In a travesty of blogger failure, I’ve managed to write a whisky blog for SIX YEARS without reviewing Ardbeg 10 year-old. I now right this egregious wrong with the following review. I beg your collective forgiveness.
Ardbeg, that bastion of peat-freakdom, that Mecca of peat-worship, is one of the few distilleries that can print the phrase “not only the BEST of the Islay malt whiskies but THE BEST WHISKY IN THE WORLD” on its label and not be ashamed of the pretension and hyperbole. Of course, there is no such thing. The “best whisky in the world” is a concept that only Jim Murray believes in, because it sells him a lot of books. Still, Ardbeg is a solid contender for membership in the pantheon of best distilleries in the world, and many whisky aficionados would place it high on their personal lists. Many fellow noobs have cut their peat-teeth on this smoky monster, and it has ruined many of the same for other peated drams.
Ardbeg 10 is a relatively simple dram. It is Ardbeg single malt, using heavily-peated malt (55 to 65 ppm) from the maltings at Port Ellen (Ardbeg’s own kiln-fired maltings closed in 1977) and aged for at least 10 years in ex-bourbon barrels. The whisky is batched and bottled without chill filtration at 46% ABV. I’d like to point out that unlike many other whiskies *cough*Macallan*cough*, Ardbeg 10 has risen in price only $5 to $10 in the last six years, and is still just as good. That’s impressive.
Thanks especially to Laura from The Baddish Group, who both reminded me that I have not reviewed this stalwart dram, and kindly sent me some. Thanks, Laura!
Color: Pale straw
Nose: Pungent. A hint of lemon precedes a torrent of smoky peat. The peat is redolent of campfires, with toasted wood, charcoal, woodsmoke, and smouldering dry grass. Beneath the peat is a subtle layer of vanilla and brine.
Palate: Full-bodied. A tinge of sweetness greats the tongue, of pure malted grains and oaky vanilla. This is quickly obliterated by smoking hay, dry seagrass, slightly bitter charcoal, and dense, woodsy peat. While the flavors are intense, they are also very well-balanced, and the tongue burn is minimal, considering its robust 46% ABV. One could contemplate this smoky complexity for hours.
Finish: Very long (I will be tasting Ardbeg on my lips and tongue throughout the evening). A swath of bitterness is balanced well by a resurgence of malty, nutty grains and a strong spike of anise and black pepper. This all fades together, leaving a fugue of grassy, boggy peat and smoke.
With Water: A few drops of water initially mute the nose, so give the glass a few swirls and a rest before nosing again. The water seems to unbalance the alcohol burn and peat component, making the aroma sharper and more one-dimensional, although I get some buttery oak now. The palate is tamer and sweeter, but the balance still seems off. At 46%, this does not need water. I recommend keeping it neat.
Overall: I’m often struck by the differences between Ardbeg peat and Laphroaig peat. The former is all about smoke, and the impression is of a distant wildfire, pervading everything. The latter is all about the sea, with brine and seaweed and iodine. I can’t say which I prefer – I’m alternatively in the mood for either – and I can’t say that either is objectively better. Still, the essence of Ardbeg is control over chaos – an impressive feat considering the wild force of nature that peat becomes in the glass. Ardbeg is both masterfully constrained and wildly flavorful, the kind of whisky that makes you realize why people like smoky flavors in scotch, and also reminds you that the Scots have been perfecting this style for hundreds of years. If you haven’t had Ardbeg 10, there’s really no point in reading about it. You must experience it to complete your training, young padawan. If you aren’t sure you like peat, though, consider just buying a glass, neat, first. If you find you like peat, you cannot go wrong by owning a bottle.