Whisky and Words Number 99: Ardbeg An Oa

The typical Ardbeg bottle and a dram with some color.

Ardbeg has done well in presenting well-designed No-Age-Statement (NAS) releases that have proven worthy of their (usually) high prices.  Their Corryvreckan (“heady, intense and powerful”) and Uigeadail (“deep, smoky notes with luscious, raisiny tones”) are uniquely flavorful, well-finished drams, and they should be, being in the over-$90 club. An Oa was introduced recently (for a whisky)—in 2017. I actually purchased mine in 2020 but it’s been waiting for a review, as other events (pandemic, political chaos, moving house—you know, the usual stuff) have taken my attention.

The CorryVee and Uigeadail had stories, and so does An Oa. On their website, Ardbeg tell the tale that in their new oaken “Gathering Vat” (marrying tun in other parlance)  “whiskies from several cask types – including; sweet Pedro Ximenez; spicy virgin charred oak; and intense ex-bourbon casks….” they marry their final product to produce “smoky power, mellowed by a delectable, smooth sweetness.” Sounds good. I’m especially interested in the ‘intense’ ex-bourbon casks, so I sent an email to inquire.

I have both the Corryvreckan and Uigeadail to compare. Both have a similar amber color to the An Oa. As expected from an Ardbeg, upon opening the An Oa there is a release of peat smoke, but the An Oa also has a hefty serving of sherry and stewed plums to go with the rich and smooth phenols (new telephone pole?) There is a lot more phenol and less malt than the Corryvreckan, which is mild in comparison. I find the Uigeadail smokier than the CorryVee but the An Oa is a step even beyond the Uigeadail in phenols on the nose.  Being the more apt comparison, I’ll continue with the Uigeadail in a little head to head.

Here’s the story, morning glory.

On the palate, well, you will remember tasting this dram. Tasting is where the smoke comes out of the background, but not before the flavor lures you inexorably into luxury. The mouthfeel is superb, there is nice toffee and butterscotch sweetness, and then the smoke arises from the mid-tongue and rolls to the back of the mouth in billows with loads of black liquorice and aromatic oils to hurry it along. Smoky power? Yes. The Ardbeg site says to expect anise and though I try to avoid parroting tasting notes, this is a case where I can totally agree.  The Uigeadail’s theme is much different, lighter flavor and sweetness and the smoke is balanced with fruit and livelier spices. Think a well dressed prizefighter (An Oa) vs. James Bond (Uigeadail). Bugatti Veyron vs. Ferrari California. Power and girth vs. spice and speed.

The finish of the An Oa is worthy of an Islay malt: smoke for days, and also a lot of the liquorice and anise vibe going on and on.

Ardbeg An Oa Islay single malt Scotch whisky, 46.6% ABV

Nose: Deep, rich sherry, stewed plums and phenols galore. Intense but smooth, not ashy or smoky so much as just out-and-out phenol explosion.
Palate: Smooth on the palate as well. Creamy mouthfeel, butterscotch and vanilla for sweetness. Billows of smoke follow: ashy, richly phenolic and just enough bitter from the oak to balance the sweet. Black liquorice and anise are strong and persistent throughout, but well matched.
Finish: Extremely long….I will wake up tomorrow tasting the smoke. Also the liquorice and anise persist quite a long time as well.

Bottom Line:  For such a powerfully smoky dram, the An Oa is very balanced by equally powerful flavors. An Oa is no simplistic ‘maximum phenols’ wonder, it is an intensely flavored, well crafted flavor bomb leaning towards the intense…broad spectrum overload. Each of its aspects would be over the top by themselves—the anise, the phenols, the smoke, the liquorice—but put together the make an extremely potent and coherent punch in the olfactory organ. This is not for everyone, but if you are looking for ‘Ardbeg turned to 11’ this is not to be missed. Recommended (if you are up for a well-designed punch in the olfactories).

Hey y’all, what comes after review #99? Review 100, of course! And I have a serious whisky to review for #100. Stay tuned.

An Oa will not disappoint the intrepid.

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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