This review of Ardbeg Dark Cove and Dark Cove Committee Release is part four of my Ardbeg Assay.
Dark Cove: the newest of Ardbeg’s limited release bottlings launched to coincide with Islay’s Feis Ile festival, which happens annually in the last week of May.
Since their first Feis Ile release in 2002, up until 2010, Ardbeg would predominantly bottle cask strength single casks to commemorate the festival. More recently, Ardbeg’s festival whiskies have been larger batch, and have been distributed globally. They now launch simultaneously, in 22 countries worldwide, on Ardbeg day, and are poured at events in over 120 cities on that same day. If you’ve never been to an Ardbeg day event, they’re a lot of fun, and are an extension of Ardbeg’s cheeky, not-too-serious way of things. You’ll find good food, games & activities, and most importantly, a bottomless 4.5L double magnum bottle of the fresh release, open for pouring, but chained up, the metal links clanging down each time it’s unshackled for service. It’s a nice little dramatic turn.
OK, so that’s the atmosphere that Ardbeg’s limited releases are currently living in. But what about the whisky itself? The challenge Ardbeg needs to rise to with their limited releases is to offer something new and exciting, while at the same time, maintaining their increasingly strict distillery flavour profile.
Those of you who have read the front label of Dark Cove will know that the whisky’s “heart has been matured in dark sherry casks”. What’s a dark sherry cask, you ask? In this case, it refers to PX sherry. Why this utterly crucial piece of information needs to be absent from the packaging and even from ardbeg.com, is anybody’s guess. So, Dark Cove is a marriage of Bourbon matured, and PX sherry matured spirit. This combination of Bourbon and sherry is nothing new for Ardbeg, and can be seen in Uigeadail (Bourbon and Oloroso sherry), Galileo (Bourbon and Marsala), and Ardbog (Bourbon and Manzanilla).
Altogether, Dark Cove is limited to just a little over 8300 cases worldwide, and is probably comprised of about 150 barrels, depending on barrel size and angel’s share.
You may also know that Ardbeg releases whiskies exclusively for their committee members, dubbed with the ‘Committee Release’ title. In the past, those editions were a distinct and separate branch of releases. Some of those have gone on to achieve legendary status – Alligator, Rollercoaster, Supernova. In recent times, Committee Releases have been cask strength versions of the wider May release, but even more limited in numbers.
Initially my idea was to review Dark Cove, and the Dark Cove Committee Release side-by-side, but, since they’re the same juice bottled at different strengths, my notes will be taken from the 55% abv Committee Release, and I’ll slowly cut it down with distilled water to 46.5% abv, the strength of the standard Dark Cove release, and track the changes.
The darkest Ardbeg ever. So they say. As we’d expect, the cask strength Committee Release is the darker-est, by a sliver. Maybe I’m jaded, but, I wonder if this ‘darkest’ classification sets us up for a bit of a disappointment when we finally see the colour of the whisky outside the green bottle. I mean, it’s a bit dark, I suppose. I’m absolutely not a stickler for aesthetics, so the stuff could be neon pink for all I care. But, with so many sherry monster single malts available, ones that can block out the sun when held up to the sky at noon, I don’t think it’s crazy to wonder if expectations are set a bit high for colour here. Darkest? Really?
First thing that hits you is the intensity of this whisky. Even more so than its high strength, punchy relatives Corryvreckan and Uigeadail. First pass brings out sizzling maple bacon on a camp stove, sugar-coated candied ginger for a snack. Autumn, damp leaves after a fresh rain. Dipping a finger into the whisky, and rubbing it in the hands, roasted walnuts are coaxed out. Hey, this stuff is actually a bit sticky.
Dark Cove definitely lands well into earthy territory. Vegetal like a bag of freshly misted culinary herbs. At full strength, I don’t get a big sherry note, more like fruit confit. A couple drops of water lend to eucalyptus and Pears soap aromas. Down to 46.5% and beyond, and the dried fruits start to come out, moving into a more traditional sherry profile.
The peat is not blatant or aggressive. A few drops of water cue the asphalt paving crew to kickstart their steamroller.
The Committee Release is a bit too spicy for me at full-bore, and benefits from being cut with water. As in the aroma, it gets almost minty, carrying the piquancy of fresh ginger. Down at standard strength, it’s umami to the maximum. A dense chunk of San Francisco sourdough dunked into thick, aged balsamic vinegar.
Dark Cove has the edge on Uigeadail in the texture department, in my books. Being just a touch sweeter, and a shade mellower, the whole mouth experience is a bit less acerbic, and is the most ‘luxurious’ of Ardbegs in the assay thus far. Pretty incredible, considering how luxurious Uigeadail is.
Beautifully well-integrated, a tinge of sweetness. The bitter chocolate, chalky finish present in the rest of Ardbeg’s range is turned way down for Dark Cove. Especially noticeable after the addition of water, even below 46.5%.
Dark Cove is a whisky that has really grown on me. More than any other whisky I can name, actually. I remember my first sip, on the afternoon before Ardbeg Night, really hyped up to try it, and to my surprise, not really loving the stuff. Struck me as kind of tame. Then at an Ardbeg Night event, I sipped about 5 glasses, and figured I’d got my head wrapped around it – alright, it’s easy going, but nothing to mull over. Then about 2 months later, I poured it at a formal seated Scotch tasting I was hosting, as a token, easy-going peated whisky, and was blown away when I lifted my glass cover and a jet of peat smoke fired out. The whisky had an intensity that I’d completely missed up until that point. And here I am now, a month later, trying to formalize my thoughts on this bottling that I’ve been fortunate enough to sample on about a dozen occasions – in the basement of a bar thick with the smoke of peat incense cones and seafood on ice, on the top of a mountain at nearly 9000 ft. in elevation, at home in a very controlled and concentrated tasting environment, on a fresh palate, on a tired palate, and more. No unifying principle comes forward. Each time I come to Dark Cove, there’s something happening that I hadn’t caught before. It’s a slow, patient burn.
I came into this review fully expecting to love Dark Cove at full cask strength, more than the 46.5% version. But with some consideration, I much prefer it at the strength of the standard release, and I would preferentially drink it at that strength without a second thought.
Well, actually, going back and taking a sip of the Committee Release, I’m now positive that full strength is the only way to drink Dark Cove.
Or, wait. Hang on.
Dark Cove rear bottle code: L64823 09/02/2016 | 16001189 15:15
Dark Cove Committee Release rear bottle code: L64694 20/11/2015 | (unknown)
(Note, the Committee Release is released first, and gets bottled almost 4 months earlier than the standard release)
Check out Tim Puett’s website The Ardbeg Project which gives, among many many other things, an in-depth explanation of bottle codes if you’re curious to know what they mean. It seems like the code format has changed since the page was last updated, but I’ll still provide the bottling codes in full with all my Ardbeg reviews.
Stay tuned for part five of my Ardbeg Assay, a review of a soon-to-be-released, independently bottled Ardbeg.