Exploring peated scotch has been one of the most interesting and exciting treks in my spirits journey thus far. In addition to the broadly distinct profile, different peated malts can come across so differently, even without doing side-by-side comparisons. And yet, where I believe these drams can impress the most is in how they interact with other components. I’m of course referring to the casks used for maturation and/or finishing, which I suspect is a key reason certain drinkers stick exclusively to peaty bottles. I wouldn’t take that direction myself, but I can empathize.
To that end, Ardbeg An Oa presents itself as an ideal candidate to demonstrate what I mean. The expression was introduced in 2017, taking its name from the long-since-abandoned Mull of Oa, a peninsula in the southwest region of Islay. Ardbeg 10-Year strictly utilizes ex-bourbon casks while Wee Beastie, despite its additional use of Olorosso sherry, is only age-stated at five years. An Oa lacks an age statement, but takes influence from virgin oak, ex-bourbon, and PX sherry casks before being combined in Ardbeg’s French oak marrying vat. Combine those elements together into a non-chill filtered expression bottled at 46.6% ABV and we have a mighty enticing bottle on our hands. The best part? Pricing and availability are reasonable, with the former being roughly $60 locally.
Nose: Dark, dried fruits with a slight Sharpie marker essence. Maybe fig with a billowing layer of chocolate. Retains Ardbeg’s core earthy peat with a mildly smoky backbone. Toffee and wisps of raspberry. After sipping I get tobacco and an odd air of peppermint. Overall, it’s rounded off and fairly inviting.
Palate: Good viscosity. Surprisingly savory, like salmon with a pineapple-based salsa. Pomegranate with upfront chocolate. Earthy mulch presents before smoke sets up the finish. Tastes like having both dinner and dessert in the best way. Vanilla and caramel notes come out, showcasing a bourbon-like characteristic.
Finish: Nice and full. Smoke presents like bourbon-flavored black tea with slight fruit residuals (raspberry), adding a subtle layer.
Yup, this is up my alley. Unlike the other aforementioned Ardbegs, I’m able to pull out a savory-sweet quality in An Oa, reminding me of the Talisker Select Reserve Greyjoy. An Oa seems more rounded off while offering a slightly richer and deeper flavor profile. The nose is borderline delightful, especially as I revisit after each sip. Palate-wise it’s interesting, but maybe a step or two shy of being impressive. As for the finish, it does well to build upon the palate by offering just enough change of pace while being complementary to the entire experience. What’s most curious about An Oa is that the smoke doesn’t hit me until the finish is in swing. It’s like reaching for a saltshaker after biting into a seemingly under-seasoned piece of meat, only for the seasoning to kick in as you ready your next bite. All of this for a readily available bottle that costs roughly the same as the 10-Year and Wee Beastie.
Safe to say I’m a fan of An Oa, with my only complaint being that it feels a bit subdued compared to what it could be. This is most obvious on the palate and the experience it provides. Although the sherry cask influence was what got me excited for An Oa, I found myself pulling out more bourbon/virgin oak characteristics, evidenced by the bourbon-flavored black tea note I got (specifically Elmwood Inn Fine Teas). And anyone who follows me knows that bourbon is my whiskey of choice thanks to those big, rich flavors it frequently provides. To that end, An Oa hits close to home, and if pressed, I’d say it’s my favorite of the Ardbeg Monsters of Smoke set. Yet it’s also missing that distinctly peaty characteristic I’ve enjoyed from the likes of Lagavulin 9 and Ardbeg 10. Maybe it’s unfair to compare them so directly, and we are ultimately talking about a nitpick here. I just wish An Oa could’ve gone that extra step to fully impress, rather than stopping a hair short.