A lot of people may not know it, what with their constant stream of special releases and a devoted Committee of adoring fans, but Islay’s Ardbeg Distillery almost closed up shop in the 1990s. The operation had fallen on hard times and was run for years only sparingly by its previous owners until the Glenmorangie Company acquired them in 1997. In 2016, modernized and restored to its former glory, the distillery launched the Twenty Something series of 20+ year old special edition single malts pulled from some of the last stocks to have been distilled during the bad old days. The first, a 21-year-old, arrived in 2016, followed by a 23-year-old expression in 2017. We got our hands on a wee dram of the third and most recent offering, a 22-year-old made available for purchase only to Ardbeg Committee members in the fall of 2018. This expression was aged exclusively in ex-bourbon casks after being distilled on the old Ardbeg still, which is currently a lawn ornament in the courtyard of the now sleeker and more modern distillery. According to former Ardbeg distillery manager Mickey Heads, “This bottle is a magnificent reminder as to why Ardbeg should never be allowed to disappear.”
It would have definitely been a tragedy if this particular Ardbeg had vanished.
The aroma is deep and sultry, perfumed with that classic Ardbeg coastal smoke, only dialed up with more camphor, sweet baking spice, and fruits. Ripe peaches and grilled pineapple add a bright sweetness that beautifully complements subtler floral notes of lavender and honeysuckle. The palate is silky with the well-tempered smoke of a forgotten campfire on the beach. A bit of lavender reemerges, along with a savory dimension of sweet glazed ham and a bit of wood-driven spice. It’s gently warming from the outset and continues into a lingering finish spiced with a bit of clove and cinnamon and soft, ashy peat smoke. There are glimmers of this whisky in the Traigh Bhan, Ardbeg’s oldest offering off its current stills, but whether the distillery can produce another “twenty-something” single malt with this kind of balance and complexity, only time will tell.