Tim's goal on the site, which he started in 2009, is to create "a comprehensive list for all Single Malt Whisky ever produced from the Ardbeg Distillery." The Project is even more detailed than it sounds in that description. Tim not only catalogues each expression of Ardbeg but each bottle code on each expression. For the uninitiated, the bottle code is a 12 digit code stamped or etched on each bottle which shows the year, month, day and time that the bottle was filled. This allows you to compare Ardbeg 10 year olds from different years, different months or even different days. This has created a whole new obsession for Ardbeg lovers who can now track down specific years and dates.
Tim was kind enough to give me some samples of different Ardbeg 10 year olds ranging from 2001 to 2010. I have to say, the differences in these whiskies (all Ardbeg 10, mind you), were vast. Some had young, raw flavors, others tasted mature; the levels and character of the peat flavor differed quite a bit as did the sweetness and nearly every other characteristic. While they were all distinctly Ardbeg and all quite good, I was shocked by the variation.
After tasting through the batch, I followed up with Tim and asked him a few questions. It's not just Ardbeg 10 that shows variations between the codes; the other Ardbeg expressions, including those that are no longer produced, all have codes and can differ from batch to batch. And other distilleries' bottles also have codes which can be used to track batches.
The variety in batches found in Ardbegs probably relates, in part, to the fact that the distillery was closed for much of the 1980s and then again, briefly, in the 1990s. Lacking casks of ten year old whisky, Ardbeg had to use older stocks in its ten year old. My guess is that given that we are now more than ten years into Glenmorangie's ownership and stable stewardship of Ardbeg, we may now see more consistency from batch to batch.
Tim notes that batch variation is always present but is just one more element in the tasting variation that we all experience:
For my part, my favorite versions of the ten were the bottle codes L3 316 (bottled November 12, 2003) and L7 143 (bottled May 23, 2007). Tim's favorite of the group is L1 045 (bottled February 14, 2001).
There are so many variables that exist during the whole whisky making process. From distillation, filling, maturing, evaporation, warehousing, vatting, bottling, etc. that it would be virtually impossible to keep them completely identical. Not to mention, each time we taste a whisky, there are even more variables that our own palate and environment bring into the mix. How is our health? What did we just eat? Do we smoke? What type of glass are we using? Do we properly clean the glass? How is the weather? Are we inside or outside? Did we have a bad day at work? Or a good one? I believe all of these factors (even if only slightly) weigh on our sensory perception when we taste a whisky, and now we add in batch variation. It can be a game to pinpoint if the variation is in the whisky or in the drinker. Obviously, when there is a color difference, our mind can convince us that there is a taste difference, whether there actually is one or not. In my opinion, there are batch differences, but I try to keep myself grounded to the likelihood that the problem is usually "between the keyboard and the chair." After all, I'm not a professional, and I am tasting something made by a professional.
So spend some time with The Ardbeg Project. You may not ever look at a bottle of Ardbeg the same way again.