Sunday, March 13, 2011

Review: Gordon & MacPhail 1991 Ardmore Highland Single Malt Scotch

If you have read some of my other reviews, you probably have noted that I am a big fan of the economy blended scotch, Teacher's Highland Cream.  It is ridiculously cheap to buy, but packs a nice punch of flavor.  Lots of bacon, smoked oyster and anise flavors.  Maybe on the nose kinda like sniffing diesel fuel, but when it hits the palate, it redeems itself.  I am not saying Teacher's is the greatest blend, but I am saying it is one of the greatest economy blends, that is at the price you pay.  More on price later in this post . . .

One of the core single malts making up Teacher's is Ardmore, an eastern Highland malt that is heavily peated.  The peaty nature of Ardmore is quite a departure from other eastern Highland malts (ie. GlenDronach) and frankly malts from the rest of the Highlands.  Big peat fires were used to dry the barley and it is readily apparent on the nose before you even sip.

Lush peat, lemony and the scent of a heavy summer rainfall as you sit by the window.  The aromas of this malt really are very expansive, but not overpowering.

Sweet peat, lush texture, oily and of course smokey.  The smoke is recognizable for anyone familiar with Teacher's.  Mid to late palate is greeted by a lot of ginger and some oak.

You are left with lingering flavors of salt, brine, more smoke and that ginger.

General Impressions
Tastes like ex-bourbon casks were used in the aging of this malt, though I cannot say for sure, as I have not been in contact with the distiller.  However, what I can say for sure is that there is a total absence of sherry flavors in this single malt.  In a nutshell, the flavor profile is peat, smoke and ginger.  A lot of ginger in the mid to late palate that moves onto the finish.  I find the ginger a little too much.

There are other flavors present like black licorice (think ouzo or arak).  This licorice flavor is echoed in the Teacher's bottling along with that signature Ardmore smoke.

Lesson in Economics
Drinking Gordon & MacPhail's 1991 Ardmore brings to mind a first year university economics class.  Specifically, the concept of opportunity cost.  You know the concept regardless of whether or not you ever studied economics.  Opportunity cost is the other choice you would have made instead of the one you did.  For example, you decide to invest $10,000 in the stock market.  Your opportunity cost would be what you would have done with the money if you had not plunked it in the market.  If you would have bought a bond paying 4% interest, then your opportunity cost for playing the market is the loss of 4% interest on that money.

My opportunity cost with respect to Gordon & MacPhail's Ardmore is what I might have done with the $70 if I had not bought this particular bottle, and that is what stings for me.  I could have had a bottle of Talisker 10 for $8 less!  Glenfiddich 15 yrs was $13 cheaper!  And the killer!  Glenlivet 18 yrs for $2 cheaper!

The price point of the Gordon & MacPhail bottling of Ardmore will vary depending on where you live of course.  But, in general, I suspect that it is higher than you should pay.  Ardmore distillery also has it's own releases that are more reasonably priced.  Check 'em out.

Ardmore is a pleasant enough single malt, but it is not stellar and therefore Gordon & MacPhail should  price it accordingly.  If you can buy Ardmore either from this independent bottler (Gordon & MacPhail) or from the distillery (they have a few bottlings) at say $35 US, then there is no problem.  The trouble with the bottle I picked up was the price.  Tamdhu and Aberfeldy 12 years are priced a lot lower, but of similar quality.  So, I guess what I am saying is you need to get Ardmore at the right price.  If so, then everything is ok.

I know I tend to obsess about the price of scotch, but hey, like you, I am paying for it out of my own pocket and I want value!  Not getting it here at $70 a bottle.  The 1991 Ardmore is smooth, inoffensive, pleasant enough, but lacking the complexity and wow factor to justify the price that Gordon & MacPhail demand.  For that reason, I cannot recommend this particular bottling at this high price.  Ardmore is a pleasant single malt, but you have to get it at the right price.  That did not happen here. 


Jason Debly
Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2011. All rights reserved.


  1. Dear Jason,
    The discussion about pricing reminds me of a question I have long had:

    Talisker + Craggonmore + two others (the name of which I don't remember) = JW Green Label

    Talisker and Craggonmore are much more expensive than Green Label.

    How can the sum of the parts be much more expensive than the whole?

    Two possibilities:
    1) The other two malts are very cheap and the weighting of Talisker and Craggonmore are very small;
    2) The single malts are very much marked up in price.

    What do you think? Does it really work like a combo meal at fast food restaurants where the sum of parts are more expensive than the combo? Or do I miss anything?

  2. Hello 茶怪!

    Where I live, Johnnie Walker Green is very close in price to Cragganmore and Talisker. Which of these is the cheapest to produce? I suspect Green Label would be the cheapest to produce.

    Single malt distilleries make most of their sales to blenders. The percentage of sales by single malt distillers to companies that produce blends is typically in the vicinity of 85%. So, the actual single malt market for bottled single malt is much smaller and so less lucrative.

    I do not work in the spirits industry so I really cannot speak with any authority or direct knowledge. Would be nice if an industry type reading this would pipe in.

    1. Our local Diageo rep (in our tasting group) says that "costs of production" are not always driving product pricing and lineup decisions solely. Inventory and program run lengths are important considerations too. Imagine if you will that enough older stocks were owned of Linkwood, Cragganmore, Glen Elgin and Caol Ila to support bottling of a blend, but not enough to warrant creation of annual more single malt releases of each, separately, in various ages. The Green Label probably helped Diageo to consume stocks in barrel that needed to move into the marketplace fairly promptly and with minimal risk. Now that those stocks are reduced to a fair degree (to which older Talisker stocks ran out quickest), the program ceases.

  3. I'd presume that a lot of it has to do with the casks. Sure, they all cost the same amount to produce, but some simply wind up containing better whisky than others, and the contents are simply worth more.

    The below average casks go into Red Label or other Diageo budget blends, average into Black label or other midrange blends, the above average into Green and Gold labels, and the 10% or so best (and most valuable) casks are sold as Single Malt or saved for ultra-premium blends.

    Of course, folks will stick an few dollars more on the price tag if they can...


    As to the Ardmore, I'd guess that a fair portion of the price difference is (1) the relative rarity of Ardmore as a single malt allowing a higher price in the market (2) the fact that G&M probably has a less-developed distribution system in North America than some other distilleries. A lot of the malts you named are owned by substantial multinational corporations and probably have an easier time getting any particular whisky to market (Aberfeldy is owned by Bacardi, for example, and they already have an "in" with the markets due to the rum they sell).

    Of course, I had to go ruin my entire argument by looking up comparative prices on a scottish website, figuring that G&M prices would be lower relative to other whiskies. Talisker 10 was 5 pounds cheaper, and Glenfiddich 15 was 2 pounds cheaper...

  4. Thanks Bitter Fig,

    Don't hesitate to pipe in anytime. Your insights seem to carry a lot more understanding of the industry than the rest of us here.


  5. That's the thing about private bottlings, you never know what you are going to get until you taste it, but you will always pay a premium for the opportunity. However, the two finest whiskeys I've ever had have both been private offerings, and if I could afford it, I'd own several bottles of each. I can't, but I am sure glad I had the chance to taste them.

    When I'm out at a place with a decent whiskey menu, I follow Mae West’s advice and always try something I've never tasted before. Sometimes you win, and sometimes, not so much. Case in point, the last two I had on my vacation, one from duty free on the way there, and one on the way back. Aberfeldy 12 year, absolutely underwhelming in every respect, almost totally indistinguishable from Dewars 12 which it is the heart of. It did however make a great Rusty Nail. And on the plus side, Highland Park 1998 which now sits in my cupboard. Delightful stuff and very different from the regular offerings. A pity that it isn’t in a local store, but it is one more excuse to get away from it all.

  6. Hello Howard!

    While I have issues with the Ardmore bottling by Gordon & MacPhail, my next review is of their 8 year old Tamdhu. It's very good and more reasonably priced. So, you are right, you just never know with those independent bottlers.

  7. Jason, We held another whisky event in our alumni food and drink course series last evening. We presented three malts, one an Ardmore bottling (The Traditional Cask, $38, US). It proved very well received among tasters new to single malts. It stood in well among Highland Park 12 and Aberfeldy 12. It's a very approachable peated whisky, lacking as it did saline or medicinal peat, spirit burn, bitterness and, well, much concentration. Consistent with your review of the G&M's release here. I'm going to pick up a bottle of ATC for keeping handy for visitors at home. Appreciate your tasting notes here. Cheers. JK

    1. I think Ardmore is very underrated. Maybe not the greatest of single malts, but at the price point it is offered, it delivers great value.