Age: No age statement
With LVMH’s PR machine grinding at full gear, much has already been written about Ardbeg An Oa since its unveiling in August 2017. This new whisky is named after the Mull of Oa, a rocky peninsula in the southwest of Islay that shelters Ardbeg distillery from the Atlantic Ocean’s often stormy conditions. An Oa is meant to reflect these calmer waters by offering a mellower version of Ardbeg, in what amounts to a nice bit of meteorological marketing. The whisky comes in some stylish packaging, and is a vatting of several different casks, including new charred oak, PX sherry casks and first-fill bourbon barrels. I have been eagerly awaiting this release, but have also taken care to manage my expectations. The other members of the Ultimate Range are an extremely hard act to follow, so let’s hope Ardbeg An Oa doesn’t disappoint.
Colour: Shimmering gold
Nose: Typical Ardbeg, with a smoky sweetness that’s ever so inviting. Fresh, grassy cereal mingles with that unmistakable Islay seaweed, suffused with a hint of tar. Underneath however, this Ardbeg is distinctly creamy, offering aromas of milk chocolate, toffee and vanilla custard. The smoked bacon so present in other Ardbegs is nowhere to be found, almost as if An Oa is the sole vegetarian in the family. Instead, notes of cornbread, oatcakes and banana leave their mark. Intriguing stuff so far.
Palate: Soft-bodied and oily, as the creamy flavours do battle with Ardbeg’s peaty profile. The result is by no means a soft whisky, but compared to other Ardbegs, An Oa does show a bit more restraint. There are sweet notes aplenty, but it would be a stretch to call An Oa fruity, and the PX cask advertised on the box struggles to shine through. Instead, An Oa is a pleasantly earthy, autumnal dram, with flavours of fragrant heather and peat bog moss. I downgrade my vegetarian comment to pescatarian as well: An Oa offers flavours of grilled prawns and smoked kippers.
Finish: Impossibly long for a whisky of this strength. Some of the extreme weather conditions make it past the Mull of Oa, showering the distillery with a gale of peat smoke and reminding us that this whisky is still an Islay heavy-hitter. The aftertaste is pleasantly bitter, like dark chocolate infused with charred wood and peat smoke.
Verdict: Judged on its own merit, Ardbeg An Oa is a hugely enjoyable whisky. Its softer, mellower temperament may raise some eyebrows, but An Oa is nothing like the ill-fated Ardbeg Blasda of yesteryear. Ardbeg’s brilliantly peaty profile stands firm against the barrage of casks involved in the making of this whisky, resulting in a well-balanced dram whose richness and complexity never threaten to compromise An Oa’s Islay pedigree.
Compare An Oa to the likes of Uigeadail though, and it falls just a bit short. But heck, that’s competing against what in my opinion is one of the best whiskies in the world (at least in the ‘affordable’ price range). An Oa simply struggles with what many recent limited editions have shown: it’s hard to beat the three excellent whiskies in Ardbeg’s core range. Having said that, An Oa is a very welcome addition to the family, providing a bit of variation in Ardbeg’s offerings. So let’s set comparisons aside for the moment: Ardbeg An Oa is a quality whisky that’s perhaps just a few steps away from true greatness. Welcome to the range, Ardbeg An Oa!