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Monday, January 6, 2020

Bottle Review: Ardmore 20 year old 1996

My aim has been to open up one Ardmore bottle each year, and that has been somewhat successful:

  • In early 2016, it was a 13 year old 1990 from G&M which was lean, youthful and good.
  • Early 2017, I opened a 14 year old 2002 sherry cask release from G&M. It was louder and more cask-driven than the 13yo, which was fine.
  • I chose to dig back a little further and open up a 1991 rum cask from Malts of Scotland in late 2018, a whisky beloved by reviewers more famous than yours truly. It was not beloved by me. In fact it was a lot of work to get through. More on this in my next post.
  • Soon after that (still in 2018), I freed my bottle of the official 12 year old Port Wood and found that one more pleasurable than the 1991 from MoS.
  • I did not open an Ardmore in 2019, until the very last week of the year.
I've whined plenty about the lack of age-stated official Ardmores. The 12 year old Port Wood, released in 2015, was a good start, but the 20 year old 1996 was a more impressive step. Also its price was oddly reasonable and was often on sale (!) at various European online retailers.

Yet, the producers couldn't leave well enough alone. Rather than just making it a bourbon cask release, they chose to introduce ex-Islay casks to the mix. Or from what I glean from the online descriptions, the whisky was first aged in 1st fill bourbon barrels, then finished in ex-Islay casks. This practice has also recently started showing up in numerous indie (specifically Signatory) single cask Ardmore releases. Can't say I'm crazy about that idea, but it could be worse. Yes?

Don't you wish someone looked at you the way Anna looks at this whisky?


Distillery: Ardmore
Ownership: Beam Suntory
Region: Highlands (Eastern)
Age: minimum 20 years (1996-2017)
Maturation: 1st fill bourbon barrels, then finished in ex-Islay casks
Alcohol by Volume: 49.3%
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Colorant? No
(upper third of my bottle)

The ex-Islay cask influence is very minimal. A good thing. Not that the whisky flaunts much in the way of other character, but I didn't buy the bottle to taste Laphroaig residue.

The nose begins with a mix of plaster, barley, cinnamon and "polyester peat" (no relation to Polythene Pam). After 20+ minutes, there's a mix of wood smoke, machine shop grease and candy shop sugar. Minor notes of honey mustard and ground cumin remain in the background. The palate starts off hotter than one would expect from the ABV, but it does cool down by the third sip. That's followed by a balance of tart citrus, sour candies, cigarette ash and hints of seaweed and brine. There's plastic, ash, citric acid, wood smoke and mint leaf in the hot finish.

DILUTED TO ~43%abv, or ¾ tsp of water per 30mL whisky
Barley, dark chocolate, smoked vanilla bean and aromatic wood (almost sandalwood) smoke make up most of the nose, along with mild notes of lemon zest and Frosted Flakes. Less ash in the palate, more band-aid-tinged smoke and burnt plastic. A decent bitter liqueur note floats up as well. The smoke gets woodier in the finish, while the plastic note vanishes. Also some gentle bitterness and sweetness.

While the palate is a bit austere, the Islay casks don't intrude, which is great! The nose can get wild when neat; dilution tames and focuses it. On the other hand, I prefer the neat flavors because I haven't yet been able to warm up to the burnt plastic note. Despite the 20 years and seemingly aggressive cask work, the whisky remains youthful and edgy. It leans closer to the 13yo 1990 G&M than any of the other Ardmores I've opened, which is also a good thing. Due to its reserved nature and limited character, I don't think it's going to wow even we Ardmore geeks, but it's a full step better than the cask I'm going to revisit next...

Availability - still easy to find at European retailers 2+ years after its release
Pricing - €80-€120 w/VAT
Rating - 86