I was a big fan of the “standard” 10 year aged version of Ardbeg, which was bursting with flavor and expressiveness. But could their five year version somehow be even bigger and brasher (as the label seems to imply)? Older spirits tend to have more depth and character than younger ones for good reason, so this would be quite an anomaly. At the very least, it sounded like something that I needed to investigate… over many, many glasses of this whisky.
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 in that year 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, though, 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?
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 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 previously-used American bourbon barrels, which is the same process used by Glenmorangie (and probably sourced via the same supplier, too).
For the Wee Beastie expression, the spirit only spends a minimum of five years in the barrel, an effort to retain more of the peaty smoke characteristics and have a more forceful profile for their spirit. Barrel aging has a tendency to mellow those components out in exchange for more fruity and caramel notes, but here it seems like the goal is to be a complete smokeshow.
This bottle feels like it is toeing the line nicely. It has a good style to it and some special touches, but it isn’t too ostentatious or extravagant.
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. The whole deal 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. (And spoiler alert: in this case, it’s a bit of a shock when you finally see the color of this whiskey compared to what you might expect.)
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 for the distillery — and while, normally, I’d knock the larger label for obscuring the spirit inside the bottle, I think the tinted glass of the bottle does a good enough job of that on its own. It also helps differentiate the styles available from the distillery (the Wee Beastie sports a red band at the top and red accents throughout, which gives it a distinct appearance).
This seems to be a bit more colorful than the 10 year aged version, which seems counterintuitive. I don’t have a glass of the older spirit on hand to compare directly, but I’m betting that there’s a bit more artificial coloring in here. Color is typically something earned with time in a barrel, so it doesn’t make sense that a younger spirit would be darker than the older one… unless that color was artificially added.
Taking a whiff, the peat smoke aroma is thick and powerful. It isn’t overwhelming my senses, but it does overpower just about every other aroma in the glass. I do get a hint of some minerality and some honey, but it’s only just an impression and certainly much less than we saw in the longer aged spirit.
As you might expect, that unbalanced smoky character follows into the flavor. This is an oily and viscous liquid that absolutely destroys your taste buds, almost like you just took a drag of a particularly pungent cigar… but without any of the complexity in the flavor. This is 100% peat smoke, like you’d get in a Scottish pub by the fire, with only the rarest of hints of other flavors. There’s just a flash of minerality, some tiny glimmer of honey, and a hint of that oatmeal-esque malted barley, but they are quickly covered up again by the big black plume of peat smoke.
I’ll give the spirit this much credit: in neither the aroma nor the flavor was the peat smoke “too much” in my opinion. It isn’t acerbic or astringent, instead more mellow and well behaved. It just happens to cover up pretty much anything else in the glass.
I was hopeful that the addition of some ice would tone down the smoke a bit and let some of the other flavors shine through. Unfortunately, it did the opposite — whatever was left of the other flavors has completely disappeared, leaving the smoke alone to rampage across your taste buds.
The only interesting note I have here is that the smoke still isn’t “bad” as a flavor. It’s just the only flavor. There’s no bitterness or unpleasantness (unless you find peat smoke unpleasant).
This is absolutely, undoubtedly the most pleasantly peat smoke filled glass of whiskey I’ve ever had. It’s a one note symphony of smoke and I’m not even mad. The problem is that there are plenty of other bottles that similarly are smokey, but also manage some complexity or depth to the flavors. Here, there’s just simply nothing else — and no room in the flavor profile for anything else to develop.
One thing I’ll say in favor of this bottle is that I think it would be a fantastic cocktail mixer. Drinks like a penicillin cocktail specifically call for a float of peaty smoky scotch over the mixed body of the drink, and I think this would work amazingly well in that capacity. It’s young and inexpensive enough that you don’t feel bad using it in a cocktail, and the smoke flavor doesn’t come with any bitter or annoying quirks that would otherwise throw off the cocktail.
|Ardbeg Wee Beastie
Classification: Single Malt Scotch Whiskey
Aging: 5 Years
Proof: 47% ABV
Price: $39.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 2/5
A big bottle of peat smoke that would be fantastic in a cocktail, but not the most flavorful experience taken neat.