Before Whisky Deathmatch, Whisky Newsflash, as Drinks Colossus Diageo, who own Caol Ila, Talisker, Oban, Lagavulin, Clynelish and many other distilleries as well as the world’s best selling blend Johnnie Walker announces the investment of £1 billion into its Scotch Whisky operations as demand soars worldwide. Apparently Scotch is hugely fashionable, and no whisky producing region is more fashionable than Islay, a little island with a big tradition of distilling. Which brings us rather neatly to today’s battle to the doom…
Islay boasts, I think, eight working distilleries with others being developed. Lots of peat bogs on the island and the traditional Islay style is therefore big, peaty, smoky, salty, challenging, sometimes with strange medicinal, chemical edges. Ardbeg is certainly a distillery very much in that tradition, offering a big, smoky ten year old and a selection of weird and wonderful cask strength editions culminating in the famous Supernova, one of the peatiest whiskeys known to man. Bruichladdich are a bit of a different animal. Independent, self-avowedly progressive and rightly proud of their status as Mark Charan Newton’s favourite distillery. Their classic style is actually pretty light on the peat, but their range is huge and incorporates all kinds of experimental finishes, barleys, blends and distillation techniques sometimes bottled at ungodly strengths and including organic editions, quadruple distilled X4, and Octomore, which actually is the peatiest whisky known to man. Bruichladdich Infinity is a multi-vintage vatting (which is to say it’s been blended from a whole range of variously aged and finished casks, NOT blended whisky, still single malt) designed, apparently, to showcase the complexity of the distillery’s spirit. Ardbeg Corryvreckan, meanwhile, is a cask strength beast a fair way up Ardbeg’s range, which actually makes this a slightly unfair fight, at least price wise. But hey, I ordered the bottles before I thought about this, and no one loves an unfair fight more than I do…
Bruichladdich Infinity – 50% ABV, £44.95
Ardbeg Corryvreckan – 57.1% ABV, £61.95
LOOK – Interesting, if you compare the packaging of these Islays to last weeks Speysides anCnoc and Longmorn. Where those two looked light, clear, fresh, easygoing, these two, with their dark boxes and bottles look heavy, dark, dangerous, challenging. Bruichladdich have a really nice, unique approach with a bottle and can with stark sanserif lettering that emphasises their forward-looking credentials and technical prowess. Ardbeg, meanwhile, have taken an almost opposite approach by going for mysterious darkness with a side order of celtic mysticism. Ardbeg actually piss me off at the start by having a plastic cap and wrapper round the bottle top. That’s a bit lame on what is the most expensive bottle out of the dozen (although the Talisker and Highland Park were both considerably more if you factor in the Ardbeg’s mighty strength). Boo to the plastic packaging, especially if you’re going for a magical prehistory vibe, even boxless Bladnoch managed a wooden cap. Bruichladdich’s marketing bumph again emphasise their progressive, science-y approach, using phrases like, ‘designed’, ‘diverse vintage character’, ‘sophisticated flavour profile’, and ‘truly infinite finish.’ Although that last one seems both unlikely and undesirable. I don’t want to necessarily be tasting it for the rest of my life, do I? Or DO I? Ardbeg, by contrast, barely even mention the flavour of what’s inside, instead concentrating on mysterious celtic legends relating to the world’s second largest whirlpool and ending: ‘Fearing it, yet daring ourselves to see it. Powerful and dangerous. A terrifying spectacle… A wild, untamed spirit…’ Okaaaaaaay…
SMELL – Both these whiskys are bottled strong so they come at the nose with intent. Bruichladdich – Mmm. Tough to describe. A bit of seashore, a bit of smoky bacon, a bit of fruit. Wholesome. Appetising. You want to dive in there. I fear the Corryvreckan but I dare myself to smell it, and it smells powerful and dangerous, like a terrifying spectacle, a wild, untamed spirit. I kid, I kid. But actually it does, kinda. It smells bloody weird. Something a little bit like paint stripper meets wet earth at a barbecue and they have beautiful salty babies together. Now THAT’S marketing bumph.
TASTE – The Bruichladdich – oh yeah. Firm in the mouth, sweet and fruity but tough and smoky at the same time. A hint of metallic saltiness. Simultaneously very drinkable and very interesting. Strong but not overpowering. Don’t push it around because it’ll push back, bottled at 50% and meaning business. A tough friend to make, but a good friend to have. A reassuring presence in a tight corner. The Ardbeg – holy, or possibly unholy, cow. If you’re drinking it neat you need to sip because at 57.1% it takes no prisoners. Oily in the mouth and the first thing you notice is a strange, building heat across the tongue. Then BOOM, the magic portals are flung wide and the mysteries of the cosmos revealed. An utterly strange array of tastes. You know that sweet Willy Wonker does that’s a whole meal in one go? Like that. Ruggedly savoury and fearsomely dry. There’s pine in there, liquorice, maybe? A hint of those disinfectant capsules you used to get in urinals. Not that I ever ate one, but, you know … then there’s spicy pepperiness, coffee and bitter chocolate, smoke throughout and lingering long after. Odd, odd, odd, but in a good way. A very good way. The very opposite of easy drinking – challenging, difficult, baffling, endlessly surprising. An evil genius. A dark lord. The most eccentric of Bond villains. A mighty sorcerer driven insane by experiments with forces from beyond our dimension. Like nothing else I’ve tried. If there’s such a thing as a mind-expanding whisky then this is it.
CONCLUSION – Bruichladdich Infinity – A tough and loyal balance of the sweet and the smoky. Recommended PoV – The Dogman. Ardbeg Corryvreckan – Stunning, challenging, powerful, intricate, weird, unknowable. Recommended PoV – Shenkt.
RESULT – Don’t get me the wrong, the Bruichladdich is good in lots of ways, I greatly admire the ethos of the distillery and look forward to trying more from them. But the Ardbeg is mind-blowing. I fear Goliath will be giving David a good old kicking today. Let’s face it, he usually does.
The Winner – Ardbeg Corryvreckan.
Coming next – Silkier than Silky McSilkerson’s squad of ninja weasels, it’s mature sherried Speyside in the gentile forms of Glenfarclas 21 vs Aberlour 18.