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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Single Malt Report: Ardbeg Galileo 1999

This post will wind up being as much about the whisky as its creator because, in this case, Ardbeg Galileo is indicative of the current stage of Dr. Bill Lumsden's whisky path.

Dr. Bill is the head of whisky creation (and/or director of distillation, whisky creation, and whisky stocks) for both of Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy's distilleries, Glenmorangie and Ardbeg.  Under his supervision, annual (or semi-annual) limited releases are produced by each distillery.  For Glenmorangie, what at first started out as malt and peat experiments (Signet and Finealta) has since become a focus on wine and oak (Sonnalta, Artein, Ealanta, and Companta).  Ardbeg's limited releases started out as experiments with aging and peating levels (Almost There, Rollercoaster, and Supernova), but has since followed Glenmorangie down the wine cask path (Day, Galileo, and Ardbog).

The story (and there always has to be a story with LVMH) behind Ardbeg Galileo is that it was released to commemorate the fact that Ardbeg samples had been sent into outer space for scientific study.  But, with at least 15,000 bottles in this release that means there were a hell of a lot of casks involved in the whisky that turned out to be "Galileo", so the stuff was going to have be released at some point in some form, or else it would have been a financial liability.  Because really, how the heck does sweet Marsala wine casks mixed with bourbon casks have anything to do with space or Mr. Galilei?

I know plenty of retailers (and one particular reviewer) who trumpet Glenmorangie's limited wined-up releases, but I haven't found too many whisky fans who actually enjoy the stuff.  Perhaps there's a market for wineskis (as Serge calls them) that I don't know about.  And perhaps Lumsden's palate prefers this whisky category.  If it doesn't, then the reasons behind continuing the wine-biased limited releases are mostly financial.  These releases do continue to sell and they are backed by the most aggressive single malt marketing department in existence.  There's the money.  But expanding a brand's product range does not equal improving its products.

Of all of Ardbeg's releases, this one is the most Glenmorangie-esque, with those sweet Marsala wine casks mixed in.  And I'll tell you up front, this one makes no sense to me.  The wine is not at all integrated with the malt, which is similar to my issue with Glenmorangies Lasanta and Quinta Ruban.  My first pour from the bottle seemed like someone has swished equal parts whisky and wine in the glass like a 2am drunken disaster of a cocktail.  Over time the contents of the bottle got better but...

many many thanks to Tim!!!
Distillery: Ardbeg
Owner: LVMH
Age: 1999 - 2012 (around 12 years)
Maturation: ex-bourbon casks (approx. 60%-70%) and sweet Marsala wine casks (30-40%)
Region: Islay
Alcohol by Volume: 49%
Limited Bottling: 15,000

The color is a peachy gold.  The nose holds orange juice, cantaloupe, cardamom, and lots of rich peat.  At times there's some spoiled Half-n-Half, other times regular Coffee Mate.  Then tropical fruit Skittles, butterscotch, and a vague farmy note chased by overripe mango.  Lots of sweet wine.  The palate leads with ashes and moss, then a half-step later here comes sticky sugars and tangerine juice.  Considerable heat framed by tartness.  After a while, there's a burst of that curious too-old-cream thing.  It finishes with peat smoke and orange/tangerine peel.  It grows very tart, followed by a nutrasweet-like aftertaste.

The peat recedes in the nose.  Lots of apricots and peaches covered in sugar and left out overnight.  That must be why a fly dive-bombed my Glencairn glass.  Orange peels and peach ice cream.  Odd intense jabs of tartness shoot through the palate, followed by cigarette smoke, more orange peel, and a little bit of peat moss.  The finish?  Bleh.  Very bitter, reminiscent of the time I chewed non-chewable aspirin when I was a kid.  The rotten cream thing.  Orange Tang.  Interminable.

On the nose the peat and fruit sugars are a little better integrated.  Nondescript stone fruit.  Milky coffee.  Flower kiss candy.  Elephant poop.  The palate hasn't changed.  Maybe more espresso bitterness and tart grapefruit.  The finish is oh so tart.  And buttery.  With sea salt and wet cigarettes.

Um......so water makes the nose better but harshes up the finish.  Air is nice for the nose too, but doesn't do much positive stuff otherwise.  A better bet is to try it neat.  The best bet is forgo the Galileo for some Corryvreckan instead.

If Beam did a madeira finish with their Connemara brand, like they did with Tyrconnell, it would likely be very similar to Ardbeg Galileo.

This is not a complete whisky failure, but I'm not sure where it succeeds.  Nor do I know for whom this was made.  It won't appeal to peatheads.  It won't appeal to Glenmorangie fans.  Nor will it appeal to fans of old fashioned whisky.  That might be why there are still bottles of Galileo (and Ardbog, for that matter) still sitting on retailers' shelves.  And, may I add, more people turned down my offers for a Galileo sample than those who accepted.

To be fair, Dr. Bill hasn't produced a series of horror shows like Jim McEwan.  But with so much money riding on his decisions, one has to wonder how much room Lumsden has to err.  In my experience, and to my nose and palate, this is the furthest thing from a success that Ardbeg has released.  This is a mashup wherein the songs don't merge, line up, or connect in any way.

What if he had sat on this and instead released some cask strength Ten?  It wouldn't have been as sexy, but his customer base would have enjoyed it greatly, and LVMH marketing would have spun some tale about stratospheric ABV levels.

As a loyal Ardbegger, I hope Lumsden ditches the wine casks in future releases and instead focuses on the barley, yeast, and peat.  That's IF he must continue the yearly releases, which of course he will until they or he is/are decided to be less than fiscally necessary.  Just maybe lighten up on all the cask focus next time, oh wait, too late.

Availability - Specialty liquor retailers
Pricing - $90-$110 (original pricing) or $150-$200 for those who deem this a collectible
Rating - 78 (neat only)