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At 54.2%, this dram is fairly high in alcohol, so exercise caution; I usually pour myself quite a small serving. It's extremely warming. Sip it slowly.
Ardbeg is peated, but the rough Listerine flavors are not quite as intense as, say, the Laphroaig Quarter Cask; instead there is a long and complex smokiness going on. There is some vanilla sweetness. It is not as malty-smelling as the Laphroaig -- I'm not reminded of a vanilla sandwich cookie, which is one of the aromas I smell in Laphroaig Quarter Cask. There is a seashore saltiness -- I'm reminded of saltine crackers, actually. There is citrus -- in the case of the oogie, it isn't orange, but lime.
On the tongue, the texture is enormously silky and smooth, almost gelatinous. It is not as sweet as one might expect with the sherry cask aging -- I'm reminded of quinine in tonic water -- it somehow makes me think of a gin and tonic. That must be some aromatic compound in there that is reminiscent of juniper.
The finish is very long and there are some meaty notes -- Jim Murray is very accurate when he says it is "like standing downwind of the barbecue while steaks are char-grilled on the beach." I'm also strongly reminded of a smoked kippers, packed in oil, on caraway seed crackers seasoned with a little black pepper.
There are just so many notes here -- a licorice, butter. There are hsome things a little less savory, like lighter fluid, pine solvent, charcoal, and a used ashtray. One writer noted that it is a bit like licking someone's sweaty skin, and I think that's accurate; the flavors are a bit erotic, actually. The smokiness is not a simple thing, but hides all kinds of complexity -- burning sea grass, driftwood, and pine needles. That extremely smooth texture, and light but not cloying sweetness, ensure that you will come back for another sip.
With a little water, the citrus aromas come down a bit, and it's more prominently tobacco smoke and iodine. On the tongue, it's a little sweeter and more conventional, although it doesn't seem to lose any complexity -- all those sea flavors are still there on the finish. I get a new, definite note of hot, candied ginger. The finish does become slightly less pleasant when it is wet, though -- we're left with a little more of the pine solvent flavors at the end. It is better straight up.
It is certainly one of the best whiskies I've ever tasted, a true benchmark in complexity, and a step up from the very fine Ardbeg 10. I highly recommend it for anyone who has tasted at least one Islay and wants to try another one. I just may have to try all the different expressions of Ardbeg now -- it's a tough job, but someone's got to do it!