Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Review: Ardbeg 10 Year Old - Single Malt Scotch Review

Bonfire on a Bluff?
Having a glass of Arbeg 10 year old in your living room is like building a bonfire made up of tree branches, scrub brush and peat freshly cut from a Scottish bog, lighting it and watching the smoke swirl upwards as it is carried away by the unpredictable winds of the Isle of Islay, Scotland. The smoke at times will fill your nostrils followed by the peat, charcoal and a whiff of salty sea spray. Ardbeg 10 year old is uncompromising like a lazy wind blowing off the coast of the Isle of Islay. It's so cold and 'lazy' that it feels like it blows through you rather than around you. Such is the experience of a dram of this single malt scotch whisky.

Isle of Islay
Ardbeg is one of eight distilleries on the Isle of Islay, an Island off the coast of Scotland that can have wind, rain and a crashing sea on a regular basis. The geography is rocky, relatively flat, with plenty of bluffs, jagged outcroppings of rock, and cliff faces above a churning white-capped sea below. Whiskies distilled on this island are often very peaty, smokey and kind of like the flavor of a menthol cigarette. Peat actually plays a large role in the smoke flavor of this scotch whisky and the others of the Isle of Islay.

What is Peat?
On the Isle of Islay there are bogs and wetlands with plenty of partially decayed vegetation like scrub brush, tall grass, and other low lying vegetation. It is cut out in blocks and when dried is used to fuel fires to dry the malt used in scotch. The interaction of the smoke from the peat imparts the unique smokey flavor that is termed "peat" or "peaty" when describing scotch whiskies especially from the Isle of Islay.

Suggested Stemware
Glencairn would be best.  Don't have that?  Try a brandy snifter. The bowled shape with the opening at the top traps the aromas to be enjoyed as you nose it. A crystal tumbler doesn't 'trap' the scents of this whisky. Nevertheless, the tumbler is better than nothing and drinking from one will certainly not affect the flavor profile, just not deliver the full bouquet on the nose.

Ice? Water? Neat?
Decisions, decisions, decisions . . . If you are a novice scotch drinker, I would recommend adding an ice cube or two, it will dampen the pronounced peaty flavor profile and take away some of the 'bite.' If you enjoy scotch and consider yourself quite serious about it, I would recommend a teaspoon of distilled or spring water be added to a single or double pour (you will have to experiment to see what works for you).   The water will add a lot of complexity.  I find 'neat' it is just too over the top.

If you are a veteran drinker, well then pony up and get ready to ride this flavor profile like "Seabiscuit."

Nose (undiluted)
Beautifully strong peat, wood smoke and salt air. The aroma of peat is so powerful, that often after having had my drink, washed my glass, returned it to the cupboard, gone to bed, up and off to work, back home, late evening retrieve my glass, and wow! I still smell peat in my glass! And not just any peat, but rather distinctively that of Ardbeg.

Palate (undiluted)

Starts sweet, mid palate fills with damp wood smoke before moving to drying black pepper and more billowing smoke like a big Cohiba. 

Finish (undiluted)
White cheddar to salt to fresh ground black pepper. Slight burn remains on the throat after it is swallowed.

General Impressions
Not what I would call “smooth” scotch if consumed neat. On the other hand, I would not describe it as “rough” either. Instead, I would describe this scotch having a flavor profile that involves an “abrupt” transition from sweet smoke to sharp black pepper and coarse salt. Not a flavor profile that I would describe as "complex" when consumed neat.  You need to add water (ie. teaspoon) to bring out the complexity and magic of this dram.  Really, water is a must!

This single malt enjoys a large following among serious scotch drinkers, and I do understand the fascination. The flavor profile is unique and a very powerful, yet elegant explosion of smoke and peat upon all the senses. You will come back to this whisky again and again, as you analyze its secrets.

Initially, I didn't understand what was all the fuss about this spirit. But that first tasting haunted me. It beckoned me back. The nose of peat and wood smoke, a promise that was fulfilled on the palate was fascinating. I must say I like this, but not my favorite. I like it, but not the way I am obsessed with Cragganmore 12 yr old, a scotch that I systematically bought all remaining bottles where I live upon learning the distributor was cutting my liquor store off.

This is not a mainstream spirit. It is for the scotch connoisseur seeking a very unique flavor. If you are considering purchasing this as a gift for someone, and not knowing their individual tastes, I would recommend choosing another single malt that is more pleasing to the average drinker.

Water really needs to be added to this malt to bring out a more complex display of flavors.  Teaspoon to a double pour I find is just enough.  One must remember that it is bottled at 46% abv.  I find that over 43% many malts benefit from the addition of some water.  Ardbeg 10 is not an exception to such a general rule.

I am surprised by my conclusion on this scotch. I thought I would enjoy it more given all the praise I have read in books and elsewhere online. It's more than ok, but I would not buy it again. I certainly do not agree with the praise rendered by the scotch expert, Jim Murray, who wrote: "Unquestionably the greatest distillery to be found on Earth. If perfection on the palate exists, this is it."


© Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved.


  1. hey,

    i love the ardbeg, and i woulent say it redicuolsuly peaty. it's damn good. it's amazing. i love it.

    nice blog!

  2. Thanks Granov for the post. You and legions of others are huge fans. There is no doubt about it that Ardbeg has a huge following.

  3. Hi Jason,

    I like where your head is at in this review. While I am a huge fan of Ardbeg I do know it is a very unique dram that has a loyal following albeit small. I think you may be a fan of the Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist, it has had six more years to achieve an integration similar to Lagavulin, smoother, more subtle and complex. Anyhow keep up the good work.

  4. Hi Kolby! I agree. Ardbeg benefits from more aging to intergrate the flavors similar to what we see in Lagavulin. Unfortunately, Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist is hard to come by.


  5. It brought back memories of tinkering in Dad's workshop as a boy: the smell of hot wires and varnish. I kept thinking of the odor of vintage electronic gadgets heating up... by a smoldering campfire I liked it enough to have two. Nice complexity, mad me cough a little when it went down the wrong pipe.

  6. Hi Jason,

    thank you for your blog and all the advice you give on whisky!

    I am an occasional whisky drinker and wonder If I would like Ardberg Ten. I really, really like: Lagavulin, Talisker. I like: Redbreast, Highland Park. I don't like: Laphroig. Just too medicinal and smokey for my taste.
    What do you think, should I give Ardbeg a try or is it too similiar to Laphroig?


  7. In view of your dislike of Laphroaig, I would not recommend Ardbeg.

    Since you are an occasional drinker of scotch, I would suggest a great blend: Black Bottle. Don't let the low price cause you to think it can't be any good. It's great!

    Thanks for commenting.

  8. Thank you for your answer. You were right. I was able to purchase a mini bottle of Ardberg 10 yesterday. Perfectly drinkable but not a whisky I need to have a full bottle of. The brooding Lagavulin is less smokey, a little sweeter and feels deeper/more complex to me. The Ardberg is a not a bad whisky, but I like the Lagavulin better.
    I'll keep the Black Bottle in mind, it was rather expensive in the Shop I visited ;-).

  9. Michael, I'm glad I could be of assistance!


  10. I love the Ardbeg 10. It is sweet & smoky. Sometimes get a hint of bacon. The alcohol is kind of subdued.

  11. hi, jason. long time, no chat. (I'm sure that we've exchanged some comments re laphroaig, particularly the QC.) i have to say that, while laphroaig QC is my go-to expression when i can afford a bottle of SMSW, the ardbeg is really wonderful and--if money is no object--even more to my liking. what i've found very intriguing and quite satisfying is what i find to be a common and very impressive nose on all of the ardbeg expressions i've tried so far: the uigedail (my favorite overall); supernova 2010; airigh nam beist; and now the 10 yo. it's just such a wonderful "whoosh" of enveloping smoky wonderfulness! truly a trademark sensation, even more impressive than the laphroaig QC's opening fanfare on the nose (as good as it is!)... thanks for an informative review. nice background for the novices amongst us (that would be ME!)...

    1. Hi Brian!

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      I must say that of all the distilleries in Islay, my favorite is Lagavulin. Second favorite is Laphroaig. Laphraoig Cairdeas was put out a few years ago and it was incredible. very hard to find. If you can locate it, buy it!


  12. hey, jason! so... my birthday is coming up, and i'm thinking of buying myself 2 bottles that i would not otherwise be able to put up a reasonable excuse to the missus for buying. i'm leaning toward ardbeg 10 and talisker 10, as i've only had a single abbreviated dram of each (20 ml--as opposed to the standard 30 ml pour (in japan: is it universal?--in a ¥1,000 3-expression tasting set, a nice way to learn about new expressions!)... i've had second thoughts, however, especially the idea of swapping the talisker 10 for a caol ila 12. any thoughts on this?

    the other idea is to buy laphroaig QC and go head to head with the ardbeg. however, i thought that the opportunity might be better used to give a full bottle's worth of consideration to 2 expressions that i have not yet made a solid acquaintance with. where i am, the ardbeg goes for about US $58 and the talisker for about US $47--and the laphroaig QC for... about US $37!!! (the laphroaig 10 is around $43, cheaper than the QC, as i mentioned once in another post: lucky me!

    anyway, i'd be interested to hear your ideas on this. i get the impression that the talisker/ardbeg combo might provide a stronger contrast--and more "obvious" qualities in the talisker--than a caol ila/ardbeg combo. maybe i would be better off waiting on caol ila until i've developed a better understanding of talisker 10, ardbeg 10, and my beloved laphroaig QC : i've noticed that my appreciation and understanding of a scotch definitely deepens as the bottle lightens!

    the other option is to just buy 1 standout bottle, such as uigedail, but i think that, at this early stage in my "education", i'd be better served buying 2 nice bottles and getting down to the hard work of "study"!

    hope to hear from you...

    1. Hi Brian,

      Japan! What a great whisky loving country. I envy you. I would love to go there and visit all the awesome whisky bars in Tokyo.

      Ok, now let's discuss this serious predicament of yours.

      I think you should buy Talisker 10 and Ardbeg 10. The former is refined, complex and will delight you for many tastings. The latter is less complex, but may get its hooks into you like no other. Ardbeg fans are border line cult like.

      Start with those, and then move up to the Caol Ila and then finally the Laphroaig QC which is a complex and brilliant peat dog/monster.

      Ahh, the trials and tribulations of being a student of whisky!

    2. thanks for the feedback. you may not recall, but i'm pretty sure that i told you once: QC was my very first SMSW dram, and it really spoiled me for life, a bullseye on the first arrow!

      i do get the impression that talisker will grow on me if i give it time and tastings over the course of a whole bottle, perhaps more than the ardbeg--but i LOVE my experience with ardbeg thus far (especially the uigedail--and air nam beist--but also the SN2010!). for a "go-to", though, it's REALLY hard to imagine a better cost-performance value than the QC--at least where i am... i'm almost afraid not to buy a bottle before the retailer figures out that it's generally sold for MORE than the 10 y.o., not less!!!

      thanks, and slainte!

    3. and... if you ever DO get out this way, i'd love to be your guide to a couple of great places... thinking of buying a bottle of nikka from the barrel before long--or the pure malt white, a mixture of yoichi whisky and an unnamed islay!

    4. I know Ardbeg stuck its hooks into me, after having a dram of Laphroaig and finlaggan some reason I just enjoy this one more. The flavour profile is addicting and has created an almost cult like love of their single malts.

    5. Garret, you should also explore the Laphraoig product line. Especially the Quarter Cask. I think you will be really impressed.

  13. Ran across your blog after searching Ardbeg reviews. I tried it for the first time last week with a good friend. His stepfather bought him a bottle for his birthday to encourage his whiskey education. We dove in head first and definitely snapped back at the intense peaty flavor. I have to say it had an almost medicinal.. antiseptic quality while also smelling like a Sharpie.

    Funny thing is, over the last week I keep thinking about it and wanting to give it another shot. It could definitely grow on me.

    At any rate, nice blog!

    1. Ardbeg may grow on you. The one you really should try is Talisker 10. It is more complex and gentler, but with plenty of peat. Give it a shot. It will not disappoint.

  14. Jason, We tossed around a few drams of current Ardbeg releases over the weekend (Ten, Uigeadail, Day). The current Ten is a little less intense that those of the decade past; still peaty for sure, but less smokey, less bandage-y and less antiseptic nose too. Leaner in the mouth, thinking less melon and more lemon and more tangy. It may appeal to a wider audience than before, and might not please the heavy peat fan quite as it once did. JK

    1. I will defer to your opinion on this malt. I am not a regular buyer of Ardbeg.

      I do wonder if it is less pungent on purpose in order to appeal to a wider market . . .

  15. Hi Jason: New Scotch drinker here and decided to buy myself a first bottle for my 40th Bday last week. I have sampled a few single malts over the last year as recommended from friends and really liked the Islay single malts. I had never tried the Ardbeg before, but on the recommendation of the liquor store clerk (who had let me sample before I bought), I took a chance on the Ardbeg and I quite enjoy it. Our local retailer is pretty good about having a few bottles available to sample. It helps when you are about to drop a few dollars a bottle.

    Looking for a recommendation on my next bottle. I like the Ardbeg, but would like to have a bit of variety in the cabinet. Any advice here?

    I stumbled on your blog searching for scotch recommendations. It just so happens that my wife is from Fredericton (we live in St. John's presently via Ottawa and Calgary) and I enjoy reading the experiences of others who share interests, especially when I am quite familiar with the locale. Your writing is entertaining and I enjoy visiting. Thought I would drop you a note. We frequent Fredericton periodically... maybe we could meet fro a dram sometime.

    1. Hi!

      St. John's is one of my two most favorite cities (the other being Vancouver). I never tire of hiking around Signal Hill and taking in the sights it offers. Friendliest people outside of Ireland are in St. Johns too!

      Anyhow, let's get to your question. I have two strong recommendations for you. One is from Islay and the other is from the Isle of Skye. Lagavulin 16 and Talisker 10. Both are outstanding single malt Scotch whiskies that are complex and delicious.

      Talisker 10 is the cheaper in price of the two. This is gentler than Ardbeg and at first you may regard Talisker as simpler, but it is not. Lemon slices, sea salt, smoke and an interesting treatment of peat. Highly recommended.

      Lagavulin 16 is in my opinion the best of the mass produced single malts from Islay. Wonderfully complex, approachable, smooth but very interesting all the same. Really a great one for someone new to single malts. Since you are an Islay fan you will be knocked out by this number. Only problem with Lagavulin is the price, very expensive, but dare I say: still worth it!

      I have met other readers passing through Fredericton from time to time and certainly would be up for a dram with you sometime. Just drop me an email when you are around and I am sure I can make myself available! (Twist my rubber arm)


  16. Ardbeg 10 is my absolute favourite scotch hands down. I have yet to find any that compare.

  17. I just had my first taste of the Ardbeg 10 at my anniversary dinner and had to choose between it and the Lagavulin 16 from their limited selection. Comparing with the Laphroaig QC which I found does have a nice complexity (for my admittedly very untrained palate) of sweetness that follows the initial smoke and brine, I found the Ardbeg to be just wave after wave of smoke and peat. While I did enjoy it I am happy with my choice of just taking a taste of it so I can buy a bottle of the Lag.

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