Along with cartomancy, alpine skiing and fly-fishing for trout in small streams, one of my enduring passions is an occasional dram of high-quality whisky (the Scottish and Canadian spelling without the “e”), especially single-malt scotch. Although I’ve been drinking single malts since the early ’70s (mostly Glenlivet and more recently Glendullan’s The Singleton), I didn’t experience anything more audacious until a couple of years ago and I’m still by no means a scotch authority. So I thought I would school myself in the heavily-peated Islay style over the next few months and bought a bottle of Ardbeg 10 (after having previously enjoyed a nip or two of a friend’s Laphroiag 10 and Talisker 10, and my own less-memorable bottles of Bowmore 12 and budget-priced McClelland). With the recent 25% tariffs, imported whisky is pricey now in the US; this bottle cost me $48 on sale, which many consider a bargain.
I should mention that I’ve scratched my head over some of the dubious terminology used by wine, whisky and now even high-brow beer enthusiasts to describe the subtle, elusive flavors they detect in their drinks of choice, often suggestive of things I’m positive they’ve never put into their mouths. Having not dined on tar and leather lately, I can only assume that their supposed presence is a fanciful re-imagining of what peated scotch should taste like based on how it smells. I was once banned from one of the “beer snob” forums because I observed that if I wanted my beer to smell like citrus and grass and taste like bacon, I would buy a hog farm in Florida. I couldn’t get into the spirit of the thing, but I’ll try my best here with the understanding that I’ve always figured my whisky would taste like . . . well, whisky.
Not having a proper whisky “nosing” glass, I sampled the Ardbeg three different ways in a globular Old Fashioned glass: neat (after resting for ten minutes); with a tiny splash of water; and with an ice cube. Here are my initial opinions of the 2-ounce neat pour. (The others produced slightly tamer versions of the same thing, with some tamping down of the sweeter notes and a thinner mouth-feel.)
Nose: Obviously smoky but not overbearingly so, more barbecue than campfire; clean linens; apple or cherry wood; more precisely, “cherry-blend” pipe tobacco; nutty dry sherry; vanilla and clover honey with floral overtones; tart cherry pie but not noticeably fruity otherwise, and there are definitely some mild esters present, what some might consider iodine-like or medicinal but which for me brought back fond memories of a boyhood spent building Revell model kits with Testors polystyrene cement (but in a good way, mind you). Full disclosure: I am not, nor have I ever been, a glue-head.
Palate: Recognizing that the tongue responds to different flavors as a liquid passes along its length, I let the scotch migrate slowly, interspersed with much judicious sniffing. I picked up a pleasant honeyed sweetness on the tip of the tongue along with the expected “whisky tingle” (but thankfully no pronounced “burn”), accompanied by an appealing, viscous creaminess that, with the taste, reminded me ever-so-slightly of cherry cough syrup, another vivid childhood flashback. Halfway back I began getting more complex flavors: the signature Islay “charred meat” and a soft, leathery maltiness. The creamy mouth-feel persisted, nicely coating the palate. At the back of the tongue I finally appreciated what others have described as “tobacco” notes, something I can relate to as a former pipe and cigar smoker, and also unsweetened baking chocolate and black espresso coffee, all greatly enjoyable in an elegantly austere way. Across the entire profile I found the spiciness to be restrained, but there was also no harshness or bitterness; in short, a thoroughly agreeable, well-balanced and refined Islay scotch with sufficient backbone to keep it interesting.
Finish: Although I don’t have a strong frame of reference from my Glenlivet days, the finish seemed medium-to-long and mouth-filling, with some lingering smokiness and a slowly-emerging aftertaste that I couldn’t quite pin down and had to think about for a few minutes before realizing that it was blackstrap molasses or very dark brown sugar, a delayed but satisfying conclusion to the experience that made me want more.
Score: Based solely on my limited prior Islay exposure, I’d rate it an 8.5 out of 10. It was far more complex and compelling than the Bowmore 12 but less sternly demanding than the Laphroiag or the Talisker, both of which do not seem like entry-level examples of the style. I would offer the gently-peated Bowmore to an Islay neophyte first, then the Ardbeg as a logical evolution. (The less sophisticated McClelland — a so-called “bastard” malt produced by the Bowmore distillery — I generally reserve for smoky cocktails like the Penicillin and Rusty Compass.)
My next Islay adventure will most likely be a step up to Lagavulin 16-year-old. The following review notes definitely inspire anticipation: “Very thick and rich. A massive mouthful of malt and sherry, but also a wonderful sweetness. Big, powerful peat and oak. Finish: Long, spicy finish, figs, dates, peat smoke, vanilla.”