Five years is sufficient to age a good bourbon in the American South’s hot, humid summers and mild winters. While Scottish law requires no less than three years maturation, the colder weather of Scotland means that most single malts are aged 10 years before release. There are a few 8-year single malts out there but that is not common.
One wonders why Ardbeg, known for a superb 10-year and a collection of standout NAS whiskies, would release a young whisky like the Beastie, and as a permanent selection at that. Other whiskies are made with spirit as little as 5 years old, but more typically, distillers hide the spirit’s youth behind an NAS label. The Wee Beastie label proudly proclaims 5 years of maturation. I expect economics plays a part. If Ardbeg can figure a way to market their younger spirit in a way that does not sully their reputation, they can increase output and thus market share.
Or, maybe they just wanted to take a gamble on a cheeky product. What hints of their intent do we get from the label? First of all, the moniker “Wee Beastie” is rendered in red text, as well as “A monster of a dram.” Hm, that’s ominous. Below that, they proclaim (CAPS are theirs):
“Young and intensely SMOKY, with a rich explosive mouthfeel of CHOCOLATE, TAR and SAVOURY MEATS. Cracked BLACK PEPPER and sappy PINE RESIN on the snout.”
We’ve gone from ominous to outright threatening! LOL. This is a non-chill-filtered expression, bottled at 47.4% ABV. The back label explains “WREAKING FLAVOR IN ITS PATH” and has a little story about a creature of the bogs that escapes and does said wreaking. “At just 5 years old the legendary smokiness of Ardbeg is untamed by age” to reveal the inner beast. I think it’s safe to say we’re not expecting a subtle dram with this one. Ardbeg’s gambit is clear: blatantly market the rougher nature of a young whisky. They’re making a play on price, as well. The Beastie sells for $45 locally, about a 20% discount to its older brother, the 10-year, to which we will compare. Game on!
First off what I notice is that the Wee Beastie is a darker dram than the 10, which sent me checking their website, where indeed they state the use of Oloroso sherry as well as ex-Bourbon casks. Clearly they hope the sherry helps tame the beast a little. After pouring, a pleasant oiliness escapes, not scary at all. The Beastie’s nose is a mix of creosote, malt and seaweed. It’s more phenols and tar than outright smoky. The nose does have a sweet BBQ smoky meatiness. Getting deeper into the glass, more mineral comes to the fore but it does sting a bit. In contrast, the 10-year is more subtle, less creosote and BBQ, more mineral and peat and gentler on the nose. So the characterization of the Beastie is true to form.
Taking a sip of the Beastie reveals a very spicy mode, with a little treacle holding it together. It’s not as harsh as I feared, though the pepper is quite lively. It finishes with some ash and smoke, but nothing like the previous review (Laphroaig Lore) while the creosote and seaweed stick around. The tannins clean up a bit roughly, with some bitterness. The Ardbeg 10 in contrast has a smoother, more balanced mouthfeel, more complex flavors (citrus and eucalyptus) and tannins that are broader, well balanced. Think of the Wee Beastie as a sabre, while the Ardbeg 10 is a rapier.
Ardbeg Wee Beastie, Islay Single Malt, 47.4% ABV
Nose: Creosote, malt and seaweed. Pleasant sweet BBQ meatiness, peaty minerals. Moderate smokiness.
Palate: Peppery spice right off, very lively but just short of harsh, tamed with treacle, bolstered with creosote, light smoke and seaweed. Tannins are a little bitter and thin.
Finish: Peppery BBQ smoke and tannins, a bit of cinnamon as well.
Bottom Line: This is a surprisingly good whisky. I was expecting to be roughly handled, but Ardbeg has created a young spirit that is lively and flavorful and barely tamed. It does have a big nose on it and it will send more sensitive souls scurrying from the room. For just a few dollars more than Johnnie Walker’s 12-year blend, you get a very sippable, unique flavor and a lot more character. Not for the uninitiated, of course. Not a smoky peat monster but lots of phenols.