Friday, April 30, 2010

Scotch Whisky Review: Ardbeg Uigeadail

"Oog-a-dal." It is named for the Loch that is one of the sources of the Ardbeg Distillery's water. I've packed up most of my whisky and put it into our climate-controlled storage unit in an attempt to make some room in the apartment while we pack to move. The only ones I left out were a couple of sample-sized bottles from Glenmorangie, and the dreaded McClelland's Islay, which I left out in an attempt to convince myself to finish it before I can taste anything else. That effort isn't really working, and so today I just had to pick up something else. Stadium Market just happened to have the whole Ardbeg line in stock!

This one is a little tricky to review. Jim Murray named it World Whisky of the Year. Here's a video clip showing Murray with Rachel Barrie of Ardbeg. After an introduction like that, how can I be objective? Or honestly subjective about my own impression?

Well, I'll try. Interestingly, if I had tried this whisky a year ago, I probably would not have been quite ready to appreciate it. I needed to experience whiskies from the various distilling regions of Scotland, as well as several distilleries from Islay. I'm glad I had the opportunity this past Monday night to taste the standard Ardbeg 10, which I found very good. This allows me to put the "oogie" in perspective.

The "benchmark" Islay whisky for many folks is the Laphroaig 10. Laphroaig is highly peated, and provides a big blast of peat, with its phenolic and smoky flavors. If that is all it offered, though, the whisky would not be very good. But it also offers a very flavorful set of sweet, fruity, and malty flavors. These coexist in a way that is hard to describe, but lovely to drink. Laphroaig's notes describe the finish as coming in "alternating waves," and that's accurate -- the peaty flavors and sweet flavors literally take turns on your palate. The Laphroaig that I bought a bottle of is the Quarter Cask, which is cask strength, with a great deal of development of cask flavors.

The Ardbeg 10 is also peated, although the overall smoke and peat is not quite as pungent as the Laphroaig 10. I did not get to give it a long and full tasting in its own right, but it is warming and wonderful, with sweet and dry rich fruit notes, especially dates and prunes; the Ardbeg 10 is definitely on my short list to purchase in the near future.

The Uigeadail is, like the Talisker and Lagavulin Distiller's Editions, finished in sherry casks. After tasting those two bottlings, and comparing them to the Talisker 10 and Lagavulin 16, I would expect the Oogie to have undergone similar changes -- for the sherry to add a layer of complexity and winey notes, and for some of the more pungent notes to be damped down. But what do my eyes, nose, and tongue say?

The Oogie looks like an extra-aged expression -- the color is red-gold and extremely pretty. It forms legs very slowly, but they are well-defined. At 54.2%, this is a very high-alcohol whisky; exercise caution appropriately (I am tasting a smaller-than-normal serving).

On the nose, there is some of that phenolic Listerine aroma, smoke, and some vanilla sweetness. It is not as malty-smelling as the Laphroaig -- I'm not reminded of a sandwich cookie. There are sherry notes but they seem somehow less sweet and more dry. Overall, the effect of the sherry is fairly subtle. There is a seashore saltiness -- I'm reminded of saltine crackers, actually. There is citrus -- in the case of the oogie, it isn't orange, but lime.

One of the hallmarks of a good whisky is that the flavor evolves as you drink it, holding your interest. The oogie has a nose alone that evolves as I continue to sniff it. None of the notes on the nose are overwhelming. They blend and shift, and with the high ABV, the smell quickly begins to permeate the room.

On the tongue, the whisky is extremely warming -- hot all the way down to the belly. The texture is enormously silky and smooth, almost like unset gelatin. It is not as sweet as one might expect with the sherry cask aging -- I'm reminded of quinine in tonic water -- it somehow makes me think of a gin and tonic. That must be some aromatic compound in there that is reminiscent of juniper.

The finish is very long and there are some meaty notes -- Michael Jackson is very accurate when he says it is "like standing downwind of the barbecue while steaks are char-grilled on the beach." But there is more to it than that -- I'm also strongly reminded of a combination of fishy and salty flavors, such as the tins of smoked kippers, packed in oil, that Grace and I sometimes put on crackers. The fish notes are there, as well as the cracked pepper and fruity olive oil. It's quite an unusual and extremely flavorful note to end on.

There are just so many notes here -- a little licorice, a little pepper, a little butter. There are hints of some things a little less savory, like sweaty armpit, lighter fluid, pine solvent, charcoal, and a used ashtray. One writer noted that it is a bit like licking someone's sweaty skin, and I think that's accurate; the flavors are a bit erotic, actually. There are some spices, particularly caraway seeds. The smokiness is not a simple thing, but hides all kinds of complexity -- burning sea grass, driftwood, and pine needles. That extremely smooth texture, and light but not cloying sweetness, ensure that you will come back for another sip.

It might be a near-criminal act to water this, but let's give it just a bit and see what happens. On the nose, the citrus aromas come down a bit, and it's more prominently tobacco smoke and iodine. On the tongue, it's a little sweeter and more conventional, although it doesn't seem to lose any complexity -- all those sea flavors are still there on the finish. I get a new, definite note of hot, candied ginger. The finish does become slightly less pleasant, though -- we're left with a little more of the pine solvent flavors at the end. So -- it is more intense straight, and you should taste it that way. But if it is too hot going down, don't feel too bad about watering it just a touch. 54.2% -- almost 110 proof -- is a lot of alcohol, even more than the Knob Creek bourbon which is at 100 proof, and notably stronger than most vodkas, gins, bourbons, and whiskies, which tend to be diluted to a standard 80 proof or 40% alcohol.

So -- subjectively -- how do I like this one?

I really, really enjoy that complexity. It evolves sip by sip, and that's fascinating. In fact, if you taste it again tomorrow, or at a slightly different temperature, or having eaten a different meal first, you will probably discover something new. It's so complex that I feel like I have only really just begun to tease out flavors.

I like the maritime notes. I'm a big fan of mackerel, smoked salmon, and barbecue. But where did the sweeter notes from sherry aging go? It's a little hard to say. And where are the spices and the nuts that I love in other whiskies? Where are the floral notes? Where is the butterscotch and malt?

The answer is that they are not present in this style, or present in limited quantities. (That's not a bad thing; they would clash with the basic Islay flavors). This is probably the ultimate, or near-ultimate, Islay whisky, insofar as it embodies the terroir of Islay. (The Supernova may take this a little farther, but I haven't tasted it yet).

It is certainly one of the best whiskies I've ever tasted. But is it my absolute favorite? Actually, at the moment I prefer the Laphroaig Quarter Cask just slightly. I prefer Bunnahabhain by a nose. I'm still exploring the Lagavulin and Talisker Distiller's Editions, which also have very complex flavors to explore.

I give the Oogie a 9.5, for its phenomenal complexity and wonderfully evolving maritime flavors -- this is the highest rating I've yet given out. If you like Islay whiskies, you simply must try this one. (If you aren't already an Islay fan, this is not a good one to start with; try Bunnahabhain 12 or Caol Ila 12). But despite the fact that I really appreciate that complexity, it is not quite my personal favorite. But then again, I've only been tasting Islay whiskies for a few months, and my tastes are still evolving. There is so much more out there to taste. Check back in a year!

2 comments:

Fred Hoffman said...

Bunnha beats U De Gal! everytime.

Garret Brough said...

I feel that Ardbeg has a smokier flavour than bunnha, if I get the chance I will try bunnha .