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Why Does Ardbeg’s An Oa Exist?

Last month Ardbeg, that bastion of Islay whisky pride, took the wraps off An Oa – the first new permanent addition to their range in eight years.

Not since 2009 when the Corryvreckan was upgraded from a committee release has Ardbeg presented a new and ongoing release – so why now? And why An Oa?

Pronounced ‘an oh’, the whisky has been matured in a number of casks types, married together in their French Oak ‘Gathering Vat’. Pedro Ximenez sherry, ex-bourbon and virgin oak casks are all in the mix, according to the distillery. First revealed in October 2016, it will be released as a non-age statement, arrives at 46.6% and is expected around the world’s major markets (including Australia) in September 2017. It will sit alongside the existing 10-Year-Old, Uigeadail and Corryvreckan.

The exact Australian pricing hasn’t been locked in yet, but if we use the British market as a guide this should slot in just below the price point of the 10-year-old. (However, that may not always be the case as given the penchant for loss-leading on key lines by some Aussie retailers – Laphroaig Select Cask should never be cheaper than the ten-year-old but it often is.)

Hopefully the An Oa arrives in time to be a precautionary move, rather than a reactionary one.

I haven’t tried it yet, but I have more important friends who have. It appears that as part of their marketing roll out, Moet-Hennessy have sent a couple of bottles to bloggers around the country and invited them to host their own intimate tasting events. It’s an interesting and potentially quite exciting approach in a market that is often lacking in new ideas to launch new products.

Relying on their initial impressions the An Oa could be a really solid little dram, not quite as intense as its stablemates but providing a softer entry point into Islay whiskies.

We saw a similar approach from Laphroaig, just a minute down the road on Islay, a few years ago with the Select Cask roll out – although the 40% bottling strength hurts Select in my opinion. A gentler, lighter take on the distillery’s intensity these release serve a few purposes.

By fulfilling a key price-point in the high turnover market ($80-$100) it lets their age statement expressions creep up by a few bucks. As well as extracting more value for age stocks – which are at an absolute premium in 2017 and beyond – it also takes some of the pressure off.

With the cult following the Ardbeg 10-year-old has and sitting, as it does, below the non-age Uigeadail and Corryvreckan, how much longer can it last under current demands? The number-crunchers at Moet-Hennessy are sure to have the calculations for this at the forefront of their mind and hopefully the An Oa arrives in time to be a precautionary move, rather than a reactionary one.

They’re unlikely to want to find themselves in the position Chivas Brothers were in when stocks of the Glenlivet 12-Year-Old became worryingly short.

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As the bloggers around the country roll out their opinions we’ll get a better idea of how An Oa will sit in the distillery’s canon, which currently doesn’t have a weak spot and is fiercely guarded by Ardbeg fans.

In this light the An Oa’s arrival is a welcome one, a move of consolidation rather than necessity.

That should come in conjunction with the bottle arriving in Australian stores – although some seemed to have jump the gun. While the marketing roll-out appears to have had a fair bit of thought about it, the actual sales strategy seems to have been a little more rushed.

The first shipment, which was expected to go to Ardbeg Embassies around Australia (a selection of bars and indie bottle stores who’ve been selected by Ardbeg), appears to have been sold in lump to a national chain. Admittedly it’s a far easier sale to move your allocation in one sale, but the Embassies are more likely to sing and dance about exciting new releases.

With that modest first allocation come and gone, the second shipment is due mid-September, so we’ll expect An Oa to filter into the collective whisky consciousness then after the rest of the world has had their say.

The author is the Editor of Whisky Ardent and works at independent bottle store The Oak Barrel, which is not an Ardbeg Embassy.

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