For the third year in a row, Ardbeg Distillery introduces a liquid under the Traigh Bhan title. Pronounced “tri van,” the moniker guarantees a few things: it’s always a 19-year-old age statement, it undeniably carries Ardbeg luscious signatures, and it’s from a small batch production (to be replaced with a different limited edition run the following year). Though the two previous expressions stunned, thanks to the craft they represent and the clever flavor profiles they yield, this latest release—which we’re highlighting as the first entry in this year’s September Scotch series—marries smokiness with pronounced spice in a balanced, mouth-watering manner.
To help us understand more about the creative spirit of the liquid, Dr Bill Lumsden, Ardbeg’s Director of Distilling and Whisky Creation, walked us through its points of differentiation from the previous years (and others in Ardbeg’s permanent portfolio). These differences are more than just the distinct flavor notes (with 2021’s being brown sugars and walnuts, aniseed and almonds into a peppery finish); they’re an identity drawn from different wooden casks.
“The main point of difference between version three is that it has a slightly higher proportion of sherry casks in it,” Lumsden tells us. “It also has slightly more refill bourbons, as opposed to first fill, so we got a bit more of that spicy, leathery, walnut-y type note in there. By and large, versions one, two and three are very much brothers or sisters—there’s just slight tweaks in it, but a higher proportion of sherry casks.”
The production process also incorporates a bit of variation. “We’re dealing with very rare, old stocks of Ardbeg,” he continues, so “I’m slightly handcuffed compared to the experimentation I would do for Ardbeg Day where I can pretty much do anything I want. Basically what we do is sample and taste almost every single cask we have in stock, and then we put together different recipes just to see if we can find little points of difference. So that’s the honest answer to that one.”
There is an underlying ethos behind Traigh Bhan that Lumsden revisits when creating each limited run. “I was trying to recreate elements of the old 17 Year Old release that we used to do back in the day,” he says, “but with a point of difference. So, the 17 Year Old is a much gentler expression of Ardbeg, primarily because at that time it was using much less peated stocks. Whereas the stock for Traigh Bhan I’m using is more heavily peated, so I was just trying to get something slightly softer.”
“There’s a lot more to Ardbeg than you might think,” Lumsden says. “Most people think of Ardbeg as being like a slap across the face, and that it’s a really an intensely smoky, peaty flavor. In large it is, but within that there are other elements to it. We’ve always believed Ardbeg to be the most complex of the heavily peated Islay whiskies, partly due to our unique distillation processes.” Older expressions released today, like Traigh Bhan and the new 25 Year Old, do express a softer, more nuanced side of the brand while still honoring their flavorful heritage.
For those who have certain expectations of Islay whiskies, this is one that’s certain to defy it. And while the island is “renowned for making these very robust, full-bodied whiskies,” Traigh Bhan weaves in something more.
Hero image courtesy of Ardbeg