Type: Single Malt
Ownership: Glenmorangie Plc (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy)
Age: unknown other than a mix of young stuff and old stuff
Maturation: ex-oloroso (35-45%) and ex-bourbon (remainder)
Region: Islay, Scotland
Alcohol by Volume: 54.2%
A little over ten years ago, Glenmorangie plc (now LVMH), the new owner of the Ardbeg distillery, was faced with a whisky challenge. Due to a pair of closings in the '80s and '90s, Ardbeg didn't yet have a consistent library of annual malts to pull from. In release, they had a ten year (which was sometimes older than ten years), a seventeen year (which was often older than seventeen years), and some well-aged bottlings from the 1970s. At hand, they had very young malt from their own production, begun in 1997, and much older casks from the previous ownership. A solution was reached: create a whisky that combined the old sherry-wood-aged whisky with the young ex-bourbon oak whisky. It was dubbed Uigeadail, named after one of the local water sources, and released to the public in 2003.
But recently, over the past two years, some of the raves have quieted. Some have even become gripes. In anorak circles online (forums, Facebook, Twitter), some have declared that recent batches have been disappointing. These fans felt like they were experiencing a great whisky's fall from grace.
We all knew it couldn't always remain the same. Eventually Ardbeg was going to run out of that old malt, or salvage the better old casks for exclusive exorbitantly-priced single cask editions. Also, the new malt was going to evolve as the new ownership worked through the kinks of their production. Cask technology was changing -- for better or worse, depending on one's perspective -- and the demand for whisky was booming. Wasn't change inevitable? And if so, we can only wonder what sort of cask experiments are being used to simulate or supplement the old stuff...
Every bottle of whisky contains some sort of code printed on it by its packaging facility. Ardbeg bottles have specific codes that have become something that most collectors eye carefully.
The first part of the code begins with an L, then the numbers follow. First there's a number that denotes the year. For Uigeadail it'll be a 3 through 13 (and counting). The next three digits denote the day of the year, 001 through 365 (or 366). Then the time is shown. And finally, three digits representing the bottling facility.
To illustrate, here are the bottle codes for the two whiskys I'm reporting on today:
L6 242 00:22 4ML
L12 012 15:44 5ML
Often when referring to Uigeadails, fans will refer to them by their bottling code year, like L9 or L10. The heyday, the supposed cream of the Uigeadail crop, are the L3s through the L9s. L10s are still well regarded. But the L11s have received complaints, as have the L12s. (Side note: I saw an L13 in a liquor store the other day.)
2006 versus 2012
I've been following the critiques with some interest because I've enjoyed Uigeadail every time I've had it. Though, since I've never purchased my own bottle, I wasn't certain which years (or Ls) I'd been trying. The rave review I gave Uigeadail last year was likely from an L10 or L11. But I can't be sure. Could the old ones really be that much better?
I was able to get my grubby mitts on drams of an L6 and an L12. Something old, something new.
I came to this tasting with a great fondess for Uigeadail's nose. It's one of my favorites. I like to call the whisky Oogy, Oogs, The Oog, or El Oogerino (if I'm not into the whole brevity thing). While Corryvreckan (Corry, we're on a first name basis) is my favorite Ardbeg, I refer to Oogy as Corry's sexy sister. She's prettier and smells like soused happiness. (Corry, on the otherhand, is pale and smells like a peated tirefire.)
I wanted to use this opportunity to try to see where the critiques were coming from. And I wanted to find out what the Old Oogy fuss was all about.
This report going to look different than the usual Taste Off since I'm detailing them side-by-side:
The whisky on the left is......okay, so I took the picture backwards. Here let's flip the pic:
Okay, so, the whisky on the left (near the small sample bottle) is from bottle code: L6 242 00:22 4ML. It was bottled in 2006. Going forward I'm calling it L6.
The whisky on the right, near the 50mL mini, is from bottle code: L12 012 15:44 5ML. It was bottled in 2012, so I'll be calling it L12.
L6 - A solid dark gold, unbroken by any highlights
L12 - Noticeably darker, a reddish brown
L6 - Unspeakably rich; there are some scents I can't place, but I'm going to try. Wood smoke with cinnamon and cardamom spices right up front. Then: honeyed peat, shoe leather & polish, and a touch of vanilla beans. With time there are golden raisins in molasses, sweat, cherry syrup, camphor candles, dried mango, and loquats (which are delicious).
L12 - Has some of the same elements as the L6 but at different volumes and different orders. It leads with farmy notes from the peat, some ham, and a good whiff of cinnamon vanilla cake. There are also molasses chews, fig newtons, lemon zest, balsamic vinegar, and fennel. A big noticeable difference is the prevalence of the familiar sherry note of raisins and prunes......at a level I tend to find in younger sherry malts as opposed to older sherry malts
L6 - A pile of charred meat with a basket of fresh fruit in the background. A candied campfire or toffee pudding next to a bonfire. Cinnamon sticks in hot cocoa, black pepper, smoked almonds, melon, an industrial oily note, with some brief bitterness. It's a tremendous merging of malt and cask. A solid singular statement.
L12 - Very direct peat at the start, and much sweeter. White fruits, red berries, toffee and brown sugar. More obvious sherry notes again and more of an ethyl bite. Sweet tobacco (shisha), dry red wine, and a mild bitterness.
L6 - The candied campfire returns... Level upon level of char... ... ... ... sorry got lost... Very sticky, honey-dipped fresh peaches and cantaloupe.
L12 - A little briefer but still bold and long, more drying, mostly peat and smoke. It actually has a second wind, bringing out shisha, swimming pool chlorine, and a sour lemon tang.
It's probably no secret which one I enjoyed more. While the L12 is an excellent dram to pair with some bread pudding by the fire on a rainy night, the L6 is Miles Davis's trumpet on Kind of Blue. It's Grace Kelly's face in Rear Window. The L6 is a beautiful experience. And I was thankful to have had it.
It's a damn shame Uigeadail is no longer at That Level. Because the L12 has more immediate sherry notes and a riper bite of both peat and alcohol, I wouldn't doubt if there's a lot more young stuff in the mix than there used to be, including some young sherry-matured malt.
While I can still find it for under $60, I'll try to get a bottle......though if I can find an older one, that would be preferred. It does sound as if we may be seeing some LVMH price increases in 2014. If The Oog blasts into the $70+ range, then I'd find it difficult recommending it at that price. Should we doubt that it'll reach $80 in the next two years? Nope, unless Uigeadail is retired for a different product, which I don't see them doing. So again, we whisky lovers will be paying more without gaining anything.
As I said recently on a tweet, L12 is very good, but L6 is gorgeous. If you can find the old stuff (and can afford the "collector" premium) grab it. In the meantime, the newer Uigeadails make for a very good desserty sherry peated malt for a cold and rainy winter.
Ardbeg Uigeadail L6
Availability - Scarce
Pricing - Whatever the seller asks for
Rating - 96
Ardbeg Uigeadail L12
Availability - Most liquor specialty retailers
Pricing - At $60, hooray! At $75+, boo.
Rating - 90
For a different perspective, see Chemistry of the Cocktail for his post, also published today!