In theory, this is Laphroaig day. Not for us, however. Instead, we’re heading to Ardbeg for 90 minutes with the head distiller, Mickey Heads, and several of his favourite casks. I can’t help feeling that Laphroaig have slipped a little of late, with the release of three not-brilliant expressions (Select, QA, PX) that haven’t exactly set the world on fire, so the chance to take part in an intimate gathering down the road was too much to pass up.
We get there, and MY GOD!!! we get a parking space each at Ardbeg where there are very few people, the rest of humanity having stopped at Laphroaig some four miles away. Apparently, we have booked three tickets, not the two we thought we had booked. So, it’s a toss-up between Michelle, Alice or Jim to accompany Tony and me. Alice wins.
There are only 15 or so people on this “Heads Up” tasting, with Mickey Heads and his warehouseman Dugga. So, to warehouse 3 we go
First up, it’s a 1998 first-fill sherry cask (56.9%, matured in oloroso). As with Bruichladdich on Sunday, this is a cracking place to start, lots of butter, salt, and coffee at the end. It’s not too sweet and it’s a belter. It goes really well with the stilton that is placed on a plate along with cheese biscuits and chocolates which are strategically-placed nearby to accompany the whiskies.
Better still, is the 1999 bourbon first-fill (51%) that comes next. All three of us would choose bourbon casks over sherry casks, and this indicates why, full of tropical fruits, pineapple and salt on the nose but with much more of the signature smoky bacon on the palate. It’s very drying and goes very well with the milk chocolate chunks nearby.
Next up is a 1994 refill bourbon cask (55%) which is a blast of rum and raisin ice cream, despite the fact that it’s never been near a rum cask. Along with the rum is a white chocolate theme with dry smoke, melon and late vanilla.
Next was a slight break where we were led to a different part of the warehouse (and banned from taking photos) to where a barrel was placed next to two wooden runners, to recreate the problem of getting filled barrels the right way up on the racks. The problem is thus: given that you want the barrel to end up on its place on the rack with the bung facing up, you need to work out where the bung is when you first roll the barrel onto the runners. I’m not good at geometry so I volunteer, take a guess and start rolling my barrel and am 90º out. Next up is Tony, who should be better at these things given his mathematical bent. He is 180º out. Ha!!! So, back to the tasting.
Fourth is a 1998 refill sherry (oloroso – 52.6%). On the nose, Alice reckoned apple crumble and vanilla custard, with tangerines, blackberries and cinnamon on the nose, and a lovely smooth velvety palate, quite drying, with sweet smoky bacon and more of the vanilla and salt from earlier drams.
The penultimate dram was a 1998 refill sherry which was filled only a few weeks before dram number four. This is a lot more woody (cherry wood Alice thought), with red fruits and slightly menthol and salty. Also, the peat is much more in your face than its younger brother and much sweeter later.
Lastly, we were given a choice of a mystery dram or one of the other casks chosen by Mickey/Dugga. The mystery dram was a unanimous winner. Dugga disappeared and returned with a flask full of what tasted like a very young and sappy malt, fresh, herbal and with lemon. Strange, we thought, had he taken the piss and given us an eaux de vie for the insult? Nope, it turned out to be a 39 year old 1975 (56.4%) expression matured in a third or fourth refill sherry cask. Interesting, but would anyone have identified it as an Ardbeg? No! Worth trying, though. When else would we get to try and 39 year old Ardbeg?
Overall, a great 90 minutes in the company of Mickey and Dugga, both of whom are very modest and good company. This is the reason why, if I was pushed to select my favourite Islay distillery, Ardbeg would win it. It doesn’t feel corporate or too slick and is ultra-friendly. Oh, and the whisky is good too.
After this and a spot of lunch in the always good Old Kiln Cafe, Alice walks with Jim along the newly constructed distillery footpath to Lagavulin for a warehouse tour. Meanwhile, we all go our separate ways for an hour and a half while Jim and Alice go through the contents of six Lagavulin casks.
Hmm, I think I might have a day off drinking tomorrow.