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.
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.
Phenol, mint, smoking damp wood bonfire, wet leaves.
More subdued. Smoother, softer, silken but still with plenty of smoke, tar and black peppercorns in the centre. Smokey bacon too.
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.
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.
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.