The 2017 release for Ardbeg Day is Kelpie. A combination whiskies aged in virgin Black-Sea oak casks and bourbon barrels, this is rich and intense with notes of pepper, treacle toffee, Turkish coffee, dark chocolate and smoky bacon.
In this day and age it is rare for a company to innovate. Especially at the level of the whisky space. Innovation isn’t necessarily on the radar of most whisky brands and, good for them, there’s so much they’re doing well already. They already have the market share and the contact with the whisky adoring public. They have no reason and little incentive to try and reinvent the wheel. Let alone make a square one.
That’s not how Ardbeg rolls. It has been a beacon of innovation for decades now and has never done anything quite the way other distillers do it. That makes sense for an Islay distillery, which is a place that thrives on challenging convention. A place where peat is king, but it is not the only tool in the shed.
Ardbeg’s been doing something different for a while, but it’s hard to properly say that until you look at their last decade of releases. Not the bottles that are widely available but the bottles that are the most experimental and unique. The last decade has seen the distillery pour out its Ardbeg Pride, Supernova, SMWS bottlings, Laddie Ten, Uigeadail, Corryvreckan, Alligator, Supernova, and Galileo. In that time, the flagship releases have increased in price but shrunk in content. More is not necessarily better here. What we see is a philosophical shift in the company. There’s more emphasis on cask-finished non-age statements. For a distillery that has been fighting the industry standard of transparency, there have been no age statement releases for quite a while now. Finishes and vintages have been the focus. There is very little age statement whisky coming out of the distillery now.
There’s a common thread to all of these releases, besides the obvious that they’re all Ardbeg, distilled and matured on Islay. These releases are big, very big, in terms of prices and alcohol levels. They are pugilists all. There are only a few accolades in Scotch whisky, and the one that’s on everyone’s lips is “world’s strongest whisky.” Ardbeg has that badge. They’re the only distillery that can make a 55% single malt. The only distillery that can make a straight peated whiskey that’s above 51% abv. But these releases aren’t just about power. They’re about taking Ardbeg to the next level. They’re about creating new and innovative whiskies that challenge and delight the palate in entirely new ways.
It’s wonderful to see an old legend innovate and “experiment” (chuckle, chuckle). There are brands that sit around and do nothing but bloat themselves with age statements. You see, those brands thrive on profit margins. They know that they can make something that will sell, are proud of it, and be the envy of the world for the most part. They know their whiskies, they know the buying public, so they can press that pedal to the floorboard of their machine. That makes sense, and there’s nothing wrong with that. They’re doing great things, but that’s not how Ardbeg rolls.
Ardbeg Kelpie was released this year as the 2017 release for Ardbeg Day. It is the most expensive Ardbeg ever. It is also one of the most innovative whiskies ever released, let alone from Ardbeg. This is going to be a tough one to review because they don’t give you exact information about every single element of this whisky. They don’t say exactly how much Ardbeg there is in the non-Ardbeg whiskies. There’s only a hint of the whiskies used in the various cask finishes. The specific casks the young spirit was finished in are being kept under wraps, but the general area is given.
There’s a lot to take in here. Some people don’t like this, others don’t care. If all you want is the technical stuff and tasting notes, you’ll be left wanting more. For me, there’s something extremely exciting about Kelpie because it’s such a different format. I love the idea of a finished whisky instead of an “age-statement” whisky. Put another way, we get to know the age of this whisky, but we have to figure out how old it is ourselves.
Ardbeg Kelpie is a finished whisky, a non-age statement whisky, and a non-Ardbeg whisky. It’s also a celebration of 50 years of Ardbeg and it’s massive at 48% abv. That abv is clearly the main focus of this whisky and it smells absolutely overwhelming. It’s a whisky that will try to knock you down, scare you, maybe even scare you a little bit. Kelpie will intimidate you. You’ll be afraid when you take a swig. That’s the plan, to knock you on your ass, leave you feeling sorry for yourself, and with a taste that carries you far from Islay.
Nose: Pepper, pepper, and more pepper. Big, big pepper. It’s intense, but not overpowering. It’s tamed and rounded and opens up to reveal strong notes of chocolate, dark chocolate to be specific, and coffee. There’s some mint there too, and some nutmeg and cardamon. But the big, dark, robust chocolate notes stay for the duration.
Palate: There is a lot of youthful Ardbeg in this whisky. A lot of strong, peppery notes. A lot of chocolate and some smoky, savory spices. There’s also sweet, spicy demerara sugar, and a cascade of toasted malts, allspice, cinnamon, and pepper.
Finish: The finish tastes of pepper running rampant and asking for more. It’s a wild, wet, round pepper that’s spicy and hot. There’s a mixture of sugar and dark chocolate that’s smooth and makes the finish a little more palatable. It’s a smooth finish as the heat of the pepper fades away and shows an indication of cask strength whisky being left on the palate.
Conclusion: This is a whammy whisky. Ardbeg Kelpie is a punch in the gut that tastes like a punch in the gut. The effort is there, the reward is there too, just on a delayed basis. You’re going to feel a little something when you drink this whisky. You’re going to feel it a lot. You’re going to feel the fire on your lips and the fire burning your throat. This isn’t some delicate, nuanced whisky that you’re going to casually sip on the veranda of your mansion while looking out at the ocean. It’s going to hit you like a train, and you’re going to have to take it like a man.