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Friday, February 14, 2014

Single Malt Report: Ardbeg Alligator

(Sorry for the weird timing of my posts this week.  Hopefully next week will be back to normal.  And Happy Valentine's Day!)

Thanks again to Tim for the whisky!
Good news:  Ardbeg Alligator is much more enjoyable than Ardbeg Galileo, better woven, better integrated, and tastier.

Bad news:  Ardbeg Alligator done sold out two years ago.

Ugly news:  I'm going to review it anyway.

Ardbeg Alligator was first sold only to Ardbeg Committee members, then was later released in a limited fashion to the public in 2011.  Like the majority of Ardbeg's limited releases, it does not have an age statement.  Most descriptions of it say it's "similar to the 10 year", which I think means that the majority of the whisky in the bottle was aged in ex-bourbon casks.  The part that makes it different and "Alligator" is the char levels on some of the rest of the whisky in the mix.  Ardbeg used new Missouri oak and gave it (I think) a level 4 char, which is a deep charring of the cask interior that leaves the oak looking like scaly alligator skin.  In Dominic Roskrow's 1001 Whiskies book, he quotes Bill Lumsden as saying this sort of oak experimentation was underway in 1998-2000 after the distillery was up and running under Glenmorangie's control.  So perhaps the whisky is in the 10 year old age range.  But we don't know that due to the lack of age statement.  But Alligator was released at a higher ABV than the Ten, a 51.2% versus 46%.  And now you know all I know about it!

Distillery: Ardbeg
Owner: LVMH
Age: NAS
Maturation: ex-bourbon casks + heavily charred virgin American oak
Region: Islay
Alcohol by Volume: 51.2%
Release Year: 2011
Limited Bottling: possibly 10,000

The color is dark amber.  The nose begins with vanilla beans, piney peat, and salty cheese.  Then there are hazelnuts, an Asian sauce heavy on the sesame oil, and caramel sauce.  After some time, a very strong cinnamon and cracked pepper note emerges which is very reminiscent of new make rye.  The palate is intensely ashy, but sugary around the edges.  There's cinnamon, smoked cocoa powder, brown sugar shisha, and a bit of barley.  It finishes on orange peel and cinders.  Sweet + peat.  Cocoa and lot of drying tannins.

The pine recedes in the nose, replaced by mango and papaya.  Lots of burnt notes.  The vanilla remains strong.  There are some band aids in the mix along with black pepper and grilled beef.  Gets more candied with time.  The palate reminds me of Ardbeg Ten but with more bitter oak, though the bitterness isn't offputting.  It's less sweet now, though the brown sugar is still intact.  Some peat moss, then a lot of lemon tartness.  More of the tartness in the finish, along with the moss, and a light sweetness.

Though I like it better neat, Alligator swims well (sorry).  The finish sticks around for a long time; that's good.  Enough to keep my wife away from me for a while; that's bad.

The new makey notes in the nose made me wonder if the "Alligator" part of the mix was in fact very young.  Clearly there's a lot of oak swimming around in this whisky, so if you're not a fan of that then this isn't for you.  But I like it.  It's a darn shame it's now selling at "collectors'" prices.  At $80-90, I'd consider it a one-time enjoyable Autumn malt.  It doesn't surpass the heights scaled by Corryvreckan and Uigeadail (and older versions of the Ten), but it may have made for an interesting addition to Ardbeg's regular range.

Availability - Specialty liquor retailers
Pricing - was $90-$100, but is now $250-$500, yep
Rating - 88


  1. For some reason I never bothered to get a bottle when it was on the shelves (I think I bought Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix instead). This sounds more interesting than the recent special edition Ardbegs.

    If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say the alligator barrels were prepared at Brown Forman's cooperage. There's a great National Geographic Ultimate Factories documentary on Jack Daniel's which had a segment on the cooperage.

    1. Indeed, I've read recently in a few places that Ardbeg gets (or got) most of their barrels from JD. Brown Forman owns (or owned) 10% of the Glenmorangie Company. Not sure what became of the financials or contracts once LVMH entered the scene.

      I really need to watch Nat Geo's Ultimate Factory series. They covered lots of cool places.

    2. LVMH bought out Brown Forman's shares a few years back. I think you can still find the press release somewhere. But I'm sure there's still a long term barrel contract in place. It's too bad BF never bought Glenmorangie and Ardbeg but I guess 2004 was too early to know about a Scotch boom on the horizon.

      It's also interesting to note that Fortune Brands (aka the previous owners of Jim Beam) owned Whyte & Mackay prior to their 2007 purchase by United Breweries. Had Fortune Brands held on to W&M, they'd have ended up with Suntory instead of Diageo (which is selling off the brand anyway).

    3. LVMH played the whole thing pretty well then. Whyte & Mackay is turning into the brand that no one holds onto. Diageo didn't hesitate to part with it (and three of four distilleries) once the anti-trust heat turned up. They clearly just wanted the India presence.