If you purchase an independently reviewed product or service through a link on our website, Robb Report may receive an affiliate commission.
Ardbeg, the Islay distillery known for making some of the most heavily peated single malt scotch from this region famous for its smoky whisky, just launched what might be its most interesting release to date. The Rollercoaster is a pair of whiskies—one distilled just before the distillery closed in 1981 and one just after it reopened in 1989—that offer snapshots of whisky history never to be repeated. Only two samples of these whiskies are available in the U.S., and we were lucky enough to taste one of them.
Ardbeg’s was founded in 1815, but like so many distilleries the road to the present day was filled with ups and downs, stops and starts, closures and re-openings. The final chapter in this story took place on March 25th, 1981, when Ardbeg shuttered for what many people feared would be the last time. “There was an indulgence of over-production, and Ardbeg and other distilleries had to close,” Ardbeg Committee chairperson Jackie Thomson told Robb Report on a recent call. “We only produced for a few months in 1981, and people were skeptical that we’d ever open again.”
The spirit of smoky scotch would be resurrected eight years later when the distillery reopened in 1989 to resume production on a limited basis until closing for a year in 1996. The Glenmorangie Company bought it the next year and gradually brought whisky production to full capacity, LVMH acquired both distilleries in 2004, and things have been going full steam ahead since then.
Which brings us to the two whiskies at hand. “Had we bought a perfectly well-preserved distillery, it wouldn’t have been as interesting,” director of whiskey creation Dr. Bill Lumsden told Robb Report. “I realized we had only one single cask left from 1981, so I wasn’t about to lose that in a larger vatting. The cask from 1989 is not the last from that year, but one of a handful of casks left. We did this to celebrate the ups and downs of Ardbeg’s history, that’s how the idea of The Rollercoaster was born.” According to Lumsden, both whiskies are not as heavily peated as today’s Ardbeg, which should be an interesting comparison point for superfans. “[They] have a gentler phenolic style,” he said in a statement. “I find the 1981 whisky unusually mentholic and cooling, and the 1989 particularly elegant and reserved. Both are fascinating representations of highly significant years in Ardbeg’s history.”
The first whisky is Ardbeg Cask No.1 1981, a 42-year-old distilled on March 11, 1981 just two weeks before the distillery shut down. The mashbill is a combination of heavily peated malt, said to be some of the last to be floor malted onsite, and lighter malt that is known as “Kildalton-style.” It was matured in bourbon barrels, transferred to a refill Oloroso sherry cask in 2006, then bottled in June of 2023 at 47.3 percent ABV. The color is a dark amber, and there are recognizable Ardbeg iodine-saline-peat notes on the nose, followed by tobacco, chocolate, raisin, and spice flavors on the palate.
Ardbeg Cask No.17 1989 is the second of the pair, a 33-year-old distilled on December 6, 1989, not long after the distillery reopened in October. The lightly peated malt for this came from Port Ellen, which supplies the malt for many scotch distilleries, and the whisky was aged in bourbon barrels, transferred to a refill bourbon barrel in 1999, and bottled in June of 2023 at 45.3 percent ABV. This is much more of a classic bourbon barrel-aged Ardbeg expression, a bit less intense with the smoke and full of notes of vanilla, stone fruit, citrus, and caramel.
The Rollercoaster is limited to just 143 sets, each housed in a Scottish oak box created by designer John Galvin with copper, leather, and a bumper inside meant to evoke a rollercoaster car. These sets will clearly be hard to come by—they are going for €100,000 each ($108,900)—but interested parties can contact Ardbeg through its website or at the distillery visitor center. You can find the rest of the Ardbeg lineup available to purchase from websites like ReserveBar.