The Ardbeg distillery is located on the western Scottish island of Islay, which is famous for producing the smoky, peaty style of whisky. It is situated in the south east of the island and produces some of the peatiest, smokiest whiskies in the world. Ardbeg was founded in 1815 by John MacDougall, although records do show that a distillery was operating on the site as far back as 1794. The current owners are drinks company Moet Hennessey, who took over in 1997, and the distillery is small with a capacity of around one million litres per year. Most of the whisky produced is released as single malt, although Ardbeg also appears occasionally through independent bottling companies, although these are becoming rarer, and has a cult following of whisky drinkers across the world.
The Alligator is so called as it has been matured in heavily charred American oak casks and the heavy charring/burning makes the inside of the cask look like blackened alligator skin (this is actually called an ‘alligator char’, hence the name of the whisky). A number of these casks were filled and laid down to mature in 2000 and the Alligator has been created by marrying whiskies from a selection of these casks together with some regular Ardbeg ex-bourbon casks. The whisky is only available to Ardbeg Committee members (this is free to join via their website, www.ardbeg.com) and was released on 1 June. A further batch will get a limited general release in Europe, the UK, the USA and selected Asian markets in September of this year. This Committee version is bottled at 51.2% ABV and has already sold out! It had a retail price of £55 plus postage.
Our bottle of Ardbeg Alligator has just arrived in the post and it will remain sealed for now. We had heard a rumour that each of the Ardbeg Embassies (selected retailers who champion everything Ardbeg) have a 4.5 litre bottle of the Alligator for consumers to sample ... so, we paid a visit to the newest one in London to try a snifter of this intriguing new whisky. This was at The Whisky Exchange, the renowned specialist spirits retailer which sits on London's South Bank. For the full Ardbeg Embassy list and to find the one nearest to you, where you can try the Alligator for yourself - click here.
Our tasting notes
The colour is a dark gold with a brownish tint and the nose is youthful and punchy. This hits you with aromas of vibrant zesty lemon, rich oatcake biscuits and spicy burning peat and moss. Initially, it is difficult to detect other aromas through these powerful, robust ones but with time some sweet vanilla, honey and oaky wood spice come through. There is also a whiff of scorched or burnt rubber in there. On the palate, this whisky has an instant and huge impact with plenty of notes fighting for attention - tangy lemon zest, spicy chilli peppers, sweet syrupy honey, vanilla, roasted nuts (this is particularly evocative of roasted chestnuts at Christmas), burnt oat-like cereals, damp moss and plenty of smouldering charcoal and bonfire embers. The spicy and peaty/mossy notes are huge and increase as you move towards the finish. The finish is intense and very long with a lovely combination of the oaty cereals, burning peat/ashy embers and chilli-like spiciness prominent. The high ABV alcohol strength and the powerful nature of the whisky suggest adding some water - after just a few drops it seemed to fall apart slightly and become unbalanced, with the sweeter elements becoming diluted and the bitter/scorched charcoal notes coming to the fore. The more water we added, the more it seemed to become unbalanced.
What's the verdict?
Ardbeg Alligator is not for the faint-hearted. It is a big, brash, fiery whisky with numerous pleasant but exaggerated notes. The heavy charring of the casks used for maturing the whisky dictates that it cannot really be any other way and as a result, this whisky will be too much for some. It takes plenty of work on the drinkers part to get through each sip, but it is well worth it as Alligator offers so much. The apparent awkward mix of characteristics combine well, with the sweeter notes compensating for the bitter, smoky and spicy ones. The only disappointment is that this balance is broken by adding water. If you like your whiskies with plenty of peat, then you should love this - it's very good and lives up to the hype.