Spirit Of The Week: Ardbeg ‘Spectacular’ Limited Edition Single Malt Whisky

The Islay distillery releases its first portwood-aged whisky to celebrate Ardbeg Day.

(Ardbeg)

Last year right about this time we flew to Scotland to tick a longstanding box on our Must Do Before We Die list, and that is attend Fèis Ìle — known around these parts as Islay Festival. 

A raucous, slightly unhinged celebration of all things Islay, the weeklong soiree subscribes to a heavy dose of the Hebrides island’s most famous export: single malt scotch. And to be more specific, peated single malt. 

The peak of the festivities is always Ardbeg Day, held on the last day of Fèis Ìle as the unofficial Saturday climax of the event. Every major distillery on the island claims their own day, and Ardbeg’s goes heavy on the concept, production, seafood and all around shenanigans. 

Last year the theme was Planet Ardbeg, and the limited edition offering they released to celebrate was dubbed Heavy Vapours—a phenomenal spirit that retained more of the island’s famed smokiness than any previous expression. 

A direct and expected result of retired distillery manager Mickey Heads removing Ardbeg’s unique purifier from the distilling process, the tweak allowed more of the, you guessed it, heavy vapors to enter the mix. Ardbeg Master Blender / Head of Whisky Creation Gillian Macdonald’s creation lived up to its “bigger and chunkier” style, with definitely more smoke washing throughout. 

This year we are watching Fèis Ìle from a distance, however we will be there at the littoral Port Ellen campus in spirit — and fittingly, imbibing this year’s celebratory spirit: Spectacular. 

What makes Spectacular unique in the Ardbeg portfolio is it is their very first whisky they ever aged in port barrels. Some whisky fanatics would find that surprising, as most scotch distilleries have played with wood soaked in the famed Portuguese fortified wine at one point or another, and some — like say The Balvenie, The Macallan and The Dalmore — are world renowned for it. 

“Ardbeg Spectacular is a high-flying spirit, very befitting of Ardbeg Day. Its years in bourbon and port casks create a spectacle of flavors, the like of which Ardbeggians have never  tasted before,” enthuses Master Blender Macdonald.  

“We invite fans to roll up and feast their palates on its peculiar notes of mint chocolate, incense, lavender and smoked nuts, set off by a daring double act of salted caramel and tar. Like the finest performances in the circus ring, this is a whisky not to be missed.”

(Ardbeg)

Before the folks over at Ardbeg kick of the upcoming festivities on the first weekend of June, we had a chance to talk with the amicable Jackie Thomson about this newest release. As Ardbeg Committee Chairman, unofficial Firestarter and last year’s official Ringmaster Extraordinaire, Thomson embodies the vivacious spirit of Islay in ways few can. 

We went to Port Ellen last year to celebrate both Fèis Ìle and Ardbeg Day with you all, honestly one of the funnest days of the year. Anything special planned for this year? 

Absolutely! Ardbeg Day is always full of surprises. We’ve already unveiled this year’s limited edition Fèis Ìle Ardbeg bottling: Ardbeg Spectacular. This is a delicious new port cask-matured Ardbeg — and the first time we’ve used port casks at the distillery. 

But in terms of the day itself on the 1st of June, we’ll be bringing a dark circus theme to life at the distillery, online and at events around the globe. The day is shaping up to be a real spectacle – think circus performers, delicious food, games and of course delicious drams.

Last year for the Planet Ardbeg theme you lead the safari, what is Jackie Thomson up to this time?

Well, my official Ardbeg Day title this year is Ringmaster Extraordinaire! The day is known as one of the biggest in the whisky calendar. However, the Fèis Ìle festival of music and malt on Islay is such an incredible thing for the island. Thousands of people make the pilgrimage to Islay each year for the festival, where each distillery is hosting celebrations and sharing special releases. Ardbeg Day, held on the final Saturday, marks the final day of the festival and we like to make sure we go out with a bang. Those joining us this year can certainly expect a lot of fun and hopefully the sun will be shining as it usually is.

Will Spectacular be a new chapter in Planet Ardbeg, or is it birthing an entirely new concept?

We are leaving Planet Ardbeg behind this year and celebrating the 2024 limited edition festival release with a new theme. Our lead whisky creators, Dr. Bill Lumsden and Gillian Macdonald, described this whisky when first tasting it as ‘a spectacle of flavour’. This, coupled with Spectacular’s dark and rich port cask influence, has inspired us to delve into the world of “Dark Circus” this year. We can’t wait for whisky fans to join us on what’s sure to be a cracker of a day.

As you said Spectacular is the Distillery’s first whisky aged in port casks, as opposed to first- and second-fill bourbon casks like most core Ardbegs. What does that influence do to Ardbeg’s signature citrus profile? 

The port cask has done something totally weird and wonderful to Ardbeg as we know it. You can still detect those classic, perfectly balanced Ardbeg notes of zesty lime and powerful smoke, but this new wood type introduces a whole new act to Ardbeg. 

Think dark chocolate cartwheeling across the palate, notes of mint walking the high wire, and aromas of candied fruit, incense and smoked pecans swinging on the trapeze. 

What’s a more dramatic difference in the final palate in your opinion: removing the purifier for last year’s Heavy Vapours edition, or the use of port wood for Spectacular? 

They’re both completely different whiskies but they’re both very surprising for Ardbeg as we know it. Removing the purifier for the creation of Ardbeg Heavy Vapours brought big, full throttle notes and intense viscosity to our spirit. 

Ardbeg Spectacular on the other hand gets its unique flavor and color from the new wood type that we’ve experimented with. So you get those gorgeous, rich port-like notes working in perfect harmony with a classic Ardbeg style.

Can you share how many years each in the bourbon and port casks? 

This is a non-age statement expression, as is usual for Ardbeg Day. This whisky has not just been finished in port casks — it contains a parcel of Ardbeg that’s been fully matured in these port casks for even more flavor. This is married with classic bourbon-cask matured Ardbeg spirit to create the final recipe. 

How many years ahead are you brainstorming and planning upcoming limited edition goodness for Ardbeg Day? Any hint on next year’s edition…?  

We’re always thinking up grand plans here at the distillery – Dr Bill and Gillian are constantly dreaming up new creations for Ardbeg which is very exciting. I would hate to spoil what’s always a fantastic surprise – so for now, we’re keeping our focus to Ardbeg Day 2024 and Spectacular. But, watch this space!

The Ardbeg “Spectacular” Limited Edition Single Malt Whisky is available now for $130 per bottle.

Follow Deputy Editor Nicolas Stecher on Instagram at @nickstecher and @boozeoftheday. 

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