I’m a sucker for a peaty and delicious Islay single malt scotch. I love the flavors that come through, and they tend to pair especially well with a good dark cigar. So far, I’ve only dipped my toe into this specific market… but with a boast like “The Ultimate” right on the label, I couldn’t resist checking out Ardbeg’s entry level offering.
Like most distilleries, the story of Ardbeg starts with a farm. Duncan Macdougall was a farmer who rented the Ardbeg farm (the name being an anglicization of “An Àird Bheag” which is Gaelic for “The Small Promontory”), and in that year his son John Macdougall began distilling alcohol on the site using some of the leftover grain from their harvests. They eventually got pretty good at it and wanted to try and make some money from the practice, and in 1815 they were granted a license to officially open the Ardbeg distillery.
For the majority of its history, the distillery produced spirits that were blended with products from other distilleries to create blended scotch whisky (a common practice of the era). They were apparently producing some pretty good stuff, though, since in 1838 the distillery would be purchased by a Glasgow-based spirits merchant who was blending and selling their own brands and wanted the distillery for themselves.
The day-to-day operations of the distillery remained in the hands of the Macdougall family, passing to John’s son Alexander and then eventually in 1853 to sisters Margaret and Flora — who may be the first female distillery operators in Scotch history (but please, comment on the article if you know of any earlier female distillers!).
Ardbeg would continue producing blended sprits for the Scottish whiskey industry and didn’t particularly care about their own brand name until 1911, when they finally got around to trademarking their name and the distinctive stylistic “A” that they still use on their branding to this day.
Things were going pretty well for the distillery until about the 1970’s, when the whiskey market crashed and a lot of distilleries started going out of business. The Ardbeg distillery fell on some hard timed and was sold to Hiram Walker in 1977 — and despite their best efforts, by 1981 the distillery was shuttered and production ceased.
Six years later, Allied Lyons (a conglomerate of Scottish whiskey distilleries) purchased the Ardbeg distillery and started renovating it to try and get it re-opened. The distillery restarted operations in 1989, once again fulfilling a need for strong Islay scotch whisky for blenders to use in their creations. The distillery would be further purchased in 1997 by Glenmorangie, who embraced the concept of single malt spirits coming from the Ardbeg distillery and released a series of incrementally better single malt spirits that led to the launch of their Ten Years Old brand in the year 2000.
Glenmorangie and Ardbeg would later be purchased by LVMH Moët Hennessy – Louis Vuitton SE in 2004, and they continue to own both distilleries to this day.
- Learn More: What Is Scotch Whisky?
As a single malt scotch whisky, this spirit starts out as a shipment of 100% malted barley from the Port Ellen suppliers. As you’d expect from what started as a farm distillery, Ardbeg used to have its own malting floor — but that was closed in 1977 when the distillery hit hard times and has not been re-opened. For their barley shipments, Ardbeg selects a version of the barley where peat moss has been used to slightly cook the malted barley and stop the malting process, which leaves behind a very rich and thick flavor on the grains themselves.
Those grains are shipped to the Islay-based distillery where they are cooked, fermented, and then distilled twice in the restored copper pot stills on-site at the Ardbeg facility.
After distillation, the spirit is placed into previously used American bourbon barrels, which is the same process used by Glenmorangie (and probably sourced via the same supplier, too). It sits in those barrels for a minimum of ten years before individual barrels are blended together to create the finished product.
This bottle feels like it is toeing the line nicely. It has a good style to it and some special touches, but it isn’t ostentatious or extravagant.
The bottle itself is designed in a fairly traditional structure, with the round body, quickly curved shoulder, and medium length neck sporting a convenient bulge. The big differences here are the flared base, as well as the addition of the Ardbeg stylized “A” embossed in the glass itself. It’s just enough to set the bottle apart. The whole deal is capped off with a plastic and cork stopper.
One thing to note is the significant level of tint in the glass. Green tinted glass has traditionally been used to keep the liquid inside from degrading with exposure to light, which is appreciated, but it does obscure the color of the contents inside. (And spoiler alert: in this case, it’s a bit of a shock when you finally see the color of this whiskey compared to what you might expect.)
I feel like the label does a good job conveying the important details without going overboard. It’s a pretty simple design that really highlights the distillery name and the stylized A for the distillery — and while normally I’d knock the larger label for obscuring the spirit inside the bottle, I think the bottle does a good enough job of that on its own.
As I alluded to, the whiskey is shockingly pale for an Islay spirit — a light gold, or even a hay colored liquid where you’d normally expect something more… brown. Despite that pale color, though, the aroma is big and beautiful. It pulls in a lot of those typical Islay scotch whisky favorites, and peat smoke that is front and center. The peat is not quite as thick and heavy as some other Islay examples, admittedly, but it’s still the dominant note. Behind that are some supporting characters in the background of the aroma — specifically, a little bit of slate minerality and a touch of honey with that sweet but floral aspect.
All of those aromas translate into the flavor, but with a little less power than you see elsewhere. That peat is still a dominant component and something you will taste long after the liquid is gone, but it leaves room for some of the other flavors to come out and mingle. I’m getting a lot more of the floral sweetness from the honey coming through than usual, as well as some of that sourdough bread flavor I associate with malted barley. It makes for a lighter, more floral take on the Islay style.
The problem with indexing as a lighter, sweeter, more floral take on an Islay scotch whisky is that it falls apart once you add some ice cubes. The addition of the water and the chilling of the spirit cause those lighter components to drop out, leaving behind just the peat smoke and a touch of the honey.
Normally, the Islay spirits are pretty good about holding their own when the ice cubes come splashing in… but in this case, what we’re left with is more of a traditional peated scotch whisky. There’s none of the slate minerality left, which makes it very boring.
Taken neat, this is a great example of a lighter, more floral take on an Islay scotch whisky. There’s the usual peat smoke, but not nearly as overpowering as you might imagine. It leaves plenty of room for the other floral and sweet notes to contribute and make a big difference.
The only issue I have with it is that this isn’t quite as expressive as others in this category. With something like Laphroaig or Lagavulin, I get more of that slate and salinity — and more delicious umami characteristics that really tell a story about where the whiskey comes from. This doesn’t seem quite as complex as those others.
On its own, this is a solid whiskey that is absolutely worth every penny. But considering Laphroaig performs better at the same price point, I can’t give it the full five stars.
|Ardbeg Ten Years Old
Classification: Single Malt Scotch Whiskey
Aging: 10 Years
Proof: 46% ABV
Price: $49.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 4/5
A delicious, peaty Islay whiskey that hits all the right notes, with a little bit of uncommon sweetness and floral aspects.