As we’ve been working our way through the Ardbeg product line, I don’t think there’s a single bottle that I haven’t liked so far. Some of them have been a bit underwhelming for the price, but in general they have all been well executed spirits that I’ve enjoyed sipping. So it goes without saying that we have high hopes they maintain that winning streak as we take a look today at Ardbeg An Oa.
Like most distilleries, the story of Ardbeg starts with a farm. Duncan Macdougall was a farmer who rented the Ardbeg farm (the name being an anglicization of “An Àird Bheag” which is Gaelic for “The Small Promontory”), and his son John Macdougall began distilling alcohol on the site using some of the leftover grain from their harvests. They eventually got pretty good at it and wanted to try and make some money from the practice, and in 1815 they were granted a license to officially open the Ardbeg distillery.
For the majority of its history, the distillery produced spirits that were blended with products from other distilleries to create blended scotch whisky (a common practice of the era). They were apparently producing some pretty good stuff, since in 1838 the distillery would be purchased by a Glasgow-based spirits merchant who was blending and selling their own brands and wanted the distillery for themselves.
The day-to-day operations of the distillery remained in the hands of the Macdougall family, passing to John’s son Alexander and then eventually in 1853 to sisters Margaret and Flora — who may be the first female distillery operators in Scotch history (but please, comment on the article if you know of any earlier female distillers).
Ardbeg would continue producing blended sprits for the Scottish whiskey industry and didn’t particularly care about their own brand name until 1911, when they finally got around to trademarking their name and the distinctive stylistic “A” that they still use on their branding to this day.
Things were going pretty well for the distillery until about the 1970’s, when the whiskey market crashed and a lot of distilleries started going out of business. The Ardbeg distillery fell on some hard timed and was sold to Hiram Walker in 1977 — and despite their best efforts, by 1981 the distillery was shuttered and production ceased.
Six years later, Allied Lyons (a conglomerate of Scottish whiskey distilleries) purchased the Ardbeg distillery and started renovating it to try and get it re-opened. The distillery restarted operations in 1989, once again fulfilling a need for strong Islay scotch whisky for blenders to use in their creations. The distillery would be further purchased in 1997 by Glenmorangie, who embraced the concept of single malt spirits coming from the Ardbeg distillery and released a series of incrementally better single malt spirits that led to the launch of their Ten Years Old brand in the year 2000.
Glenmorangie and Ardbeg would later be purchased by LVMH Moët Hennessy – Louis Vuitton SE in 2004, who continues to own both distilleries to this day.
- Learn More: What Is Scotch Whisky?
For this newer offering from Ardbeg the name comes from the Mull of Oa, the tip of a rocky peninsula on Islay near where the distillery is located.
As a single malt scotch whisky, this spirit starts out as a shipment of 100% malted barley from the Port Ellen suppliers. As you’d expect from what started as a farm distillery, Ardbeg used to have its own malting floor but that was sadly closed in 1977 when the distillery hit hard times and has not been re-opened. For their barley shipments, Ardbeg selects a version of the barley where peat moss has been used to slightly cook the malted barley and stop the malting process, which leaves behind a very rich and thick flavor on the grains themselves.
Those grains are shipped to the Islay-based distillery where they are cooked, fermented, and then distilled twice in the restored copper pot stills on-site at the Ardbeg facility.
After distillation, the spirit is placed into a selection of barrels — some previously used American bourbon barrels, some former Pedro Ximenez sherry casks, and even a handful of brand new charred oak casks. There the whisky sits for an undisclosed period of time (but at least three years) before it is dumped into a “gathering vat” together with other strains of Ardbeg spirits and blended together to create the final product we see here today.
I’ve really enjoyed the design work that they do for their bottles at Ardbeg. I feel like there’s a good balance, with older practices like colored glass and embellished lettering that are nicely mingled with more modern styling and concepts.
The bottle itself is designed in a fairly traditional structure, with the round body, quickly curved shoulder, and medium length neck sporting a convenient bulge. The big differences here are the flared base, as well as the addition of the Ardbeg stylized “A” embossed in the glass itself. It’s just enough to set the bottle apart, and the whole thing is capped off with a plastic and cork stopper.
One thing to note is the significant level of tint to the glass. Green tinted glass has traditionally been used to keep the liquid inside from degrading with exposure to light, which is appreciated, but it does obscure the color of the contents inside.
I feel like the label does a good job conveying the important details without going overboard. It’s a pretty simple design that really highlights the distillery name and the stylized A — and while, normally, I’d knock the larger label for obscuring the spirit inside the bottle, I think the tinted glass of the bottle already does enough of that on its own.
The whisky has a darker color than most other Scottish spirits, more closely resembling the Ardbeg Uigeadail we tried previously (although not quite as dark). It has a touch of an orange hue, which is a typical characteristic of American bourbons and might be caused by the new charred oak barrels used in the production process.
I was pleasantly surprised at the aroma — from a distance, the peaty smoke is the only thing that comes through clearly, but if you really get your nose in the glass it turns out to be a much lighter and fruitier aroma than you’d expect. I’m getting some good hearty oatmeal cereal, cinnamon, apple, and a touch of honey with that peaty smoke just wafting in the background.
At first glance, the flavors follow very closely to the aroma. Oatmeal, cinnamon, and apple are all present, followed shortly by a bit of sourdough bread with some honey on top. Something to note is that the cinnamon and some other baking spices are just properly saturated enough to provide some weight to the drink and keep it from feeling watery or light.
As the flavor develops, I get a bit of dark chocolate and some floral blossoms that really start to shine through, and then on the finish they hit you with the heavy thick smoke. It has that same kind of viscosity as oily diesel exhaust, but with all the pleasantness and approachableness of a Scottish pub… just like you’d expect from an Islay scotch whisky.
This is actually a really interesting spirit on ice. The addition of some ice usually results in one flavor or another being dropped from the mixture, but instead what we’re getting is a more complete mixture between the various components.
Specifically, what I’m seeing when the ice is added to the drink is that the smoky flavor and the dark chocolate are present from the very moment you take a sip. Instead of needing to wait for those flavors to develop, they have been incorporated into the main body of the flavor profile and mingle with everything else. I’m still getting the oatmeal, the sourdough bread, the floral blossoms, and everything else — but the smoke is now wafting through those earlier components and providing more character and complexity than before.
I think it’s a really nice touch.
Some people online are stating that this is intended to be Ardbeg’s new “entry level” offering, and from what I can tell of the manufacturing process that seems to be accurate. This is a result of a dumping ground of a whole bunch of different barrels that all combine to make one bottle of spirits, and not necessarily the bottle they were originally intending to make.
That said, I think this is actually a pretty darn good sip of whisky. There’s plenty of flavor in here to keep yourself entertained, and the changes that happen once some ice gets added to the mixture only makes things more interesting. I wouldn’t hesitate to spend the money to buy another bottle, and definitely wouldn’t look down on being offered a glass if it were available.
Where I think this falls down a bit is in comparison to others at this price range. It’s a good bottle, but there isn’t quite as much complexity as some of the other offerings in this same area You can do better if you really look. But for me, I’m going to keep enjoying this bottle for a while.
|Ardbeg An Oa Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Classification: Single Malt Scotch Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 57.1% ABV
Price: $59.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 3/5
Tastes like a slightly smoky bowl of oatmeal — complete with cinnamon and apples. Delicious, but not quite as complex as other bottles.