s explore and enjoy their diversity.

Davin:  Have you had much luck finding out from distillery representatives about such variation?

Euan:  No. But for most whiskies including Ardbeg 10, there are ways to tell different batches or at least roughly when they were bottled.

Davin:  OK, but how do you tell one from another?

Euan:  Well I mentioned differences in packaging, and that is a rough hint.  But in the case of Ardbeg, and for that matter almost all distillery releases of Ardbeg (and Glenmorangie and Glen Moray), you can determine this by looking at the bottling code which is either printed or etched at the base of bottle, most often towards the back of the bottle.  Dr. Entropy refers to this as the Decoder Ring.  It’s quite simple.  Flip over a bottle of Ardbeg 10, tip it against the light, and you will see something that reads like this: LW XXX YY:ZZ 4ML.  Let’s pick up a bottle and look.  This one says L7 143 8:58 4ML.  This is how we interpret this code: for bottles after 2001, the L is “small” and W means the year, so L5 means that this was bottled in 2005.  XXX is the day of that year that this was bottled, YY:ZZ indicates a time stamp, YY the hour in 00-23 increments, and ZZ the minute in 00-59 increments.  4ML simply indicates the specific production line at the bottling plant, and this holds for both 700 ml and 750 ml bottles.  In turn, old style Glenmorangie bottles are marked 3ML at the end of the bottle code while all of the new style bottles that I have seen recently are 6ML.  So L7 143 8:58 4ML indicates that this is an Ardbeg bottled on the 143rd day of 2007, which was May 23rd, a Wednesday, at 8:58 in the morning. 

Davin:  Interesting!  How well does this hold up?

Euan:  So far, it has held up very well.  All OB Ardbeg bottles I’ve examined so far with a bottle code follow these rules, and I’ve looked at well over a hundred now.  For those bottles that were filled in 2000 or before, the “L” is larger and is always ink printed.  The transition between ink printing (which is harder to read) and glass etching occurred between 2003 and 2004.  Curiously, there are bottles with ink printed bottle codes that occur after the glass-etched coded bottles, which probably reflects an equipment transition.  The only OB bottles I have found that do not have bottle codes are single cask bottles such as the Feis Ile drams, which were probably bottled by hand at the distillery.  PLOWED Ringleaders are not the only ones following these codes.  In particular, there is a very useful discussion about this on Gordon Homer’s Spirit of Islay website. 

Davin:  So this is all fascinating and fun Euan and it sounds good in the armchair, but have you actually found any differences?

Euan:  Well let’s cue the opening chords of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” and pop these Ardbeg 10s in order and give them a whirl. Let’s start with two bottles; these two are in boxes labeled “Introducing the Ardbeg”. I’ll give you my impressions as we go along: Ardbeg 10 “Introducing the Ardbeg 10” bottle code L0 039 09:09 4ML (ink label).  Nose is peaty, ashy white smoky notes that smell like a freshly extinguished campfire, not much of the citron-citrus notes that I have grown to expect from Ardbeg 10.  The mouth feel is decidedly oily and full.  Points for the clarity and forceful presentation of peat, but lacks the extra dimensionality of most Ardbeg 10s I’ve tasted. Ardbeg 10 “Introducing the Ardbeg 10” bottle code L0 178 11:17 4ML (ink label).  Nose has the same smoky ashy white smoke notes as the previous bottling, and relative lack of strong citrus notes, but lacks the full oily mouth feel and is overall, thinner.  Not as big a whisky as the previous expression.  Overall, these bottles are good representatives of what I remember about the first Ardbeg 10 bottles I tasted in 2000 and 2001.  While they have similar nose and taste characteristics but they are quite different in terms of “clean” versus “oily” mouth feel. Let’s try this L3. Ardbeg 10  bottle code L3 343 14:28 4ML.  Now this is more like what I expect from an Ardbeg 10!  The nose has a wonderful balance of peaty smoke intertwining with citrus, and a chalky note I associate with a very specific smell of freshly poured Portland cement mixed with crushed seashells – a very pronounced and well-developed maritime note.  The palate is very well integrated, and peat has many other elements to play off of.  Long warm finish.  I would buy this again without a moment of hesitation and I like this enough to pour some more.

Davin:  Crikey Euan!  Portland cement?  Maybe I better try that one myself. Where do you get Portland cement from?

Euan:  My grandfather did small construction jobs and one of the things he used to do was mix sand and seashells with the cement to add material.  So we would go to the beach and scoop up some sand full of shells, then crush the shells with a mallet and mix it with the fresh cement.  And this has a very distinctive smell that I had not thought about for decades until I recalled it while tasting Ardbegs.

Davin:  Do you think this is unusual to have such a personal association with a whisky flavor based on a long ago memory?

Euan:  Oh no, I think this is very common.  The neural circuits that process olfactory information in our brains have similar organization and evolutionary origin to our memory circuits and these circuits are tightly interwoven.  But I’ll take Ardbeg 10 over Proust’s Madeleine any day.  Next up, an L4; Ardbeg 10 bottle code L4 020 13:17 4ML.  The nose on this one is curiously diminished relative to the others.  The same with the palate, it has many of the elements of the previous batches but altogether, a bit flat.  Remember the amplifier in Spinal Tab which all the knobs went to 11?  Well all the knobs for this batch of Ardbeg 10 only go to 7 or 8.  This is a rather disappointing batch compared with the one we tasted previously.  But I would still rather drink this than most other 10 year olds from other distilleries. Now coming up is one that I know and love, you must taste this one! Ardbeg 10 bottle code L5 237 05:36 4ML.  One nosing says “this batch rocks!”  Nose balances an interplay of tar and creosote with citron-lime citrus and other tropical fruit sweet and sour notes, and then more tar, a hint of chalk and oak.  This is beautifully balanced.  On the palate, a big voluptuous and elegant mouth feel is followed by citrus and fruit on the fore palate that subsides into a great big kick of tarry peat and a long finish that just hangs there.  Absolutely lovely.  (Euan left some in the glass and re-tasted it an hour later and malty sweet notes emerged, overall still fat and round mouth feel with smoky citrus.)

Davin: Amazing!  so can we generalize from this that all L5s are excellent?

Euan:  Let’s see. Ardbeg 10 bottle code L5 110 17:50 4ML.  The Beauty of L5 237 is followed by this Beast.  Unfortunately, this is another fair-to -middling batch.  So can you just remember “L5” while looking for dusty Ardbeg 10s?  Apparently not.  Not one to buy unless you have to feed your OCD-driven need to have all of these bottling – and there is something to be said for that. Ardbeg 10 bottle code L5 290 22:42 4ML.   The nose reveals another facet found in some Ardbegs, the nose is big and piney and quite spirity.  It still has the familiar elements of creosote, citrus, and a hint of chalk, but also an element on the nose that I associate with disinfectant or a swimming pool – and I mean that in a positive way.  This piney disinfectant note is very reminiscent of various cask strength 1979 Spirit of Scotland bottles that were released between 2005 and 2006. The palate reveals a deeper base malty note and consistent with the spirity nose it is not as round on the palate as the L5 237, but does share that creosote -citrus-dominant mid-palate that is followed by a curiously distinct second peat-lime fruit burst.  Long finish on this one with a echoes of sweetness and citrus.  Quite a lot going on for this one, but does not quite hang together as well as L5 237.  Now moving along to a pair bottled in 2006… Ardbeg 10 bottle code L6 242 16:50 4ML.  Some of the previous bottles tasted hinted at malts that blended 10 year old and older whiskies.  Not this one.  It has a nice sharp bite on the forepalate and the dominant note is a rich cereal maltiness that dovetails with the peat – and fewer citrus notes for this one, but well balanced.  Ardbeg 10 bottle code L6 314 10:29 4ML.  Another one dominated by the interplay of gristy cereal maltiness and peat, but also has a big hit of citrus on the palate and that Portland cement with crushed sea shells thing.  And now things get even more interesting with the L7s.  Jim Murray gave an astonishingly high score to Ardbeg 10 in his 2008 Whisky Bible.  Now we PLOWED Ringleaders read the Bible and this certainly caught our attention – I think it is likely that Mr. Murray’s notes are for an L7 Ardbeg 10 – but not any L7! Ardbeg 10 bottle code L7 143 8:58 4ML (purchased on the US East Coast).  The nose has the familiar tar and citrus notes but this is a very refined whisky.  Similarly, the palate is more restrained, but so beautifully balanced and complex with great structure from the oak, I can’t help but think that this has some mid-teens older whisky in it.  It has a very different mouth feel than some of the others that are more brash and spirity.  If you find, this, do not hesitate, buy!  A much lauded (and FOAFed) PLOWED Classic since we tasted it last summer. Ardbeg 10 bottle code L7 143 9:06 4ML (purchased on the US West Coast).  Another L7 143!  A single day Ardbeg 10 head-to-head.  Now this is PLOWED whisky obsession revealed.  And yes, tastes just like L7 143 8:58 – although it should as it was bottled a mere 8 minutes later.  This raises the interesting question as to whether there are different batches bottled on the same day.  Make note to test this! What I would really like to try are two bottles from the same day, but separated by many hours.  (According to Ardbeg’s Davinia Small about once a month  a new batch of  about 42,000 bottles of Ardbeg 10 is bottled but never more than one batch is bottled on any given day or in any given bottling run.) Ardbeg 10 bottle code L7 221 05:57 4ML.  This is good but much less complex than the previous two tasted.  And it was bottled 10 years and just enough days after Glenmorangie resumed production at Ardbeg in 1997 (June 25, 1997), that this might be entirely composed of post-Allied spirit.  It has a nice fat smoky note in the middle – a little dip in quality.  This bottle is still worth seeking out, though. Ardbeg 10 L7 295 12:12 4ML.  The nose on L7 295 is extremely bright and aggressive.  I tasted another bottle of this last October with Peter Silver, MM and PLOWED Ringleader, and we agreed that this is a special bottle.  This one is a real bruiser – if you are looking for a knock-down fistfight with your Ardbeg, this one is for you.  The palate is big and raw with very strong tarry peat smoke notes and brash citrus.  The oak extract is very dominant here.  It doesn’t have the elegance of some the others, but while it lacks the sophistication of L7 143, it certainly gains points for youthful exuberance.  I like it.  Is this future of Ardbeg 10 via the use of fresher American Oak casks?  Maybe not.  Reports from the PLOWED Ringleader network suggest that L7 323 and L7 324 are not nearly as good as L7 295, based on head-to-head comparisons. This little gem of an L7 295 merits a high score.

Davin: So I’m convinced now, and this may be the explanation:
When Glenmorangie took over the closed Ardbeg distillery on June 25, 1997 there were considerable stocks of maturing whisky in the warehouses, more from some years than from others.  Their first move was to re-release the standard 10yo Ardbeg, but they had to rely on existing stocks to keep the label in the shops.  As this whisky was distilled to someone else’s plans, no doubt there were gaps in production leading to an assortment of casks of varying ages being dumped into the whisky sold as Ardbeg 10.  This means quite a bit of older whisky was likely mixed in until the new owners had build up a reliable supply of ten year old Ardbeg.  Batch variation, always present to some degree, would have been accentuated by the need to rely on old stock until a proper inventory of new whisky was built up.   As Euan has shown us, there really is considerable variation among batches and some real gems are to be found among the standard Ardbeg 10s.

Euan has given us an excellent illustration of batch differences using a malt he and the PLOWED know very well.
Although our scores were virtually identical for each of the bottles scored, Johannes asked that I include my scores, rather than Euan’s to make sure we publish only certified Malt Maniac scores here.  So here they are, ranging from an excellent 84 to 3 awesome 91s.  Euan’s favourite, by a hair, was L5 237 and that was also the fave of PLOWED Ringleader “84”.  I loved it also along with L7 143 which Euan scored just half a point lower than I did.

Ardbegs 10yo (46%, 0B)
L0 039 09:09 4ML  86 points
L0 178 11:17 4ML  88 points
L3 343 14:28 4ML  90 points
L4 020 13:17 4ML  87 points
L5 237 05:36 4ML  91 points
L5 110 17:50 4ML  84 points
L5 290 22:42 4ML  89 points
L6 242 16:50 4ML  87 points
L6 314 10:29 4ML  88 points
L7 143 8:58 4ML  91 points
L7 143 9:06 4ML  91 points
L7 221 05:57 4ML  89 points
L7 295 12:12 4ML 88 points

The HTHTHTH . . .  over, Euan paused briefly then went on to taste another 50 Ardbegs that day.  Such is the lot of the PLOWED.