Single Malt Whisky Review: Ardbeg 10 year old
The small, rugged Scottish Isle of Islay, home to Ardbeg, has one single malt scotch distillery per three-hundred seventy five residents. Hence it should come as no great surprise that those eight distilleries, ranging in age from five to two hundred and twenty-five, are each widely acclaimed for not only the quality of their products, but also the traditional, terroir-based manner in which they are produced. The unique, smoke-infused peat flavour that characterizes Islay malts makes them instantly recognizable to Scotch lovers the world over, a result of using peat moss instead of timber or coal to kiln barley, and Ardbeg has in recent years risen to the top of this distinguished heap.
Ardbeg, though dating back to 1815, endured a troubled past of distillery closures and was only re-opened for good in 1997. In that short time, though, it has re-established itself as a premium Scotch whisky maker, advocating a return to traditional distillation methods, and Ardbeg 10 was declared by Whisky expert Jim Murray (author of the yearly Whisky Bible) to be the best whisky of 2008. After being once again singled out by Murray for its Uigeadail bottling as Best of 2009, Ardbeg currently enjoys a near-consensus status among whisky enthusiasts as the Best All-Round Distillery on Earth. That said, the aforementioned Mr. Murray also claims a "foundational" role in reviving the moribund distillery, and this implied conflict-of-interest should be kept in mind.
From start to finish, Ardbeg 10 presents as a drink with class and sophistication, while steeped in tradition. The deep, forest green box which houses the bottle prominently displays a stylized Celtic "A", embossed in the middle like a Norse rune, and offers a brief history of the Island and its scotch on the back, fairly standard among single malt boxes. But where most distilleries stylize their past as the saga of "one honest whisky distiller, who against all odds nurtured their Scotch to perfection", Ardbeg implies that their founders, the Macdougall family, were descended from the Lords of the Isles who ruled between the 12th and 15th centuries - just one example of many where Ardbeg goes that extra mile. And whereas most whisky producers are content to plop their wares in a box and be done with it, Ardbeg includes a "Tasting Notes and Information" booklet inside, going into detail about what the drinker can expect to get out of their forthcoming dram.
Being a fan of the more subdued, mellow Speyside malts (like Glenlivet, Balvenie and particularly Cragganmore), I'm accustomed to a nose of gently wafting honey, spring flowers and freshly baked bread; thus it came as a rude surprise to pour a dram and be immediately greeted with an aroma somewhere between a campfire and sizzling bacon, exploding out of the glass. Well, wait now. First impressions aren't everything. Upon closer nosing the familiar honeyed, malt aromas emerge, but bubbling under the surface; I'm beginning to understand why Jim Murray called Ardbeg 10 the "most complex malt on earth".
Intense. Starts with a rush of peat smoke on the tongue, tasting rather like a cross between rich cigar smoke and bacon bits. However, as the whisky moves backwards through the mouth the initial smoky rush mellows into the rich, honeyed, citrusy malt I'm more familiar with, fading but never entirely disappearing; it's rather like listening to a loud motorcycle, blowing past you then slowly rumbling into the distance. Simply unbelievable. If I were offered a drink that was billed as tasting like smoke, bacon and oranges, I would gag on the spot. Yet somehow, Ardbeg 10 not only works, but the balance of highly contrasting, yet somehow complementary flavours is nothing short of astounding.
Ardbeg 10, unlike most distilleries' flagship expressions, is bottled at 46% ABV, much to the content of whisky connoisseurs who lament the tepid 40% standard that great whiskies like Cragganmore or Glenmorangie adhere to. The extra alcohol content intensifies the flavours (as if Ardbeg even needed it in the first place), and allows greater versatility for drinkers who can add a few drops of water, which subdues the peat presence and brings out gentler flavours without fatally weakening the whisky. Upon the addition of three drops of bottled water (tap water is a no-no), I found the taste to be remarkably fresher and more citrusy, with the peat smoke playing second fiddle this time. Aging in Kentucky bourbon casks keeps the natural sweetness of the malt from getting too dominant - restrained intensity, another hallmark of Ardbeg.
A major benchmark of quality Scotch is the finish, or how long the flavour lingers in the mouth after drinking. Ardbeg 10, especially when consumed without added water, positively blows its competition out of the water with a finish that can last five minutes or more, a rich, slowly decaying flavour of smoke, sea spray, and...possibly white Cheshire cheese? Picnic on a Scottish cliff right there.
Ardbeg 10 is a whisky that lives up to its reputation. Given its prominent cachet among whisky experts, I was expecting something remarkable and out of the ordinary; and from the elegant box to the last hint of peat disappearing over the palate, it does not disappoint. That said, this type of assertive Islay single malt is not to everyone's liking, and is probably not something that would appeal to first-time Scotch drinkers. But anyone looking for a unique beverage experience, one of the best in the world, would do well to purchase a bottle and taste the best that a tiny, windswept Scottish isle has to offer.