A 200th anniversary is an enviable milestone for any company, but for Ardbeg, the Islay Scotch whisky distillery, it seems to be not only that, but a stepping-off point for an endless future. At least that's the implication behind the title and the infinity symbol on the label of its commemorative single malt: Perpetuum.
The no-age-statement whisky that goes on sale globally on May 30 (officially Ardbeg Day on Islay) made quite a splash in the present day when a special offering was made available to its 110,000-strong fan club, called the Ardbeg Committee, on May 4. Demand for the prerelease crashed its website.
Known for his innovations in Scotch making, Dr. Bill Lumsden, director of distilling and whisky creation for Ardbeg and Glenmorangie (both owned by Moët Hennessey), says he has many new products in the pipeline and great optimism for the future. "The idea of the [founding of the] Ardbeg Committee was to bring together so many Ardbeg lovers that the door to the distillery would never close again," Lumsden discloses and then tempers his forecast a bit. "In reality, what we are looking forward to is the next 200 years of distillation."
Perpetuum is, however, more a testament to the last decade and a half of Ardbeg's history. Lumsden says that when his company bought the distillery in 1997, it took over a brand that had had a "checkered past" for the better part of the last half-century. There were "changes of ownership, people who didn't [take care of it very well], large quantities of the stock only used in blends; the distillery had been opened and closed, open and closed."
Under Lumsden's stewardship a parade of whiskies joined the flagship 10-year-old whisky (one of Ardbeg's few age-statement bottlings). It is that whisky, matured in Bourbon barrels, that makes up the core of Perpetuum. However, the new release also "encapsulates Ardbeg's greatest hits of the last few years of our ownership." He ticks off components such as whisky aged in a mix of Bourbon and Sherry casks (reminiscent of the Uigeadail), virgin French Oak vessels (like Corryvreckan), heavily charred, American white-oak barrels (Alligator) and Manzanilla Sherry casks (used for Ardbog).
The whisky, which is not chill-filtered, also doesn't announce its age, which by Scotch Whisky Association rules is defined by the youngest malt in the bottle. Lumsden explains that while the marriage contains some venerably old whisky, the official maturity is "not necessarily the sexiest age to have on a bottle...but I wasn't letting age restrict me in any way shape or form. I was simply taking parcels of whisky that I like and putting in different bits and pieces. It was all about blending it to taste, and that's what I've done."
The result is a testament to the potential of the no-age-statement (NAS) movement, which allows for a wide variety of tasting notes in a single dram.
While the new whisky recognizes the recent past of Ardbeg, Lumsden has many things in the works, as well as ideas for the future. "We're not simply looking back in time, we are looking forward with great optimism," he proclaims. "I've got loads of things on the go at Ardbeg, some of which will have you scratching your head and thinking, ‘Has he gone mad?' "
Lumsden guardedly adds that he is even experimenting with things that couldn't even be classified as Scotch whisky. "As far as new products are concerned, you ain't seen nothing yet."
Ardbeg Perpetuum (94.8 proof, or 47.4 percent alcohol by volume, no age statement, $100 for a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Corn silk color. Leggy, with a medium crawl.
NOSE: Very inviting and toasty peat, with an underlying sweetness that speaks of honey, citrus and grapes, as well as a hint of rubber and a salty spray of surf.
PALATE: Of course, all the smokiness of Ardbeg shows up, but it's by no means the star of the show. This, in a way, is the hallmark of Ardbeg: despite its front-running peat content (55 parts per million phenol), it achieves balance and depth of flavor. The headliners here are hard candy with lemon, honey, slight orange (like marmalade on toast), molasses, chocolate and Sherry.
FINISH: Peat ushers the whisky out with a lengthy finish that bespeaks the whisky's name. Bursts of fruit, cocoa and piney-mint punctuate the ending.
CIGAR PAIRING: Rocky Patel II-XXVI Toro (6 1/2 inches by 52 ring gauge, $13.95, 89 points, December 2014 Cigar Aficionado) A dark, richly hued cigar that starts out with velvety intonations of chocolate cake and cappuccino, but the rich cocoa character dissipates quickly, leaving an herbal smoke. The chocolate and coffee intrigued us as a partner to the sweetness of the whisky. Moreover, the idea of importing the herbal character was attractive. The marriage succeeded, hitting on all cylinders. The cigar's cocoa fairly climaxed under the Ardbeg's influence as similar notes increased in the whisky. The Ardbeg got even toastier under the RP's herbal influence, gaining some saltiness and creating that nutty, candy-bar effect we love.
Alec Bradley Tempus Medius 6 (6 inches by 52 ring gauge, $9.00, 90 points, December 2014 Cigar Aficionado) Sweet and earthy with hints of black cherry and coffee, though there is a touch of chalkiness on the finish. Again, the coffee drew us here, this time with hopes of also filling out the whisky's fruit quotient with the cherry from the cigar. Once more, the choice of cigar kept the appointment. The-jam-on-toast result was even more pronounced. Unexpected was the big dose of leather that the whisky gives the cigar. The hinted-at mint and pine of the Ardbeg arises even more as it is enjoyed with the Tempus. However, the fruit and honey of the whisky isn't as quick to show itself. The toughest part of this tasting was choosing the winning pair, but in the end this was it.