TDF Whisky Focus: Ardbeg Three-way
With Fèis Ìle and Ardbeg Day having recently ended The Digital Fix has been inspired to shine a spotlight on the Ardbeg distillery with our first whisky review! The last week of May is traditionally a special time for whisky enthusiasts because that’s when the island of Islay in the Southern Hebrides holds their annual Islay Festival of Music and Malt, better known by its Gaelic name of Fèis Ìle. There are nine distilleries in total on Islay and just about every one of them typically put on a show across the final week of the month, opening their doors for tours, special tastings, masterclasses, and musical events.
Typically, Fèis Ìle is one of the largest and most popular Whisky festival’s in Scotland, but this year a giant COVID sized spanner was thrown into the works leaving distilleries with no choice but to physically close the festival and host a different, cyber festival of sorts online, with the upswing being that a wider audience than ever before has benefited from the imparting of knowledge that comes in typically closed off seminars with industry insiders. So, silver linings and all that! Ardbeg traditionally open their doors on the final day of the festival and tie it to a worldwide network of international events, all taking place on what is now collectively celebrated as Ardbeg Day. This year Ardbeg Day was celebrated on May 30th and, you’ve guessed it, was completely virtual for the first time, but whisky fans did not let that get in the way of a good reason to uncork a bottle or two!
So what is Ardbeg, and why is Islay whisky celebrated at all? Well, Islay has become one of the designated five regions of Scotch Whisky thanks to the particularly smoky nature of the overwhelming majority of the whiskies produced there. The smoke is imparted by the burning of peat, a fossil fuel that is basically a form of turf created by decayed plants and animals. Much of Scotland is covered in peatlands, and the material itself looks just like soil. A crucial early stage in the production of whisky is the malting, where you take barley and start the germination process by immersing it in water, after a period of a few days you want to halt this process to preserve the sugars, so you need to heat up (typically via hot air) and dry the barley. Now, to do this you can use a variety of methods: You can use coal, you can use gas, you can use peat, and when you burn peat to heat the barley you create a particularly pungent type of smoke that seeps into the grain and forever alters its flavour.
That is peated whisky in a nutshell, but what does it mean in terms of taste? Well, the best way to summarise the distinctive flavour of peat smoke is to imagine you are eating kippers that have been faintly seasoned with iodine, on a beach next to a giant bonfire. The combination of sea air, fish, medication, and wood smoke is about the best cocktail of flavours I can think of to explain the experience. It’s just very unique and very dividing in its appeal, and for that reason whisky newcomers tend to be warned away from dipping their toes in the peaty waters of the whisky world until their palate has become more developed.
Ardbeg has become widely celebrated and widely despised primarily because it’s one of the most heavily peated whiskies out there. It’s a bit like drinking standard whisky whilst licking an ashtray, but to whisky enthusiasts who are partial to a bit of peat it is one of the best “bang for your buck” whiskies money can buy, thanks to the intensity of its flavours and the relatively low price point of the distillery’s core range. Another important factor is that Ardbeg do not resort to Chill-Filtering their whiskies, nor do they add any colourant to make their whisky look “prettier” – ie: darker. Both processes are viewed as having a negative impact on flavour, and Ardbeg are having none of that! OK, so that’s the background information out the way, we’re now going to celebrate Ardbeg Day by looking at probably the most easily discovered and affordable whiskies in the distillery’s core range: Ten Years Old, An Oa, and Uigeadail.
Ardbeg Ten Years Old, 46% ABV, Non Chill-Filtered
Ardbeg Ten is perhaps the only whisky that can compete with Lagavulin 16yrs Old for the title of “King of the Islay whiskies”, and for bloody good reason: it’s extremely affordable with an RRP of £47 (but Sainsbury’s and then Amazon like to drop it to £37), has been a staple of supermarket shelves for many years now, and it simply tastes amazing.
Colour: A light shade of gold, only a few shades darker than the natural straw colour imparted by Ex-Bourbon or Virgin Oak casks. I’ve never understood the logic of darkening whisky to make it look more “desirable”, especially when you look at a tipple like Ardbeg 10yr giving out a lovely golden glow when the light catches it.
Nose: Sweet, smoky, and malty. Malted barley and a hint of lemon develop after an initial hit of peat smoke, then a touch of toffee on the back end. Considering the potency of this whisky and its bottling at 46%, it has a relatively mellow nose!
Taste: Nothing mellow about this; an explosion of ash, smoke, and peat combined with a slightly sour lemony sweetness. It’s a crisp, creamy, medicinal, citrusy dram at first, but then the fruit and iodine notes die down and the salt and bacon notes arrive, followed by butterscotch, toffee, oak, and a peppery bite on the back end. There are some biscuity malt notes and just a touch of coffee grain bitterness in there as well. A true bonfire of flavour.
Finish: Extremely long, salt and ash writ large with just a touch of buttermilk and a hint of bitterness. How long exactly is the finish? Put it this way, the first time I ever tried an Ardbeg whisky it was the 10yr and I enjoyed it a couple of hours before going to bed. I slept for eight hours, woke up, had a shower, dried off, sat down to have some breakfast, and I could STILL taste the ash in my mouth ten hours later!
What can I say? Ardbeg Ten Years Old is iconic for a reason, it’s one of the most intense flavour experiences in the whisky world. While the whisky could easily be construed as “harsh”, what with the higher ABV and the bitter/ash notes, for those of us that like that sort of thing, this is a truly special dram. As previously mentioned it has an affordable RRP of £47 and can be found on the shelves of most Sainsbury’s supermarkets, where it regularly drops to £37. Amazon like to price match and sometimes they go a little further and list it at £35, and I cannot think of another whiskey (scotch or otherwise) that offers such tremendous value in terms of flavour for their price than Ardbeg Ten at £37 and less. The closest in my opinion would be Clynelish 14yr, a fantastically complex Highland malt, which at the time of writing has been reduced to just under £36 on Amazon. Just bear in mind: each Ardbeg expression is designed to be a chimney chute of a whisky experience, so make sure you’re prepared for what you’re getting yourself in for before you buy!
Ardbeg An Oa, 46.6% ABV, Non Chill-Filtered
This is the baby of the bunch, having been added to Ardbeg’s core range almost three years ago now, it’s also the only NAS whisky (Non Age Statement) of the core range that isn’t bottled at Cask Strength ABV (more on this term later), and often bottle strength ABV (40-49% typically) whisky that has no age statement is looked down upon by whisky connoisseurs as offering less value for your money. Are there a lot of cheaply produced, incredibly young, and harsh NAS whiskies out there? You bet, but there are also some absolutely fantastic NAS whiskies out there as well – especially Islay whiskies, as the peat smoke can help mask some of the more astringent, sharper tones of a young dram.
An Oa takes its name from the most south-westerly point on Islay: The Mull of Oa, and the concept behind it is that the distillery place a range of single malt whiskies aged in various casks: Pedro Ximinez, Ex-Bourbon, Virgin Charred Oak, etc, into a bespoke oak Gathering Vat and let them mingle, so they’re giving it both a cask and then vat aging process, with the ultimate goal of creating a multilayered and “rounded” single malt. That’s where the allusion to the Mull of Oa comes in (a mull is a rounded hill or mound if you’re not familiar with the term) and according to the blurb on the box, this particular mull shields the distillery from the “harsh excess of the mighty Atlantic”, reducing the level of wind, rain, and mist that their location roughly ten miles north-east, would otherwise be subjected to. So let’s see if it lives up to that billing:
Colour: Light Gold, just like the 10yr!
Nose: Quite understated mix of smoke, malt, and creamy butter notes. That hint of lemon is still there, but in general the nose is just a bit more muted than the standard 10yr.
Taste: Richer and less citrus than the 10yr, but still impactful in flavour. As is the Ardbeg way, ash and earthy notes hit like a sledgehammer while the malltiness and saltiness follow up for a one-two combo of butterscotch and biscuit. The big difference with the An Oa is that you can detect some red berry sherry notes, but they are not dominant, creating more of a stronger kick of milk chocolate and toffee sweetness than its older brother. On the back end there’s a little sourness (perhaps from the oak) and noticeable twang of coffee grain bitterness, more than any other Ardbeg I’ve tried (perhaps revealing the youth of the whisky).
Finish: Long, but not as intense as I’ve come to expect from the distillery. Smoke, ash and sherry notes linger for a while but then gently fade away.
It might be younger than the 10yr, but it’s still Ardbeg and it’s still a very complex malt that evolves through a variety of expressions before leaving that cigarette ash brand on the back of your throat. Overall I would say An Oa offers a very intriguing middle ground between the lighter citrus notes of the 10yr and the deep sherry influence of the Uigeadail, so it really fits in between these two expressions quite beautifully, but it is a little harsher in comparison. An Oa has a slightly higher RRP of £49, with Waitrose opting to drop it to around £40 every now and then, but because it’s not as widely stocked in British supermarkets as the 10yr, it’s a little harder to come by at a reduced price. Still a cracking single malt at forty-odd pounds though!
Ardbeg Uigeadail, 54.2% ABV, Non Chill-Filtered
Say it after me: Oo-ga-dal! The peaty water used by the distillery in the production of their mighty whisky is sourced at Loch Uigeadail, so this is the perfect namesake for arguably the richest Ardbeg expression! “Oogie” is the only Cask Strength ABV whisky we’re covering today, this is a term typically used to designate whiskies that are bottled at the strength they are in the cask after the maturation process, so they are not watered down for bottling, and also for whiskies that happen to be bottled at 50% or higher (with maybe just a touch of water added to achieve a specific ABV mark). Cask strength whiskies are not for the faint of heart, nor are they for the light of wallet because when a distillery can’t water down a whisky to 40%, they can’t produce as many bottles from a single cask, and so the retail price is elevated to reflect this. The big advantage of an “undiluted” cask strength whisky is that all the flavour is retained, so it’s completely up to you to decide how much water to add. Just a touch if you want a more intense flavour, a little more if you want to reduce the fire, and the more water you add, the further a 700ml bottle expands!
Just like An Oa this is a No Age Statement vatting of whiskies from various casks, predominantly first and second fill Bourbon Cask, but this time roughly 20% of the whiskies are aged in Oloroso Sherry casks, so the sherry influence is much stronger in Uigeadail than any other Ardbeg whisky. That makes it pretty unique amongst their range, with some traditionalists feeling that Ardbeg isn’t a good fit for sherry casks, whereas many other consider it the best of their range. It’s been around for getting on towards twenty years now (launched in 2003) and has won a number of prestigious awards, so Ardbeg must be doing something right!
Colour: Deep gold, the sherry casks have imparted a bit more colour into the whisky.
Nose: Strong notes of sherry, peat, smoke, and barley right from the first whiff, leading to a savoury biscuit and sweet chocolate impression. Not as much ethanol impact as you might expect from such a high ABV spirit, but inhale deeply and it’ll clear a blocked nose in seconds!
Taste: An incredibly rich, sweet arrival with very deep red berry and dark raisin influence – think fruit cake and Black Forest gateau with double extra chocolate on top - merging into the intense peat and ash that gives Ardbeg its reputation. It’s not as ashy as the 10yr, but it is much richer in terms of its flavour profile; those sour lemon notes having been tweaked by the sherry casks into something that’s more of a competitor with Lagavulin 16yr in the rich, full-bodied stakes. Give it a few minutes in the glass to calm down and the salt notes start to compete equally with the sweetness. This has a touch more peppery bite than the other two whiskies covered, but considering the high ABV it really doesn’t taste harsh at all. It’s a remarkably balanced, multi-layered experience, fully earning its vaunted reputation within the Ardbeg range.
Finish: Ashy, salty, creamy. Raisins and dark chocolate mingle before gently fading away. Almost as long as the 10yr old’s finish.
Out of the three whiskies, Uigeadail is unquestionably the most intense whilst offering probably the most balanced combination of sweet, savoury, and smoke. It’s a truly exceptional whisky that really likes to evolve in the glass, so you’ll be doing it a disservice if you finish it off in under half an hour. Sit back, take your time, and enjoy! This is easily the most expensive whisky in the comparison with an RRP of £64 and a typical online price of around £55-£60, but Amazon and Master of Malt like to drop it to around £45-£47 one or two times a year. An absolute steal at that price!
Well there you have it: three exceptional whiskies from one exceptional distillery. There are two more whiskies in Ardbeg’s core range: Corryvreckan and Traigh Bhan 19 Years Old, both costing more than the three expressions reviewed here, with the Corry having an RRP of £76 and the older Traigh Bhan being a limited release each year at around £170, but it’s essentially sold out at the moment and only available at inflated prices of £250 and more. Also available for Ardbeg fans is a special Limited Edition bottling called Ardbeg Blaaack, which the distillery has the following to say about:
Ardbeg Blaaack is the feisty Limited Edition bottled in celebration of the Ardbeg Committee’s 20th Anniversary (founded in the year 2000). To mark such a momentous occasion, the Distillery vowed that the casks used to honour their global flock would be right on the nose. For the first time in Ardbeg’s history, they rounded up Pinot Noir casks from the country that lies the furthest distance from Islay – New Zealand, that other remote island nation where sheep have been known to outnumber the locals by 7:1.
RRP is £94, but these Limited Edition Ardbeg expressions always sell out pretty quickly, so finding a bottle under £100 is going to prove harder and harder with each passing day now. If you fancy the sound of it, act fast or expect to pay probably twice that by the end of the year!