May 28th 2016, better known as Ardbeg Day, or ‘Ardbeg Night’ as it will be called this year, is nearly upon us and whisky enthusiasts the world over are anxiously awaiting the official release of this year’s special commemorative bottling… Dark Cove. What is being touted as the “DARKEST ARDBEG EVER” is a 46.5% ABV, non-chill filtered, NAS release consisting of whisky aged primarily in ex-bourbon casks, the ‘heart’ of which has been aged in ‘dark sherry’ casks. A little vague, but perhaps that lends to the air of mystery surrounding the occasion. Fittingly, the theme of this year’s Ardbeg Night harks back to the illicit activities related to the distilling and smuggling of spirits that took place within the hidden caves and secret beaches of the area surrounding what is now Ardbeg Distillery. While there is also a separate “Committee Release” of Dark Cove bottled at a higher 55% ABV, this will only be available to Ardbeg Committee members.
Now say what you will about the commercialization of the occasion, and don’t even get me started on what happens to the prices of these bottles in the aftermarket, but I for one appreciate what I see Ardbeg doing by creating these annual special releases… it gives fans something to look forward to each year, it creates excitement and enthusiasm in the whisky community, it stimulates conversation and debate, and it shows what can be accomplished by stepping outside the box on occasion. Some of their special releases are better received than others, but I can’t help but admire the fact that they are willing to try, year after year, to come up with something a little different.
Love it or hate it, once you’ve tried Ardbeg, you are not likely to forget it. I can clearly remember the day I brought home my first bottle of Ardbeg. It was only the third or fourth bottle of scotch I ever purchased, and I bought it on the recommendation of the store clerk who happened to know my wife. “Oh yeah, if you’re going to be a scotch drinker, you’re going to need a bottle of this on your shelf. It’s one of my favorites!” he says. Well, he seemed like a reasonable enough man, and with me being new to scotch and looking to try something different, I heeded his suggestion and proudly strutted up to the front register with a bottle of Ardbeg TEN in hand. We had one more stop to make before heading home, and I was itching to get there and taste this new ‘Islay single malt’ I knew nothing about. We finally made it back to the house, and I hurried off to my tiny bar and anxiously peeled back the foil top. The cork almost popped itself off there was so much energy in the room, and that’s when it hit me, the bottle still at arm’s length, the first wave of some other-worldly scent crept its way into the back of my nostrils.
Whoa!! What have I gotten myself into? I set the bottle down and timidly, almost against my will, walked over and grabbed my favorite drinking glass. From the other room, I hear my wife chiming in, “Oh my god! What IS that? I can smell it from here!” Once the smoke detectors quit beeping (not really, but I’m surprised they didn’t go off) I proceeded to pour myself a small dram and was once again caught off guard by the extremely pale color of the liquid coming from the dark, opaque green bottle. I was baffled by how a whisky so light and unassuming in color could emanate an odor so sharp and biting. Almost like a child taking their medicine, I closed my eyes and raised the glass to my lips, wincing as I braced myself for the worst. I managed to swallow it down and needless to say, I survived, but quickly bottled the beast back up and wondered what in the heck I was going to do with this regrettable purchase. (Maybe that guy back at the liquor store would be willing to take it off my hands for a steep discount??)
Fast forward to today, almost two years later, and I actually STILL have that same bottle. There are only a few pours left and I have honestly come to enjoy this type of whisky. I wouldn’t classify myself as a “peathead”, and in fact, I’m more inclined to favor the whiskies at the opposite end of the spectrum (i.e. Sherry Monsters). However, I’ve grown to love that salty, smoky, medicinal taste, and occasionally even crave it. As time went on, my whisky collection grew to include several other peated whiskies and somewhere along the line, I discovered what I considered to be a fair compromise. Peaty scotches finished in sherried casks. Peat meets sweet! I’ve tried a few and Ardbeg’s own Uigeadail has been among my favorites.
So when given the opportunity to have an early look at the new Ardbeg Dark Cove, the DARKEST ARDBEG EVER, I jumped at the chance. Let’s get down to business, pour a sample, and see how it stacks up…
Ardbeg Dark Cove Scotch Whisky Review
Name: Ardbeg Dark Cove Scotch Whisky
Proof: 93 proof / 46.5% ABV
Age: NAS – No Age Statement
How I Drank It: Initially, neat from a Glencairn glass. This is my preferred method for non-cask strength whiskies. The first time I try a new whisky, I may add a few drops of water to see how it influences the flavors, which I did here… for science. Rarely will I add ice to a single malt scotch whisky, but I have done so before, and every once in a while, I like what happens. I could not bring myself to do so here.
Nose: Immediately upon pouring the whisky, an unexpectedly soft, creamy sweetness wafted up from the glass. As I dove in deeper, I could easily detect the salty, peaty, medicinal / iodine notes Ardbeg is known for, but they seemed to remain in the background at first. Up front, I found the sweeter red fruits, plums, and raisins along with a touch of ethanol and shavings of charcoal. With a little time to rest in the glass, the smoky, peaty aromas came forward and began to compete for attention. I found the addition of a few drops of water sent the sweetness running for cover, allowing the earthy, peaty, iodine notes to shine. Think fruitcake baking over an open fire while you’re waiting to see the Dr. in the Emergency Room.
Taste: The palate followed the nose pretty closely. Initially, there was no single element that stuck out, and I had to get in there and pick it apart to be able to identify specific notes. I was reminded of the spectators at a game of tennis with their heads going back and forth as they follow the ball… it’s sweet, it’s earthy, no it’s sweet, no, it’s earthy. As I allowed the spirit to rest on my tongue and swish it around my mouth a bit, the woody oak tannins became more apparent and brought on a bit of tart dryness, but nothing overwhelming. Other notes included saline, iodine, unsweetened dark chocolate, a touch of spicy clove, and something I couldn’t put a finger on, but I kept thinking “shrimp.” Not in a fishy way, but some type of sea-meat.
The Burn: I got very little burn from this and was pleasantly surprised by how smooth it was.
Finish: This has a loooong earthy finish. 20 minutes later the salty, peaty iodine notes were still lingering. Do you remember eating pigs-in-a-blanket as a kid? That little dough wrapped hot dog you ate with your fingers? If you imagine the hot dog as a chunk of fresh peat and the dough as a salty Band-Aid, then you’d have a pretty good idea of the finish.
Neat, Splash or Rocks: I prefer this neat. The real peat lovers out there may want to try it with a little water, as that seemed to me to bring out more smoke and earthiness while pushing the sweeter notes to the background.
Share With: Anyone who asks! But it could go either way. While those who aren’t particularly into Islay whiskies may find it more approachable due to the stronger sherry influence, it makes we wonder if it’s got enough stank for diehard peatheads.
Worth The Price: My area Total Wine has it pre-listed for $109. Considering the surging prices in recent times, that’s not an unreasonable price for this release based on what I see locally. If you’re an Ardbeg fan and can score a bottle, I don’t think this is out of line. It is a tasty dram, and I would be more than happy if I were to receive it as a gift.
Bottle, Bar or Bust: Based on my personal whisky preferences, I’m not likely to run out and fight the crowds to get my hands on a bottle, but if I happened to find it in a bar somewhere, I’d have to consider seriously ordering a double.
Disclaimer: A sample of Dark Cover was provided by Ardbeg for this review. We appreciate their willingness to allow Bourbon & Banter to review their product with no strings attached.