Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Unlocking the Secrets of Ardbeg 10 years

Unlock the Mystery
At 46% alc/vol, Ardbeg 10 is a big dog Islay scotch whisky.  I mean real big!  The smoke, sooty peat, sea salt and dulse rains down upon the palate like a tornado funnel cloud touching down in a Kansas wheat field.

For me, Ardbeg presents a mystery.  This malt is praised by critics, readers and friends, yet for the longest time I would draw a blank.

When I first encountered this malt, I could not understand what all the fuss was.  I mean I could appreciate it was a unique punch to the gut of peat, smoke and cracked black peppercorns, but little else.  I was missing something that all the critics and friends were raving about.  What was it?  Was I a little slow?  There was a renewed sting of those old school yard taunts of "sling blade."

So, in an effort to unlock the secrets of Ardbeg, I would take sip after sip and before I knew it, I had a foreboding feeling that either I would figure out the allure of the malt or be doomed to find myself lying face up in a grassy public park, inexplicably muddied, with my pants missing and rain pelting my face in the middle of the night . . . or worse on all fours barking at the moon, as the police approach with flash-lights drawn . . . and barking Dobermans.

Ok, maybe I am exaggerating.  Usually if I have a little too much, I simply fall asleep in the lazy-boy.  Ahem, anyway there is a mystery to be solved.

46% alc/vol

Recently, my newly formed whisky club met and Ardbeg 10 was on the table.  I sampled it and again was missing the boat.  At the end of the evening, I scooped the bottle off the table, into my overcoat, hopped into a cab and scooted home.

In subsequent weeks, I sampled and sampled and basically came to the conclusion that at 46% alc/vol it is too untame and wild. The flavors were too much for my palate to appreciate.  And then it dawned on me: add water.

Nose (diluted)
Phenol, mint, smoking damp wood bonfire, wet leaves.

Palate (diluted)
More subdued.  Smoother, softer, silken but still with plenty of smoke, tar and black peppercorns in the centre.  Smokey bacon too.

Finish (diluted)
This is where the excitement starts.  The malt started as sweet peat upon the palate, transitions in great form to a sea spray dry evaporation of flavors like:  white capped waves of salt, lingering green seaweed, tarred fishing boat ropes.  White cheddar and more ashy, soot and smoke leave you reaching for more.

General Impressions
The mystery of why this malt appeals to so many has been revealed to me.  Add a little water (ie. 1/4 to 1 teaspoon) to a single or double pour, and you will taste much more complexity of flavor and sweet smoke that was not available 'neat.'  For me, water makes all the difference.

I love Lagavulin and I think my addition of water to Ardbeg is my own way of bringing it closer to my favorite of Islay.

In general, I find any malt at 46% abv can generally benefit from a little water.   At such a high abv, you run the risk of numbing your palate, which prevents you from tasting all a whisky has to offer.

In conclusion, if the appeal of Ardbeg has been a bit of a mystery to you, try a little water.  Maybe you will be let in on the secret too!


Jason Debly

Photo credits: (1) Photograph of key in hole by Flickr member: Millerman737, who holds all world copyright.  No reproduction permitted without his express permission; (2) Photograph of close up of Ardbeg emblem by Flickr member: Thomas Alexander who holds all worldwide copyright.  No reproduction is permitted without his express consent; (3) Photograph of Ardbeg bottle on its side taken by Fallen Shutter Photography and may be reproduced if you comply with the creative commons license; (4) Close-up photograph of Ardbeg cork taken by Sonicwalker and is reproduced here pursuant to a creative commons license.  All other content subject to copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission. Note: All images appearing in this article are for the purposes of nostalgia, education and entertainment. Moreover, all images used are considered by the author to be significant in illustrating the subject matter, facilitating artistic/critical commentary, as it provides an immediate relevance to the reader more capably than the textual description.


  1. Jason, I applaud your journey back towards heavily peated whiskey territory. Some folks are immediately attracted to the smoke, tcp, medicinal, and marine elements of heavily peated Islay scotch whiskies (Ardbeg, Laphroaig, etc.). Appreciation among most tasters tends to grow more gradually, and for a fair number never at all. I agree that the Ardbeg Ten releases a strong vanilla and melon note with addition of water. I can almost smellyour glass from here. JK

    1. I must admit that when I first developed an interest in scotch whisky, the interest was centred upon the honeyed, caramel and salted variety that are more the domain or Speyside/highland malts. Frankly, I could not appreciate the peat monsters of Islay.

      Tastes do evolve for some people. I still enjoy the best of Speyside/Highland, but now have started to develop an interest in the peated brethren. What a journey this thing we call whisky has become.

  2. I occupy the weird demographic of Scotch enthusiasts who had heavily peated islays at early exposure, instantly fell in love, and became a bit of a peat-snob (or, it can only be interesting if it is a face-melting experience of a peat blast). It's in the more recent last year to two years I've been experimenting more often with the softer, more subtle stuff.

    I wonder how many of the big peat-heads are folks with some Scottish ancestry. Genetic memory, anyone?


  3. I never thought to add water to Ardbeg 10 because, I just didn't think it needed it, but now I can't wait to give it a try. Have you tried the Uigeadail? It's among my favorites.

    1. Hi Jon!

      Water, as I wrote in the post, makes all the difference. Try it!

  4. I tried this last night, and I definitely agree it improved. I felt the nose more than anything changed drastically.

    And Yochanan, my entry into Scotch was the same as yours. I LOVE Islay malts. And I am a Clan Mackintosh descendant.

    1. Dulahey, always great to hear feedback. Sometimes I think I am out in left field, but for me, a little water is a must with Ardbeg.

      Thanks for taking time to comment.


  5. Jason, Thanks for the Ardbeg 10 review. The cost of Lagavulin (my absolute favorite) is out of reach. The Ardbeg 10 is half the price. If adding a tad of water puts it in the Lagavulin class, it will be wonderful.

    I've read all your reviews over the years but this is my first time to comment. Thanks for your efforts.

    A request: If you get the chance, I would appreciate your opinion on George Dickel #12 Tennessee Whiskey and Wild Turkey 101 Rye. hey have become two of my non-scotch favorites.

    Jeff Poulin

    1. Hi Jeff! Great to hear from a regular reader. I always welcome the feedback.

      I have reviewed Wild Turkey 101 here:


      My site is not easy to navigate but if you look at the topic cloud and click on relevant terms that will sometimes link you to my relevant posts. I will do my best to track down some George Dickel!

      Thanks for commenting!

    2. Jeff - not sure where you are located, but if you are allowed to order from out of state, Astor Wine + spirits in NY has a great price of $60 on Lagavulin 16 yr - only about $15 more than the best price I have been able to find on Ardbeg 10 yr recently. They also have free shipping on a first-time web order over $99. I got a couple bottles from them a couple years back for $48.

  6. Forgot to mention, I descend, in part, from Clan Campbell. Maybe that explains my taste for heavy peat scotch.

    Jeff Poulin

    1. Jeff, I forgot to mention that if you are a fan of Lagavulin but find you cannot enjoy it much because of the price, there are cheap blended Islay malts like Black Bottle or White Horse that are great on their own at ridiculously low prices like $20!

      More importantly those cheap blends can be added to Ardbeg to make a poor mans Laga. Basically you vat your own blend. Take 2/3 White Horse and 1/3 Ardbeg and now you have an Islay with some punch and complexity.


    2. <3 Home Blending. I've done a pretty solid amount of that from the bottle of Ardbeg I'd left back in Maine when I moved. Sherry whiskies like Black Bush and Macallan worked great. Don't get me wrong, I loved the vanilla/wool/ash of the Ardbeg 10, but big peat just isn't a daily drinker for me. I think I'm more of a medium-peat sort of guy.

      Ardbeg/Laphroaig home blends, or something like Highland Park or Springbank which has a reasonable peat presence, but not enough to completely dry your mouth for the next few hours. My dream whisky would probably be a 8-10ppm medium-peat version of Glenfarclas 105. I'll have to try picking up some Uigeadail and blending with Abunadh.

  7. Bwa ha, maybe we'll all wear our clan kilts one day, meet up, and toast with a dram. I'm a descendant of clan Sinclair myself, and possibly Fraser.

    On a less silly note, I was trying to remember recently whether it was you or someone else, Jason, that I corresponded with regarding Islay Mist 8. Be real interesting to see your impressions of it, if it's around your neck of the woods. I emailed the local distributor over a year ago prying for some more info on the blend (as info online is lacking) and it was mentioned that the 8 yr is a blending of 50-55% malt content (being entirely from Laphraoig single malt!), and the rest the grain whiskies. I had one bottle a while back and thought it was real nice, if not very complex. The older bottlings do include some other malts included within the malt content, including Glenlivet.



  8. Hello Jason!

    I really must thank you for your wonderful and extensive whiskyblog. I've been reading it since about one year ago and keep reading it.

    It was only about 2 years ago I got interested in whisky. And now I am stucked to it (in a positive way). For years my whisky loving friend at occations served me nothing but ardbeg and bowmore. I never got a taste for that smokey spirit and unfortunately that put me off to "whisky". I never knew whisky could taste differently.

    Now I am happy to test new whiskies and expand my "bar" at home with at least one bottle every month. Funny thing is that I can now drink those smokey whiskies, but I wouldn't say they are my favourites.

    Again thanks for your excellent posts. I can really relate your tasting notes to what I myself think they taste like. And that is awesome since it helps me deciding what bottle to buy next.

    Best regards
    Niklas from Sweden

    1. Niklas, thanks for your comment. Glad to hear you enjoy the blog. A lot of the time I post on this blog wondering if readers are shaking their head at what I am putting out here.

  9. Hello Jason,

    Glad to see that you have made peace with Ardbeg 10, which is a very distinctive whisky that I enjoy on an infrequent basis. I first drank it on a snowy winter night and now I always think of it when the weather turns cold.
    As noted, Uigeadail is also quite special.

    I always drink my scotch neat but poured into a glass which has been wetted. I agree that this opens up the flavors of many scotches.

    On an unrelated note, tonight I bought a bottle of Monkey Shoulder, which is a vatted Speyside blend that includes Balvenie and Glenfiddich. I got it for around $20. It won't win any awards for complexity, but at that price it is very tasty. Compare it to Teachers, which I know you like.


    Joel from Dallas

    1. Hello Joel!

      Monkey Shoulder for $20!!!!!!! Talk about good value for money! My problem is I can't get a bottle where I live and when I travel I never come across it. It is at the top of my list to review if I can ever find it.

      I am all about a nice drink for $20!!!

  10. I really appreciate the White Horse suggestion. Just tried some and it is excellent for an inexpensive blend. Although it lacks the peat and power of Lagavulin but has plenty of flavor and is surprisingly complex.

    Black Bottle is not available in my area and they were out of Ardbeg but that goes to the top of my 'to buy' list.

    Sometimes it helps to be lucky. I mentioned this blog to my wife. She looked thoughtful and went to the back of a storage closet and brought out an unopened bottle of Lagavulin 16. As best we can figure we bought it about 12 years ago and put it away while finishing the open bottle and forgot it was there. The price tag reads $41.00 A nice surprise!


    1. Jeff, life is good when you discover an unopened bottle of Lagavulin.

      Black Bottle is incredible blended scotch. Too bad not in your area. If you travel, keep an eye out for it. It will not disappoint.


  11. Glad to read you've finally tamed the beast that is Ardbeg. It remains one of my favourite standard releases and worthy every penny. Preferred this bottle over the recent Galileo although the Ardbeg Day 2012 was particularly good. Had a great trip to the distillery courtesy of Ardbeg where I had a few drams!

    How is the whisky club coming along? I do recall your original post that prompted you into action.

    1. Hello Raith!

      The whisky club is doing ok. We have about 10 members and we try to meet once a month. Meetings are based on a theme like malts of a particular region. Hence, the Ardbeg was present as we explored various Islay malts.

      We also have a name for the club: "The Whisky Dogs"

      It just seemed somehow fitting.

  12. Hey Jason, etc all.... was going to comment on the Smokehead Islay post, but saw this one. First thing...I was a Laphroaig "daily" fan, but over the last year or so, have moved firmly in the Ardbeg 10 camp, as not only my "daily" but as my comparison to all others ...
    Let me say first that I am now a firm believer in the "you are what you taste regularly crowd" crowd. I think somewhere in the past I quoted a Psychology Today article about how children less than 5 or so need to taste things at least 7 times before they can really say they don't like it (spinach anyone), but recently I read (and please I can't remember where) that adults need to taste upwards of 30 times something to truly like or dislike it. I also know that, for example, some folks think Cilantro taste like soap and others think it is Gods gift to the herbal world....so peat, smoke and iodine...maybe kinda like cilantro and taste bud association...I don't know
    But what I do know is that the Ardbeg 10 is only $55 US and it outshines to me everything up-to and including Lagavulin 16 (which is $100 US now). I used to really like the Lag 16 (when it was US $60), as a kinda rich but lightly peated scotch - I'm sure I would still like it quite well but am doomed to spend less than $70. FYI- the Ardbeg Uigeadail is only $69 US around my parts and it is so worth the extra $10 - it it absolutely outstanding!!!
    I used to think of Ardbeg as my "summer" scotch because of the citrusy-like notes in smell and taste, but now I am quite addicted to those notes as opposed to the heavier iodine-ish Laphroaig overtones (which I still love).
    I think Jason's suggestion of adding different levels of water to the dram is excellent if you are used to a non-peat dram - you need to smell, taste and feel the peat difference!!! And it takes some few (or more) sips on different occasions for some!
    Yes, the Ardbeg 10 is different every year - but also outstanding every year...hey the same can be boring. For example, this year the price dropped to only $55 US and it is the best year ever (in my 3 years of tasting the 10)...
    The Whisky Dog club sounds like great fun!!!

    1. Hello Ripley,

      Always a pleasure to read your thoughtful comments and insights.

      I agree that Laga 16 has gotten to a price point that makes it much less attractive.

      If you ever come up to Canada, the Whisky Dogs would welcome you with any Islay malt you desire.


  13. Hi Jason!

    I've been wanting to comment on your Ardbeg posts for a while, and I've finally gotten around to it.

    Recently I was reading your reviews of Strathisla 12, the core malt behind Chivas Regal. You compare experiencing that single malt to playing the green-light/red-light game. When I read your Strathisla 12 review, I was reminded of my experiences with Ardbeg 10.

    I love the nose of Ardbeg 10. I like the initial palate. Green light. But between mid-palate and the finish, there's an antiseptic / gauzy component that I just don't care for at this point in my scotch-tasting career (perhaps it's that white cheddar note you mention in both of your posts). Red light. Now, I do like Ardbeg 10, but it's a dram that I desire to sample only occasionally, and preferably with another scotch to "chase" it with, haha. All of that to say, I do plan on coming back to Ardbeg 10 once I have a bit more scotch-drinking experience under my belt. I may appreciate it a lot more then. I'm still a little puzzled though, because I'm a fan of Laphroaig and Lagavulin ... why am I not a huge fan of Ardbeg 10???

    Still, it's a whisky that draws me back. I like peaty / smoky scotches because, oddly, they are more "challenging" to drink. And I like a good challenge. Usually, I don't eat a certain food or drink some sugary drink for the challenge of it (hell, I don't even like sugary drinks!). But with whisky, I find that I like a challenge. And Ardbeg 10 may have me in a little over my head, I confess.

    If you ever get a chance, I hope you'll review Ardbeg Uigeadail. I think it's much better than Ardbeg 10. From what I've heard, peat and sherry often don't mix well, but with the Uigeadail, the peat and sherry are beautiful together. Add some brown sugar, leather, and fruity-chocolate notes, and add the fact that it's cask-strength (54.2% ABV), you'll be in heaven! A very brooding dram. I think it'd make a good dram for one of those nights that's "colder than a witch's tit." As I write this, I'm sipping on some Laphroaig cask Strength, and the Ardbeg Uigeadail makes this Laphroaig Cask Strength taste light a speyside! The Laphroaig cask Strength is a bit sweeter-vanilla-esque than the Uigeadail.

    I'm not sure if the Uigeadail is available in New Brunswick, but if you come across it, I hope you'll get it :) If you can drop $150 for JW Platinum, I think you could drop just as much for the Uigeadail, and come away more than satisfied!

    On a final note, I find Ardbeg 10 to be crisp and ... cold. I mean that in a good way. When I sip Ardbeg 10, it's like I can feel the cold, salty sea breeze hitting me in the face. I like that. Most scotches make me feel warm (Uigeadail makes me warm) but Ardbeg 10 has a zesty, crisp, cold effect to it that I find fascinating.


  14. Jason, Our whiskey club's young buck found a whiskey blogger (Luke Rymarz) who's crawling down the newbie tasting trail. Entertaining and informative, in a way that reminds me of watching an 18 month old kid take his/her first walking attempts. Very early formation of his tasting vernacular. You might enjoy it. He makes some typical broadcast errors such as to refer to "this one" or "the other one", or to refer to the wrong dram, and you'll see how low energy tends to sap a viewer's will to watch much further. Starting at his "Whisky Video #5 BONUS" (Ardben Ten vs Laphroaig Ten) and it's all there. Tips for future vids. Cheers. JK

    1. Thanks! I will check it out. At this point, I need all the tips I can get.

  15. Hi Jason,

    I just found your blog and I really appreciate your candid and unbiased tasting notes.

    I tried to post this predicament on one of your Ardbeg blogs but it wouldn't let me so I'm emailing instead. Here's the deal:

    I'm strictly an Islay gal. My favorite things in life are Laphroaig 10, a few other earthly delights, my dog, Lagavulin, Nicaraguan cigars, Bruichladdich, Bunnahavain, Bowmore, dark chocolate, and sometimes Talisker. I haven't tasted the other Islays or any other Islandses, but of the 40-odd other single malts I've tried, I've found them all unpalatable and, well, just icky.

    So today I was in one of the few pubs here in Minneapolis that keeps Ardbeg. I've been hearing and reading about it for a decade and it's seemed like a bit of a holy grail, because the bottle was always too expensive for me and so was a dram in the pub. It never turned up at a Scotch and cigars party. But sometime in the last few years the price point in this area has dropped significantly -- even to below the Laph and the Lag -- so today I found I could afford it and was so excited when the glass arrived at my table! There was the lovely straw color! But when I nosed it I got nothing. Where was the big fat peat? When I tasted it there was barely any flavor -- certainly nothing bold. It seemed like nothing but astringent -- like North Dakota white lightning! I asked the server if he or the bartender had mistaken Ardbeg for Ardmore and he assured me no, but I still suspect there was some mistake somewhere. I was so sorely disappointed -- I couldn't even finish more than half of it, I found it so unbearable. A sin, I know!!

    I'm pretty sure I can go back on a slow night, explain, and get a sample to verify. (The pub was filling up with people in too much green celebrating an early Paddy's, and I doubted I could get an answer out of anyone at the time!) But in the meantime, I guess my question is: If that really was Ardbeg, how could it be possible to absolutely adore Laphroaig and Lagavulin but absolutely despise Ardbeg?? I've never heard of such a thing, but is it possible to have a bottle "go bad" or be a "bad bottle"? Are my nose and tongue broken????? No, it couldn't be -- I just had a sip of my Laphroaig 10 and it tastes and smells as sublime as ever.

    My holy grail quest has turned Pythonesque: past the killer rabbit, across the bridge of death, over to the castle on the island, only to have the French make fun of me! (They own most of the distilleries now, don't they?) Hélas!



    1. Hi Libby!

      I strongly suspect that what happened to you, happened to me with a glass of Talisker 10 at a bar.

      I had read how great Talisker 10 was and when I finally sampled it at a bar, I was hugely disappointed. I thought I did not like it, and left it at that. But months passed and I was in another bar that specialized in single malts and my friend ordered Talisker 10. So, I tried it again and this it was amazing.

      Many of the whisky bottles in that particular bar that they pour from are on display and I could see several with just maybe an inch of malt left in them. Basically empty. I know from my own experience that bottles in my collection that are less than 50% full and open more than 6 months and definitely one year lose a lot of their flavor, to the point that they are a disappointment. And so that is my theory with the glass of Talisker the first time. I wrote about that experience here:


      So, I think you really did have a drink of Ardbeg, but it was likely poured from a bottle that had less than 50% volume and was probably open for years, resulting in oxidation that erased a lot of the classic big smoke, massive peat and Islay flavors.

      Solution, go back to the bar, ask to see the bottle before they pour or better yet, have them open a new bottle.

      Ardbeg is the most phenolic of the Islay malts. That being said I think Laphroaig 10 is more complex and a better dram. Lagavulin is more complex and lighter in punch, which I like even more.

      Hope this helps!

      I might post your question, as it is a good one, but I will remove any reference to your name and email.


  16. G'day Jas,
    Finally got some time to type...
    We had our session last Friday... Popped the cork again..... "Oh baby ... How I missed you" feeling ! That being said... The Laph 10 had a better nose.... to me.
    I made up my mind earlier that I was going to play with it .... even if it meant turfing a mistake or two... Neat ... found it hard to get past the medicinal nose (which I love).
    palate: hard trouble trying to articulate.... peat ... vanilla ??? more smoke and smoke at end....Is that it? "Bugger it" I said. "Where's the water?" 1 teaspoon... That moment ... when you get something new...different.... still got vanilla... but then citrus... sweet..then at the end, this beautiful smoke ashy... first thing that came to me was tobacco ash and that long lasting finish. added another half teaspoon... nope... no good... But just that change from adding water.... Will be trying again in a day or two.. on my own this time. Might have to revisit the other islays and talisker. (in time) Ardbeg sits above the Laga 16 & Ledaig, but level pegging with the Laph 10 overall..
    Well... onto the next... Spey or Highland... Wish I could afford the HP18 . Still tops. Keep the great reviews coming mate .
    AL (from OZ)

  17. I recently bought my first bottle of Ardbeg 10 and found it too volatile. I added some cold water and boom - huge improvement. That made me wonder about if there's a right way to drink it. I Googled "how to drink Ardbeg and that's how I found your article. lol