From Sweet to Peat: A Rare Glenmorangie and Ardbeg Tasting

Ardbeg Twenty One
Ardbeg Twenty One

All photos by Nicole del Rosario. 

“I want you to think of one thing while tasting all these whiskies tonight,” Ardbeg Global Brand Ambassador Hamish Torrie commanded the crowd before the tasting commenced, “at the end of the night, you have to tell me which one you’d want to have with you as your only drink on a desert island.”

With the stunning lineup that LVMH had in store for the group at Union Jack Berlin that night, there was no way that the decision would be an easy one to make. Beyond covering the sweet band of the spectrum with four offerings from Glenmorangie and the smokey side with four libations from Ardbeg, they had also made sure that the gamut of pours from each brand ranged from flagship bottles to rare and unusual.

Our adventure began with the entry level Glenmorangie spirit, The Original. We tasted the 10 year-old, however the most recent entries on the market have dropped the age statement. It was a perfect start to the evening’s long journey, with the sweet and creamy balance whetting our anticipation for what was to come. We then continued with the Quinta Ruban, a rather popular crowd pleaser that’s likewise regularly stocked in the local whisky shop. The Quinta Ruban sees the Glenmorangie spirit assume a more mature and intense character. Finished in ruby port casks, it takes on a tantalizing deep reddish hue and a rich, opulent body. It begins on the nose as a creamy marriage of warm oranges and dark chocolate, and continues on the tongue as dried berries and a potpourri of summer citrus peels.

A scotch and chocolate pairing also took place.
A scotch and chocolate pairing also took place.

Particularly interesting for me was the evening’s third dram, the Glenmorangie Companta, a private bottling inspired by the vineyards of France. In this iteration, the Glenmorangie spirit embraces a very deep sweetness as it is finished in Grand Cru casks from Clos de Tart and a Vin Doux Naturel from Côtes du Rhône. The Companta transports one into the heart of a forest minutes after a thunderstorm in autumn, brimming with the scent of berries and oranges crushed by the weight of the rain into dewy earth. Just as it makes its way to the tongue, one begins to smell wet wood that’s just been set ablaze, preparing us for a sweet and spicy mouthful of cacao, pepper, and deep forest fruits.

I first tasted the Signet on a trip to Manila a year ago. My dear friend Ernest was running an hour late for our meeting, so he bought my patience with the best bottle he had at the bar: a Glenmorangie Signet. Not being the biggest fan of Highland malts, I was very skeptical about the drink appeasing me but when the first drop hit my tongue, everything was forgiven. The Signet is not at all your usual Glenmorangie. The fruity nectar that we all know remains at the core of the drink, but it is clothed in complex layers of bitterness and spice one would not expect from the brand. The atypical malted chocolate barley in it introduces intense coffee and chocolate notes, and the charred oak casks impart a volatile hiss between black pepper and mint. This is the Glenmorangie spirit pushed to the very limit of its identity, the unique friend who is both familiar and alien at the same time.

Glenmorangie Companta
Glenmorangie Companta

Our foray into Ardbeg commenced with the old reliable Ardbeg Ten. On both the nose and the palate, the Ten’s short-lived vanilla sweetness is quickly supplanted by an astringent punch of iodine and smoke. This quick transition from sweet to smokey also made an appearance in our second pour, another one of their classics, the Uigeadail. It opens with very faint notes of pine, honey, and toffee then gradually unfolds into deep smoke and cigar ash. The sherry casks that the spirit is finished in add a lingering taste of dried fruit to the rich peaty finish Ardbeg is known for. Both the Ardbeg Ten and the Uigeadail are wonderful drinks and I could not be happier about easily being able to find them in the local whisky shop.

Before Glenmorangie acquired Ardbeg in 1997, the distillery had halted operations twice: first in 1981 and next in 1996. Taken from casks filled before the second shut down, the Ardbeg Twenty One commemorates this tumultuous past and looks forward to its enduring future in a golden dram that is without a doubt one of the single most elegant whiskies I’ve ever had. Exclusive only to Ardbeg Committee members as a very limited release, I was both shocked and delighted that this rarity was poured at our tasting. The beauty of the Twenty One comes from the very delicate balance it maintains between notes of day-ripe fruit and deep Ardbeg smoke. The scent takes one to an old Scottish Bastle house, with a pastry filled with apples and pears baking over a fire kindled from wood laced with tar. It trickles down the tongue as pure velvet, with an oily fullness that marries the taste of malt and vanilla harmoniously with Lapsang Souchong and coal. This is a whisky that will not offend as it is almost always certain to please.

Glenmorangie Signet
Glenmorangie Signet

Admittedly, many of us have heard the story behind the evening’s last tipple, the Ardbeg Supernova, a bit mixed up. We all know that this bottling has something to do with Ardbeg maturing a dram up in space. The mistake most make, however, is assuming that the Supernova is that dram, a misconception that Hamish quickly corrected. Considering only 6 ml of Ardbeg distillate was sent up to the International Space Station, there is no way on earth that a full bottle of that exists. What we do have, however, is the Supernova, which celebrates the success of this historic experiment. One of the peatiest whiskies ever made at 100ppm, the Supernova is an aggressive drink that is both unafraid and unapologetic to offend. True to its name, the dram is an explosion of sea salt, pepper, iodine, and a mountain range of smoke and peat. Definitely a polarizing drink, one that peatheads are certain to love and haters should avoid like the plague. Also an exclusive release, this is the bottle that made me decide to sign up for the Ardbeg Committee.

At the end of the night, Hamish posed the question once again: which one would you want to have with you as your only drink on a desert island? Among the Glenmorangies, the Signet won by a hair over the Companta. As for Ardbeg, save for a few hands that went up for the Supernova, the group was almost unanimous in its love for the Twenty One.

Union Jack Berlin offers a fantastic range of whisky flights and regularly hosts whisky tastings. Visit here for more information.