Tasting Notes : Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix and Ardbeg Supernova

For better or worse, there’s a growing trend in distillation – especially within whisky – to bottle 1-off, unique, rare and limited bottlings.  Each carries a story, each brings a specific clientele and each usually brings an increased price.

We all know Glenfiddich.  We know the bottle shape, it’s very light character and it’s easily approached price-point.  For some, it was the first Scotch Whisky they tried.  For others, it was one on the long path of trying to get through them all.  The distillery, opened in 1886, is certainly one of the best known in the US if not the world.  Meaning “Valley of the Dear”, it’s signature mark is a stag printed on the label.  There are currently 5 bottlings in their core line, with additional rare offerings.  One of them is called “Snow Phoenix.”

The story goes that snow piled up on maturation warehouse roofs starting in late 2009 and in 2010 the weight – calculated at 400 kilograms per square meter – caused the roofs of 4 of these warehouses to collapse, exposing the maturing whisky to the elements.  Brian Kinsman, the Malt Master of Glenfiddich Distillery, visited the warehouses and chose to create a one-time bottling in homage to the tradesmen that had to endure the bitter cold and rebuild the warehouses – and to the Angels who hadn’t yet had enough share. Using some seasoned bourbon and some seasoned Oloroso sherry casks, some older and some not-as-old casks, this vatting was only bottled in 2010.

Whisky around the world is traditionally made from the dominant crop in the area that it’s being distilled, and the heat source used is also a factor of local product.  In Southwest Scotland, there lies an island called Islay (pronounced EYE-luh).  Of the 7 distilleries operating today, 3 are on the South coast – Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Ardbeg.  Islay is an island made of peat – plant matter that carbonizes over centuries – which is used as their traditional heat source not just for firing the stills, but also for drying the malted barley used to create their whisky.  By drying, or smoking the barley, the grain takes on a very rich, smokey aroma and flavor.  There are many places throughout the process of making whisky that we can introduce ‘phenolic’ aromas and flavors, but the ‘peatiness’ of the whisky comes from this – drying the barley over a peat fire.

Lagavulin and Laphroaig – along with the rest of the Islay distilleries – contain a bit of this peaty flavor, much more so than, say, Glenfiddich or other Lowland, Highland or Speyside whiskies.  The reigning king of peat, however, is Ardbeg.  Their 10 YO is known as the highest peat level of any regularly available whisky.  Often bottling smaller run batches (such as Rollercoaster, Airigh Nam Beist, Uigeadail, etc), in 2009 (and again in 2010) they decided to produce a completely over the top, no BS, we’re not messing around here, smokey whisky – at nearly 3 times the peat level of their 10 YO.  It’s name?  Supernova.

A lot of the enjoyment of whisky for me – and many people – is the social aspect.  We go to the pub, we meet up with friends, we talk about good times and bad, we meet new people, we learn and we laugh.  And sometimes cry.  We enjoy company with food, with wine, with beer and with other spirits.  We enjoy our surroundings, and the craftsmanship of them.  We converse.  We smoke cigars.  We let out our belt a notch.  We digress for hours into topics that matter to no one but present company and we sit in silence.  And we do it all with great whisky.

Recently I was given the opportunity to enjoy a great whisky with a great friend.  Somehow we ended up at two Asian restaurants in town – one a bit more on the Fusion side, and one a bit more proper.  We both arrived with no pre-conceived notions that we’d end up doing it, and hadn’t discussed it, but in both of our heads we both knew the night would include whisky.  We had enjoyed beer, and I was able to share a new way to enjoy Japanese whisky that I was recently taught (worthy of another blog post sometime), and then it was time for more.  My friend, John, is a big fan of the smokey stuff.  We shared a Bowmore 12 and a Jura 16.  I could see a couple bottles of Ardbeg popping up, and asked our man to pull one down.  Ten, Beist, Rollercoaster, Sup..  Wait, Supernova?  You have Supernova?  “Yes.”  “Yes,” I replied.

It was only a few days later that I was en route to my first baseball game of the season (go Red Sox, but the Mariners made a worthy substitute that night) and decided to stop in to one of my locals for a 1-and-done.  Looking up at the (very impressive) back wall, I noticed a bottle that I’d read about but hadn’t yet seen – Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix.  I asked to see the bottle and was graciously offered a small dram – tough to pass-up.  I know their 12 YO bottling, with it’s sweet and rich tree fruit, and knew this was a bit different.

Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix – 47.6% ABV – $95
Appearance: Nearly clear – very little wood influence.  Uh Oh…
Aroma: Hot.  Green.
Flavor: Not-Yet-Ripe apples (to the 12 YO’s over-ripe apple essential oils)
Body: Quite full.  Very nice coat, but oily.
Finish: Long and monochromatic.
Diluted: More malt and citrus notes.  Cinnamon.

Ardbeg Supernova – SN2010 – 60.1% ABV – $125
Appearance: Very light in color – almost watered-down apple juice.  Quite viscous.  Creamy.
Aroma: Deep.  Inviting.  Surprisingly sweet.  Touch of white pepper and cayenne.  Briney, like pan-fried shrimp.
Flavor: Layer upon layer of smoke, sweetness, salt, dark chocolate and burnt biscuits.  A cigar smoked to the nub.  Char from the grill on the bun.  A flaming corn husk landing in your bitters and soda.
Body: Sharp on the lips, but coats the mouth quickly and well.  Milk when you’re parched.
Finish: One of the longest I’ve experienced.  Warm and spicy.  Worth every moment of anticipation.
Diluted: A few more late-spring flowers, but still quite creamy and dark.

Overall, I’m very happy to have tried both of these unique bottlings from distilleries I’m quite familiar with.  Like the homes on one street of a housing development, these give us the opportunity to realize variations on a theme – to appreciate a fresh look at something more common.  It was quite fun to taste these 2 – at such opposite ends of the spectrum – so close to each other.

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