Impossible as it may seem today, there was a time not so long ago when single malt Scotch whiskies were neither popular nor profitable. Distilleries like Port Ellen and Brora, whose whiskies are rightly praised and collected today, were mothballed in the 1980s for the simple reason that people weren’t drinking Scotch the way they once were. The Islay-based Ardbeg distillery nearly suffered the same fate. Through the ’80s and early ’90s, production halted for long stretches; what was produced was used almost entirely in blends. It wasn’t until 1997, when the distillery was bought by Glenmorangie (owned by LVMH), that the ship was righted and the story of Ardbeg as its fans know it really began.
Ardbeg Twenty One ($500) is a glimpse back to those times, which may have been dark for the company but not for the whisky. Distilled in 1993 to ’94 and aged entirely in former bourbon barrels, it’s bursting with vanilla and tropical fruit flavors (coconut, banana, hints of mango, and pineapple), along with buttery biscuit notes. All of that is beautifully balanced with peat and smoke—after all, this is Ardbeg, one of Islay’s peatiest whiskies and a historic one. (ardbeg.com)