One of the themes that has been revisited constantly – both in W&C’s brief existence and during my whisky journey in general – has been the bonds, moments, friendships and memories created over drams. For me Islay is perhaps the place where I have experienced the most of these. From trips with friends, to Feis Ile (the Island’s annual whisky festival), failed camping trips and even my own stag do – no place holds for me more fond whisky fuelled memories than that wonderfully remote isle. It is a beautiful place – perhaps not as rugged as some of its counter parts further north – but haunting in the mist and glorious in the sunshine nonetheless. It has wonderful people, friendly pubs (even if most of their whisky prices are adjusted for tourists) and of course (at time of writing) nine producing distilleries all worth visiting for their own reasons.
Now, to be very clear, my love of Islay doesn’t necessarily stem from an obsession with its whiskies – nor in particular the heavily peated offerings the island is (not exclusively) known for. While I know that some folks attitude when it comes to peat is simply the more the better, for me it is just another of the flavours that make up the whisky world – and as such can be used very well or exceptionally poorly. While I don’t inherently dislike it, it’s not my go to – I’ll likely sooner reach for a peatless, sherried number off the shelf every time. Even so, I have adored whiskies from every one of the Island’s distilleries (and, admittedly, the Ardnahoe new make that I’ve tasted), however I am by no means a fan boy. Speaking of fan boys, lets talk about Ardbeg.
Ardbeg is one of those distilleries in the whisky industry that cause folk to get a bit worked up – be they for it or against it. Those for it tend to avidly collect every expression that Ardbeg ever bring to market, including the committee releases, and claim that every SINGLE one is the be all and end all when it comes to boiled beer that’s been put in a (circular) box. ‘Please bro, just try it, it’s like the last one but it’s got more peaty notes and this one has rainbows on the label, please bro, it’s not like Laphroaig at all…’ But I digress. Those against it, into which camp I guess I fall (though admittedly with not much vehemence), find the endless barrage off gimmicky labels somewhat tiresome. I admit that in my heart of hearts I shouldn’t – I should simply judge it by the liquid inside. Maybe I’ve been embittered by too many folk telling me how much they love ‘Ardberg’. Upshot is, while I really enjoy some of the core expressions – Uigedail especially – I don’t follow too keenly Ardbeg’s output.
With all this in mind, you might be amazed to hear that when I saw the ‘Wee Beastie’ release I was genuinely intrigued; a very established distiller bringing a low age statement into their core range? Admittedly, Lagavulin’s ‘limited release’ (still available) eight year old from 2016 has become this, but it wasn’t pitched as such in the first place. Ardbeg have said from the offset this five year old is a permanent addition to the range. Now the, cynical side of me wants to jump at this being a knee jerk reaction to the distillery struggling to keep up with aged stock for older expressions (historically the entry level has been a ten year old). Also, the price point (close to that of the ten – in fact on one online retailer I checked the other day the ten was actually cheaper) was maybe taking the proverbial, even if the inclusion of some ex-oloroso casks makes for some added perceived value. On the flip side of that (again taking numbers out of the equation and simply judging the liquid), if to me the Wee Beastie was nicer than the ten year old then why wouldn’t I see it as being worth as much?
For anyone who’s not familiar with the finer points of peated whisky, it is recognisable by a smoky and sometimes somewhat medicinal taste. To cut a very long story short, it is created by literally smoking the barley with peat (a fuel that is a precursor to coal) very early on in the production process. Perhaps most importantly when looking at the wee beastie, peat tends to soften the longer a whisky ages – so this five year old, on paper, should be seriously punchy. However, to my palate at least, it’s smoky notes are rendered more as BBQ or bonfire smoke: still very much present but less coastal and medicinal and more woody and meaty. This bucks the trend for Ardbeg and also (in general) for the distilleries on the south coast of Islay (Laphroaig and Lagavulin being the other two).
Behind the smoke, there is a fair whack of flavour – as is to be expected from younger whiskies. As a whisky matures, so do the flavours therein. In their youth they may jump up and down as toddlers demanding attention individually. In their adolescence they tend to sulk in the corner and are reluctant to be drawn out. Finally in adulthood they tend to be pretty fucking happy with where they are and not give a damn whether you notice them or not. This five year old is true to form – the palate isn’t particularly cohesive. For me, there is a salinity at the start which overshadows some sherry-induced sweet spice. In the middle you get some cereal notes from the youth of the spirit, and a little bit of stone fruit from nowhere. At the end it does descend a little bit into cough sweet (a staple of this style) but gets a little bit of sulphur as well. Well, that’s me completed my card for ‘tasting note bingo’.
So, on the whole, I have to say I am a fan. It’s not going to be a first pour for me any day, but I can certainly appreciate the liquid. The more meaty style of smoke you would expect from highland peat paired with the salinity associated with coastal whiskies makes for an enticing palate. As in life, so in whisky; we’re all pretty aware that smoked, salty meat is delicious, assuming you’ve had something known as ‘bacon’. While the ‘Wee Beastie’ moniker does align with some of the slightly annoying branding that tends to irk me, I can’t help but respect the fact they’ve slapped a five year age statement on it and really pinned their colours to the post – backing their whisky to perform well at a young age. Let’s be honest: they could have taken the number off it, charged twice as much and every fan boy would have still bought it.
I don’t have any current direct relationship with Ardbeg or parent company LVMH, though when I was freelancing in Sydney a few years ago I did work on some whisky shows/events with Ardbeg and LVMH. I paid full retail price for the Wee Beastie.
Distillery/Brand: Ardbeg ‘Wee Beastie’
Region: Islay, Scotland
Age: 5 Years
Cask: Ex Oloroso and Ex Bourbon
Non-Chill Filtered: Y
Natural Colour: Y
Price: Approx £35-£40