Casks of virgin Black Sea oak from the Republic of Adygea have a powerful influence on this tumultuous free-spirited Kelpie, Ardbeg’s latest Committee Release for 2017
Region: Islay Style: Maritime – Peaty – Herbal Class: Premium No Age Statement
“…it is the evocative and partly wild nature of the maritime spirit inhabiting a glass of Kelpie that beguiles and draws one in, and then pulls them down to the bottom of the briny depths, until it vanishes in a puff of smoke, haunting the senses of those who have had such an encounter, long after it has faded into legend….”
Ardbeg’s new Kelpie single malt scotch is aptly named for the aquatic shapeshifting nature spirits from Scottish folklore, who often take the form of a “water horse.” The flavors in a glass of cask strength Kelpie are certainly ever-changing, and gallop along like Phaeton’s fiery steeds, with an overall character that evokes the natural world with its fascinating and unbridled beauty.
Nose: Barbecue wood smoke and soaked vegetation fill the room as the first drams are poured. Someone’s briny peat bog has caught fire, near a fishy marina!
But then, more delectable aromas arise from the glass, both sweet and savory, like raw dark chocolate and even darker ground espresso, faint fruity esters of British bitter ale and lemon skins, dryly fragrant sage, and nicely reeky peat, mouthwatering for those who have acquired a taste for the pungent, peculiar fragrance of a whisky from the Isle of Islay.
Splash: The first wave rushes in with a peppery sting from the spirit’s kick, but also a supple if firm body that fills the mouth with a rippling, malleable balance of sweet and peat.
Palate: A buoy of high quality pure malt spirit is tossed about by a tempestuous current of dark green herbs, bitter cacao, fresh coffee, black pepper, and peeled sugar cane swimming alongside hickory smoked fish.
Finish: Smoky brine drifts ever onward.
Dry Nose: The drained glass is full of fresh smoke.
Not as weighty or robust as many Ardbeg expressions, this eccentric Islay malt is both agile and powerful. Perhaps Corryvreckan comes nearest to the mark, but Kelpie is more volatile in character, and more vegetable in nature. And it is far less predictable from sip to sip, as it commands complete attention and impresses the senses like a trip to the mountains or the sea. From dank to delicious, this is a very interesting and expressive whisky.
But the real show starts when you add a tablespoon or two of H2O.
Like a Peated Duck to Water
At first, everything turns starkly to minerals. A whiff of brothy clam shells, and then a stony taste rushes in on the tide, as the original nose and palate drift away.
But that Kelpie spirit suddenly rebounds in a roiling surf of shifting facets, with groves of dewy green leaves hurried off by the comforting, buttery nutmeg of a steaming hot Tom and Jerry, which spills into fresh shrubby, as more briny waves tumble in with crests of eggless English custard, and undercurrents of darting anchovies, tinned black olives, oven warmed muffins, before the spicy, splintery oak floats up and around, leaving little oily trails of that tannic balsam sap detected in certain shampoos.
It never stops changing character.
It has nice body with a nice feel in the mouth, not as heavy as some Ardbeg. But it also roughs up the inside of the mouth over time, particularly near the lips, and at the back of the throat, as if younger whisky in the vatting, or perhaps that virgin oak, penetrates to scuff things up a bit.
There is an untamed quality to this spirit, befitting its nature spirit name, which makes it a thing of fascination and perplexity.
I just kept pulling my face away from the glass and saying, “Wow, this is really great!”
I was always drawn back to the nose to see what unexpected turn might come next. And the next thing I knew, I had nosed it some minutes, mesmerized by the swirling succession of dramatis personæ making up this marvelous masque of a maritime malt.
As for taste, there is a Janus balance between a core sweetness and a core peatiness, which made me think of Laphroaig, because of how the sweets aren’t always apparent nor particularly malty or fruity, and the peat is more planty than charcoal. And for all the American bourbon barrels, there is hardly a tropical note to be netted, except for some drifting coconut shells and a bit of their flesh.
But it is not nearly as sweet as Laphroaig or “normal” Ardbeg, and it has none of Laphroaig’s medicine cabinet iodine. In fact, it has a lot less tar than usual for Ardbeg, but more in the way of turpentine, and a lot less starchy yeast. And the seaward notes are primarily of seafood and, appropriately enough, kelp. Piles of the stuff.
But that sinewy tendril of seaweed winding its way through the palate acts like savory herbs for the tasty elements of raw cacao, roasted coffee, maple sugars, buttery scallops, a dab of vanilla bean to go with the coconut, and a ghostly memory of smoked fish. And that scrumptious nutmeg continues to surface, along with other spices bobbing up from the deeper riptides of this compelling dram with the deceptively serene looks of a burnished sauternes lake.
The finish with water allows black licorice to emerge and mingle with the smoke that thickens over time, while the peaty vegetation stretches out like vines, for a very long time indeed.
As for the dry nose after water, a doused campfire is all that remains in the empty glass, along with some of the maltiest scents yet detected.
Conclusion: Another winner from the one and only Ardbeg.
By comparison, and as expected, the 46% version is notably tamer. The bitter and dark notes of chocolate and coffee are delegated to a supporting role, while creamy vanilla custard and bushels of sage take center stage. But the initial nose is still all about that seaweed and seafood. And while adding water pulls back the seaweed and the custard, it intensifies both the seafood notes and the smoke, which just goes on and on. And the empty glass retains all those lovely baking spices, with a trace of burnt rubber.
I have it on good authority that the only difference is the strength. And while it does tame the spirit a bit, it is no less interesting, ever-changing, and transportive. It will certainly be worth the price, if you can find it. Bottles will be limited in number and they will go fast.
It is not known how much of this new Ardbeg expression was aged in the virgin casks of Black Sea oak, or for how long. Virgin oak is seldom used to mature Scotch malt whisky because it imparts considerable influence upon new make spirit, compared to casks that had previously held wine or other liquor, including a potent injection of natural resins. But when I asked the friendly folk at Ardbeg for specifics, all they would reveal is that their traditional spirit was “fully matured” in the virgin casks from Adygea, before marrying with Ardbeg aged in their typical ex-bourbon casks, and the resulting potion was further matured in other bourbon casks for an unspecified amount of time.
So why the Adygejtsy origins of the virgin oak casks?
It turns out that Russian and Georgian vintners have prized the oak from those particular forests for some years. And the Adyghe people have their own winemaking tradition that reaches back millennia, to when the cultivation of fruit was central to their ancient pagan religion. Archeologists have discovered prehistoric Adyghe gardens in the midst of desolate, wild forests, with grafted trees still producing pears and nuts, and dressed with grape vines.
The Adygejtsy oak used to make Kelpie is most likely of the species Quercus sessilis (aka Q. petraea,) which is common across Europe and a traditional choice of French vineyards. It is not the same species of French oak from the Limousin forest that provides most cognac barrels (Q. robur.) Rather, it tends to grow farther north, and the porous grain of Q. sessilis is preferred for aging both red and white wine.
When it comes down to it, the main reason Ardbeg chose these casks is probably as Scotch as it gets: they are cheaper than casks of virgin sessilis from France, Germany, or Hungary.
But, they also come from an exotic location, with its own micro climate. And just like how an acoustic guitar made with a European spruce top will sound differently if the spruce is from the Carpathian Mountains or the Italian Alps, the oak from Adygea will have a unique growing cycle and nutrition, leading to its own specifics in grain, porousness, and the amount of flavorful lignins, phenols, and mineral content.
When it comes to distilled spirits, I associate Q. robur with pink bubble gum, white pepper, and toasted marshmallow, and Q. sessilis with less sweetness, and spicier black pepper along with toasted vanilla beans. And it is said that sessilis flavors from Adygea are spicier and less sweet than that of western varieties, and more powerful over all. And while I have not had Scotch malt whisky aged in virgin sessilis from France, Ardbeg Kelpie does seem to back up the claim.
The Kelpie isn’t the most benevolent of unbridled spirits, but it provides a memorable ride.
Haunting and Compelling
Since Pictish times, shapeshifting kelpie spirits were known to haunt the small islets, or “skeeries” dotting the coastlines of Scotland and the Shetland Islands. And that includes the spattering of skeeries making up the protected nature reserve running along the shoreline at the Ardbeg distillery, on the southeast coast of Islay.
While their flat, rocky surfaces have a desolate beauty, the shallow seas between one lonesome skeery and the next are teeming with fish that inhabit thick kelp forests. It is possible that craggy rocks strewn with storm-tossed seaweed might be responsible for various sightings of kelpies, glimpsed on misty Islay nights across the centuries. Then again, it could have something to do with the fact that, once upon a time, many a whisky distillery included a quart of product as part a worker’s nightly take-home pay.
Come to think of it, the name of this whisky could have been spelled Kelpy, since this whisky’s flavor profile has that distinct, leafy stalk of vegetation drifting forward and swaying into the background, which might be from the Islay peat, or the virgin Black Sea oak, or the combination of both.
But thirty seconds into a dram of Ardbeg’s new Committee Release and it is not the seaweed that entangles the drinker. Rather, it is the evocative and partly wild nature of the maritime spirit inhabiting a glass of Kelpie that beguiles and draws one in, and then pulls them down to the bottom of the briny depths, until it vanishes in a puff of smoke, haunting the senses of those who have had such an encounter, long after it has faded into legend.
And this particular Ardbeg expression is sure to be remembered fondly by those fortunate enough to enjoy it.
And that is one man’s word on…
Ardbeg Kelpie – Committee Release 2017