Ardbeg boasts a beautiful story of resilience that will make you want to sympathize with it, though it should be taken into account that its underdog days are now long behind it. The distillery began life early in the 19th century — the company places the founding around 1815, though, like most of Scotland’s oldest distilleries, Ardbeg was likely the site of illicit whisky production even earlier than that. Charles MacLean writes in “Whiskypedia” that the first record of distilling at the site dates back to the 1790s.
Whisky production is a cyclical business and when it takes at least a decade for your product to mature, it can be difficult to anticipate the boom and bust periods. During the painful lull of the 1980s, when several venerable distilleries bit the dust, Ardbeg sales petered out to the point where the company’s owners thought best to halt production entirely around 1981. Minus a few fits and starts, during which the distillery intermittently produced an unpeated whisky for blending, full time production didn’t resume until Glenmorangie bought the distillery in 1997.
Whisky lovers hate to see any distillery mothballed, but losing Ardbeg stung with exceptional intensity for that segment of drinkers enchanted by the cinder-laden flavor of Islay. Ardbeg had made a name for itself as the most heavily peated whisky on the island most closely identified with peaty whisky. Ardbeg’s peatiness currently clocks in between 55 and 65 parts per million, according to the Globe and Mail. That out-peats most of its standard competitors like Lagavulin and Laphraoig, though it’s well below some more recently developed hyper peat monsters like Bruichladdich’s Octomore 5.1, which boasts a peat level of 169 ppm.
Now owned by Louis Vuitton Moët Henessy (owner of Glenmorangie, PLC) and having enjoyed a £7 million distillery renovation and collected numerous awards and throngs of devoted fans, Ardbeg has grown out of the come-from-behind narrative that defined it in the 1980s and early 1990s and established itself as a category leader. “Ardbeg’s rapid resurrection from moldering shell to hot single malt is one of the most heartening stories in the whiskey industry,” whisky critic Michael Jackson wrote in his 2005 book “Whiskey.” With much-anticipated, limited-edition releases hitting the market annually and some unusual marketing, including whisky aged in space, Ardbeg has become an industry leader. A few critics, like Ian Buxton, even view the distillery as being “overly pleased with itself,” because pointing an accusatory finger at its “faux ‘homespun’ tone of much of their promotion.” Buxton does go on to add, however, that “there’s no denying that the current team have done an excellent job,” calling Ardbeg “arguably the benchmark Islay whisky, against which all others must be judged.”
It’s a whisky produced with the single malt fan in mind, bottled in the upper 40s ABV or higher, at natural color and without chill filtration. Below for review, then, we have the standard, widely distributed 10-year bottling. The type of barrel used is not identified on the bottle or the website, but a company representative said in an email that Ardbeg 10 is aged exclusively in first and second fill ex-bourbon casks.
With all the hype behind Ardbeg for it’s over-the-top use of peat, I expected this to be something of a monster, drenched with the kind of coal-infused, medicinal smoke that makes the whiskies of Islay both extraordinary and, to the uninitiated, intimidating. It does, of course, have that, but I was surprised by how light and fresh this whisky is.
The nose offers a healthy, though not overwhelming dose of peat smoke. It’s clean smoke, buoyed by a lemony citrus note that seems to define this malt and make it stand apart. Once sipped, it’s that citrus note that speaks most clearly after the smoke clears. Despite the lightness, this whisky has body and a rich oily mouthfeel that are enhanced with a couple drops of water — something in the neighborhood of lemon meringue or key lime pie. I know it sounds a bit incongruous for a peat monster, but it works and it’s delicious.
This is a classic that deserves space on the shelves of any Islay fan. It’s also worth noting, in a time of stratospheric price hikes, that this entry-level bottling can be had for around $48 if you shop around (in New York, that means making a trip to BQE Discount Wine and Liquors). Compared to its competitors, that price tag places it well below the Lagavulin 16, a tad below the Caol Ila 12, right in line with the Laphroaig 10, and a little above the Bowmore 12 year. Within that peer group, for my personal taste, I’d say the Ardbeg 10 year offers the best bang for your buck of the bunch.