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Kelpie: Limited 2017 Ardbeg Release

By Whisky Kirk / November 19, 2016

The Ardbegian rumor mill is churning, and yet nobody seems to know for sure what the mysterious Dr. Bill Lumsden, resident brainiac for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg, is dreaming up. One thing’s for sure: a new release is in the works for a committee edition with a rather legendary name.

The label for a Committee Edition 2017 has appeared on the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s website, and that means Ardbeg means business. Yes, we are talking about “Kelpie.”

According to the label, this new limited release will be matured in virgin casks of new oak that hail from the Republic of Adygea. In case your New World geography is as murky as mine, Adygea is a federal republic of Russia, and it’s located between the Black and the Caspian seas, just above the country of Georgia.

Rumors of the tasting notes for Kelpie sound pretty enticing: oily peat, dark chocolate, and smoked fish (not entirely unlike Corryvreckan). The back label for the bottle mentions herbal notes, hickory wood, and seaweed (kelp).

If you are an attentive reader, you might have noticed that clues to the meaning of “Kelpie” were buried in the above paragraph. Yes, it’s based upon a famous poem that was set in the Gulf of Corryvreckan, which also happens to be the name of a deliciously eccentric Ardbeg core offering.


Taking in the scene at Ardbeg. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash/Lindsay Brandon)

Water Kelpies & Other Shape-shifters

Like Airigh Nam Beist, yet another Ardbeg whisky that takes its name from a mythical creature, Kelpie is what might be termed a cryptid. In fact, the creature is supposed to be a kind of shape-shifter, which inhabits more than simply the Gulf of Corryvreckan.

The “natural” form of kelpies is said to be that of a water horse. However, they are also believed to have the ability to take on a human form. Historical accounts offer some tantalizing hints that kelpies can either physically change form–or perhaps, more likely, that they are capable of hypnotizing their prey into believing they are human.

Robert Burns wrote about this type of vengeful being in a poem called “Address to the Devil“:

When thaws dissolve the snowy hoard,
And float the jingling icy-board,
Then water-kelpies haunt the fjord by your direction,
And nighted travelers are allured to their destruction.

As we can see, Burns is not saying that water kelpies are the devil, himself, but it’s interesting to note that this belief was not uncommon to the time in which Burns wrote the poem. Indeed, ancient “pagan” accounts of supernatural creatures often get lumped in with Christian legends of devils, or the Prince(ess) of Darkness.

In the case of “The Address to the Devil,” Burns illustrates a kind of begrudging mutualism at work between Satan and a whole host of unholy accomplices that help to carry out nefarious deeds at his urging.

Robert Burns’ famous poem is not the namesake for Ardbeg’s new whisky, presumably because it doesn’t feature any references to Corryvreckan. However, it sheds interesting light on the type of creature that is indeed the namesake.

“Water Kelpie” is a Scottish name used to describe shape-shifting water spirits that are said to still inhabit the lochs and pools of Scotland. As I’ve already mentioned, the creature has most often been described as appearing like a horse, but is able to adopt human form.

A few accounts maintain that a kelpie cannot duplicate feet when appearing like a human, but rather retains its horse-like hooves. This, of course, has parallels with the Christian notion that Satan also sports a dandy pair of hooves when he/she takes human form. Ditto with legends of centaurs and satyrs.

The majority of folks in the UK these days would smile, and even chuckle, if you were to suggest to them that water kelpies might be real flesh and blood creatures (or, perhaps, more accurately, plasma-based life forms, to use the modern scientific vernacular).

And since we are on the subject, I would be remiss not to mention how sightings of water cryptids, such as the Loch Ness Monster, were described in ancient times as resembling “water horses,” at least from the neck up. Of course, hundreds of years ago, very few people in Scotland knew about the existence of dinosaurs . . . or even large aquatic reptiles, such as crocodiles.

Ardbeg’s Source for the Name

One hundred and fifty-odd years ago, when the poet, Charles MacKay, wrote a poem called “The Kelpie of Corryvreckan,” there were still plenty of Scots that took the idea seriously. In fact, MacKay’s poem is about a beautiful young woman who was wooed by a water kelpie, and then ended up going to a watery grave, as a result.

In this way, the water kelpies have something in common with sirens, harpies, undines, and mermaids–all of which are said to lure people to their deaths so that they might feed on the released life-force as their souls pass out of this sense-plane into another. As I’ve already mentioned, they also share some historical parallels with dragons, demons (devils), and modern descriptions of reptilian shape-shifters.

It’s not surprising that other whisky reviewers have missed the fact that MacKay wrote about “The Kelpie” as a type of being, rather than a personal name. Indeed, his Kelpie of Corryvreckan has no name, whereas the maiden whom he woos to hear death is called Jessie. Here is the moment in the poem when, to her absolute horror, as she strides the beast out into the water, he says to her: “I have no dwelling beyond the sea / I have no good ship waiting for thee / Thou shalt sleep with me on a coach of foam / And the depths of the ocean shall be thy home.”

The rest of the narrative is told from the standpoint of those who witnessed the event from shore: “The gray steed plunged in the billows clear / And the maiden’s shrieks were sad to hear / ‘Maiden, whose eyes like diamonds shine / Maiden, now thou’rt mine!’ / Loud the cold sea-blast did blow / As they sank ‘mid the angry waves below / Down to the rocks where the serpents creep / Twice five hundred fathoms deep.”

Frankly, I was initially rather taken aback when I first heard that Ardbeg had named its latest release after the namesake of MacKay’s poem. And then I warmed up to the idea. Yes, the narrative is rather grim; no, Ardbeg probably won’t go into great depth about the whole story of Jessie and her seduction, torture, and untimely death at the hands of a malevolent creature that most likely fed upon her vital energies like a vampire.

Most folks who bother to read MacKay’s poem will chalk up the tale to a delightfully archaic superstition, even though it is basically a warning about predatory shape-shifters that shares striking parallels with native accounts from North America to Africa to the Middle East to the Aboriginal Outback, and everywhere in between. Why, you ask, did all of these native cultures, which hadn’t yet been indoctrinated by “modern civilization,” offer the same kind of warning? A-ha, therein lies the rub! Your guess is as good as mine.

Ardbeg Day Marketing Campaigns

I was surprised to see other whisky reviewers online writing about whether a Russian theme would be promoted by Ardbeg, due to the virgin oak barrels that were used to age the whisky. I don’t really think that’s likely. First of all, Adygea, where the oak for the barrels came from, is not Russia; it’s a republic of Russia. Secondly, a water kelpie that once lived in the Gulf of Corryvreckan is far more true to the rustic image of Scotch whisky than pretty much ALL of the other Ardbeg Day campaigns from years gone by.

Even geographically speaking, Corryvreckan is a short distance from Islay, located on the other side of the Isle of Jura. That’s close enough to be “claimed” by Ardbeg.

So, the marketing concept for this new whisky is a bull’s eye, if you ask me. Especially after Auriverdes, which left me cold because it was all about Brazil, rather than Scotland; and Dark Cove, which wasn’t even dark.

As far as the “whisky grapevine” is concerned, nobody seems to know whether Kelpie will become the 2017 Ardbeg Day release. Truth be told, I wasn’t terribly thrilled with 2015’s Perpetuum, especially considering how the release marked Ardbeg’s 200th Anniversary. For me, it was a spirit that lacked spirit. Is that funny? Well, I wasn’t laughing when I tasted the stuff with such high hopes, only to have them dashed at the feet of Uigeadail and Corryvreckan, which each beat Perpetuum by at least a Scots mile.

Even still, the fragrance of Perpetuum, after it dried in my glass, was absolutely divine. Yes, I’ve tasted it again a few times since that fateful Ardbeg Day in Oregon City, without yet buying a bottle–although I still might, since there are a few left floating around my home town. The ichor reminds of old Ardbegs from the glory days, which I’ve tasted in the not-so-distant past.

In fact, a 2007 Uigeadail that I currently keep in my cabinet tastes wonderfully old when compared with nearly all of the releases since Airigh Nam Beist. A few months ago at Highland Stillhouse, I splurged on a pour of Ardbeg 17-Year-Old. Oh lordy. It took me over an hour to get through that epic dram, which kept changing like an olfactory and gustatory shape-shifter in the most marvelous of ways.

Last year’s Dark Cove was something of a reprieve, but it was still fairly young tasting to me, at least when compared with Ardbog, which I dearly loved, and even Galileo. Unbalanced as it was, I still thought Galileo smelled and tasted quite good, especially when compared with some of the releases in Longrow’s “Red” series, of which the 12-Year-Old Pinot is my fave.

I tend to be an optimist. Ardbeg’s Kelpie release seems rather tantalizing to me, especially considering how the 21-Year-Old just came out, due to Ardbeg repurchasing some of its old stock from an independent bottler that was sitting on it like a goose on a golden egg. Who knows, maybe there will be some old stuff blended into Kelpie? Or maybe, more likely, this hope is merely a part of the Water Kelpie’s hypnotic spell.

How to Buy a “Committee Release”

I’m debating joining the Ardbeg Committee just to get my hands on a committee bottling of Kelpie. Like the whisky’s namesake, I feel the pull of its magickal spell…until I remind myself that it’s all marketing until I get the chance to taste the stuff.

But that doesn’t change the fact that I will probably become a member just in the nick of time to snag a bottle. I really like the idea of a kelp-forward, oceanic Ardbeg. Twist me rubber arm to reach fer a bottle o’ that.  

After all is said and done, the question remains: “Will a watered down version, or a different lower ABV version of Kelpie be released on next year’s Ardbeg Day?” Only time will tell…but if I were a gambling man, I would put a cool hundred on the “seahorse” in that race.


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