While Ardbeg’s new permanent expression An Oa has already been available for purchase in the UK for a few weeks, it officially launched in the rest of Europe today. We took the opportunity to reach out to the distillery’s Head of Maturing Whisky Stocks, Brendan McCarron, and asked him a handful of questions on how An Oa came to be and what makes it special. Enjoy the read… and hopefully also soon a glass of the brand-new Ardbeg named after the the beautiful peninsula in the southwest of the isle of Islay.
BarleyMania: An Oa is the first new addition to Ardbeg’s core range in almost a decade. What made you guys decide to expand the trio of Ten, Uigeadail and Corryvreckan into a quartet and how would you say does An Oa complement the existing three bottlings?
Brendan McCarron: Our new Ardbeg An Oa has been made to join the core, permanent expressions of Ardbeg. It’s been ten years since we launched Corryvreckan, and we have been working on a perfect addition to the family for some time… Over the last three years, I have put together hundreds of test “benchblends” while trying to create the next permanent Ardbeg expression. About 18 months to two years ago, I put some of these in front of Dr. Bill Lumsden. They grabbed his attention and from those we eventually arrived at Ardbeg An Oa.
BM: It says on the label that a big portion of An Oa’s particularly rounded feel comes from the “time spent in the gathering vat”, where whisky from “new charred oak, PX sherry and first fill bourbon” casks as well as other barrels gets married to “become fully familiar with each other”. Can you tell us a bit more about the “alchemy” behind the An Oa and let us know how you guys managed to find the ideal combination of casks for this kind of whisky?
BMC: The cask selection for Ardbeg An Oa means that there are a lot of flavours in the whisky and a lot of different aromas to discover. As a result, we decided to go back to the traditional method of “marrying” whisky, i.e. to leave the whisky to settle for a period of months before bottling. We decided to use French oak vats – the French oak is “exhausted” so there is no more wood maturation taking place. Instead, it is just a vessel where the whisky sits and breathes a little since the wood is porous. Basically, this allows all of the different flavours to integrate and develop into a more rounded expression.
BM: Personally, I find it hard to discuss Ardbeg without talking about peat. As I have not yet found a PPM statement for the An Oa, I wonder if you can shed more light on this and tell us how much of a peat monster the new Ardbeg is. On the one hand the tasting notes by Dr. Bill Lumsden suggest An Oa to be a bit less peaty than Ardbeg’s other core range expressions, but on the other hand the mentioned notes of “smoky tea leaves, cigar smoke and grilled artichokes” also suggest the spirit to have quite a peculiar smokiness…
BMC: PPM phenols is a measurement used for the amount of smokiness on the malt that is delivered to a distillery. For Ardbeg we look for malt that has a PPM level of 50 and above. So we use the same Ardbeg new make spirit made from 50-PPM-and-up malt for each of the four permanent expressions. For Ardbeg An Oa, we are making an expression which is both smokier and sweeter than Ardbeg Ten. The sweetness is from the intensely sweet Pedro Ximenex sherry casks that we use. If we were only to use PX casks then this could hide the smokiness underneath the rich sweet flavours. That is why we also use new char oak and ex-bourbon casks – among some other secrets! These intensify and highlight the smokiness that Ardbeg is renowned for.
BM: Do you have any famous last words for the many Ardbeggians out there, who are eagerly looking forward to cracking their first bottle of An Oa open very soon? And maybe also a few motivating words for those who have not yet been bitten by the An Oa bug?
BMC: All I can say is that I hope Ardbeg fans love the new release. An Oa is a great whisky to introduce people to Ardbeg’s smoky flavour. I also think it is a great new type of Ardbeg for all of our fans and Committee members around the world as it gives a whole new type of Ardbeg for everyone to experience.