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Monday, 7 July 2014

The Guide to Home Smoking: Ardbeg Kildalton

Blimey, that was a swift three weeks!  Our recent inactivity over the aforementioned period was largely down to travelling, spiritual enlightenment and a mixture of other interferences, but we return to our desks a little more well travelled, a little more enlightened and a little more interfer.... whoops... that didn't work did it....

Anyway, with the current clutch of whisky releases (Highland Park Dark Origins, Tomatin Cu Bocan 1989 and Kininvie 23 year old - which will all be reviewed in due course) we turn ourselves to another tasty titbit, which follows on nicely from our previous Islay-based post.  

Mention the word Ardbeg in certain circles and you'll usually be confronted by a frothing mess of superlatives delivered by a dribbling, stammering whisky obsessive -  usually from Western Europe or Scandinavia. In short, we can think of very few distilleries that have some how managed to capture the hearts of such an obsessive and tight-knit clique. Since the Ardbeg Committee sprung up in the year 2000, quickly gaining over 3,000 international followers, the reputation of the brand for being one of Islay's real treasures has truly unfolded. Today there are over 50,000 members of the committee, making it one of the most popular brand affiliation programmes (to use the formal tongue of marketing speak) within the whisky business. 

The committee release bottlings have historically been a way to gauge the progress of the development of the whisky released by Ardbeg: From Very Young For Discussion (the first taste of Ardbeg since it reopened) to the 'Oogling' (a work in progress version of Uigeadail) and latter day releases (Supernova, RollercoasterAlligator and Ardbeg Day etc) the committee members could get their mits on limited release bottles before anyone else.  

This however created a problem: Such exponential growth meant that, rather like concert tickets for a one-off Led Zeppelin (or One Direction, if you are that way inclined) concert you effectively had to be sitting at your computer at 8.59am, ready, logged in and poised to enter your Visa details before anyone else.  The releases went from 100's of bottles, to a few thousand to 10's of thousands, simply to cater for the mass disappointment felt when those not quick enough missed out.  

It's a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't.  

But with Ardbeg's newest release (ok not a Committee release, but a limited edition) the theme has changed somewhat.

Kildalton is an important name in the world of the Ileach - and the whisky connoisseur. Head to Islay and take the short drive down along the south shore road, past Laphroaig, Lagavulin and the Ardbeg distillery and eventually you will end up at a weather beaten, ruinous parish church. The Cross of Kildalton stands proudly on this hallowed spot and anyone who has visited will tell you that it is a very special place indeed. The cross itself is over 1,200 years old and acts as a symbol of of Hebridean life; it is a haven of tranquility and spiritual enlightenment.  

Ardbeg released an expression back in 2004 under the Kildalton banner. It was effectively a very lowly peated whisky at cask strength distilled in 1980, which was rated so positively by connoisseurs around the world, that any bottles still in existence are now becoming increasingly difficult to find.  A Kildalton from 1981 was also released as part of a special pack celebrating Ardbeg peat, which you can pick up at auction and is well worth hunting down. It also contains a miniature of the legendary Ardbeg 17 year old.

However, the name Kildalton has been resurrected once again -  and this time comes with a charitable connection.  

Sales of the new limited edition Ardbeg Kildalton bottling will generate funds for the North Highland Initiative, a charity that was set up by HRH Prince Charles to support fragile rural communities across the North Highlands. As part of this, the partnership will directly benefit charities and community organisations on Islay.   

So what of the whisky itself?  

Well the new Kildalton expression is bottled at 46%  and carries no age statement. Drawing on peated whiskies from both bourbon and sherry casks, it is quite different to the original Kildalton release, but is distinctly different from some of the more robust smoky expressions in the range.

Perhaps the most important part of the story is that until later this autumn, the whisky is only available to buy at the distillery itself, after such time it will be available online. The outturn remains unknown, but we suspect it will be enough to cater for the many thousands of die-hard Ardbeg fans out there. Worth taking a trip out to Islay especially?  Let's find out...

Ardbeg - Kildalton - 2014 Release - No Age Statement - 46%  - RRP £120 

Nose: Light and very creamy at first, with a mixture of soft toffee, dried flowers and a hint of floral style smoke, alongside some sweet Earl Grey tea. It is fairly gentle, with a graceful approach to smokiness, as opposed to kicking you in the nose with big bonfire or medicinal notes. Similarities to the original Kildalton?  Yes, for sure. Perhaps not quite as refined, but anyone finding the full blown notes from the distillery too overpowering will fall for this quite easily. 

Palate: Wow, there's the smoke. Incredibly dry, with a wood-influenced peatiness,  some coal tar soap, caramel and an earthiness all begin to develop. It's certainly a whisky of two minds, this one. Given time, the wood reveals a slight sweetness -  possibly a little sherry influence too, but it is well packaged and balanced all in all. 

Finish: A dry, lingering smoky residue is left on the tongue, with a touch of the medicinal side of smoke developing and some orchard fruit. 

Overall: Here we find Ardbeg in playful territory. It is smoky enough to give peat heads their fix (who wants the stupidly overly peated expressions these days?  Not us, that's for sure...) and has a delicious lingering freshness alongside. Yes it is expensive for a no age statement Ardbeg, but factor in the charitable connection and it's hard not to feel some affection for the new Kildalton.  

Worth taking a trip for?  It's Islay we're talking about here. Of course it bloody well is.