In the massive world of Single Malt Scotch Whisky, the range of flavors, age statements, and regional characteristics present a fascinating journey for fans of the fine spirit. For fans of Islay (ai-luh) whisky, Ardbeg definitely brings a monstrous amount of smoke just in time for Halloween, the cooler months ahead, and beyond.
The long history of the Ardbeg Distillery dates back to 1798 and went out to the wider public in the early 1800s. The whisky is distilled on the isle of Islay, a region known for producing heavily peated whiskeys that bring about a smoky flavor profile, not unlike Mezcal.
In full transparency, I actually didn’t enjoy peated whiskey the first time I tried it. I was confused by the smoke inside the glass, assuming that an aged spirit would carry the semi-sweet and sometimes spicy profiles of my favorite bourbons and whiskies produced in America. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why anyone would willingly subject themselves to this but as it often happens, a palette for the finer things in life is developed over time. Without one ounce of overselling the moment, Ardbeg definitely has my heart now.
My journey with Ardbeg began with the Monsters of Smoke gift pack (see update at the end of the article). The sampler features three expressions from the distiller — the Wee Beastie, the An Oa, and the Ten Years Old.
Starting with the Wee Beastie, aged for a swift five years in whisky terms, with the juice sitting in ex-bourbon and Oloroso sherry casks. My first impression was that the peat overtook any of the notes from the barrel but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good sip. To respect the craftsmanship, I enjoyed the pour neat and I was pleasantly surprised by the fact I immediately went for seconds. At just under 95 proof, this will hold up under an ice cube but a lot of that smoke goes away. It made for a good Old Fashioned, however, and that’s been my primary way to enjoy it.
I next tried the An Oa, which is part of Ardbeg’s core offerings. It’s named after the Mull of Oa in Islay and this juice is finished in a combination of Pedro Ximénez, charred virgin oak, and ex-bourbon casks, which doesn’t lend that semi-sweet flavor one would expect but certainly isn’t completely absent. At 93 proof, this is another hearty dram that needs to be examined and appreciated for its many nuances instead of drowned in ice and mixers. It hits all the notes of what one expects of an Islay Whisky but the smoke doesn’t knock you off your feet. Just a note, there is no age statement with this bottle.
Lastly, I went with the Ten Years Old. Of the three, this single malt had all the peatiness I was expecting from the other expressions and my earlier sips helped prepare my tastebuds. With the juice getting a full decade of aging in ex-bourbon casks, the wood matched with the smoked peat gave this dram the heft I’ve come to know in other Islay whiskeys but still retained a sweetness that would hold up as an after-dinner pour or palette-pleasing nightcap.
In the end, all of the Monsters of Smoke have their appeal. Picking a favorite among the trio is next to difficult but I’d say the An Oa was the sweet spot regarding complexity and flavor.
Beyond the gift pack, I had the honor of trying the Corryvreckan and Uigeadail (oog-a-dal) expressions.
The Corryvreckan is named for a whirlpool that sits in the north of the isle of Islay and sits at 114 proof so I was expecting a bracing hit of peat. I could’ve been more incorrect in what was to come. I took a day off between sipping to try this dram with my palette rendered anew and I think it was the moment I became a full-on convert of all things Islay whisky. Because of its proof, it definitely needs time to sit in the glass and a drop of water does bring down some of the peat and heat in the glass. That said, this was a refined version of the whiskeys I had before them and it made me excited to try out the last of my bottles.
The Uigeadail expression (108 proof) was hands down my favorite next to the Ten Years Old. Both the Uigeadail and Corryvreckan forgo age statements but that shouldn’t matter when the stuff inside is this superior. I’ll save all the dramatics here. If you like Ten Years Old, this is its big brother after hitting the gym. A fantastic dram that got better all the way down to the final sweet, smoky and salty sip. Worth it!
Meet Ardbeg’s U.S. National Ambassador, Cameron George
Along this journey, Ardbeg’s U.S. National Ambassador Cameron George was gracious with his time and gave suggestions on how to enjoy the brand’s offerings along with details that were unbeknownst to us previously. The Seattle, Wash. native is one of the most knowledgeable minds in the spirits space and is a champion of diversity in the industry, which we’re all about here at CASSIUS and Spirit.Ed.
“With first-time Ardbeg drinkers I recommend Ardbeg 10 year old, for me (and many Ardbeggians) it’s the surest way to see the true nature, flavor profile & provenance of the Ardbeg distillery,” George said of those experiencing the brand for the first time. “This Whisky and its exclusive utilization of Ex-Bourbon barrels form the base of each whisky in Ardbeg’s core range.”
When we asked if the Ten Years Old is the best way to snag American drinkers in the net of Islay whiskey, George countered with, “One may think that but actually, it’s Ardbeg An Oa that I use to lure American Whisky drinkers to the depths of Ardbeg.”
He adds, “An Oa contains some whisky aged in virgin American oak, casks that would have been used to mature American Whisk(e)y but were purchased by Dr. Bill and the Whisky creation team. These casks add softness and tons of extractable oak lactones to the classic underpinnings of Ardbeg, in addition to the peaty smokey goodness the resulting whisky is rounded with a bit of a vanilla and classic kitchen cabinet spices (clove, cinnamon, nutmeg).”
Spirit.Ed was designed to be primarily a space to discuss cocktails, so we naturally asked George if the brand’s offerings would make a solid base for mixing since most typically drink Single Malt Scotch Whisky neat.
“I would argue that Single Malt Scotch Whisky should be used as the base of cocktails even more,” George said. “Bartenders around the world obsess about the quality of ingredients from base spirit to fresh citrus. Single Malts offer the greatest quality for price index of any Whisky category, you will regularly find me sipping on the Ardbeg Daiquiri using Ten Years Old, or the Boulevardier with Ardbeg Wee beastie, the Pina Colada with Ardbeg An Oa, and so many other delicious concoctions.”
Lastly, we concluded our chat with Cameron George by asking him what bottle of Ardbeg he goes for when it’s time to pour a dram.
“Ardbeg 10 has been and will always be my favorite whisky, every day when I crack that bottle open and pour a dram I’m immediately transported to the distillery’s front courtyard. In my mind can imagine myself standing in the center of the roundel dram in hand feeling the breeze of the Islay wind whip across my face while playfully hinting at the sea air and distillery aromatics. Ardbeg 10 is quite simply perfection in a glass,” George shared.
To learn more about Ardbeg and its wide range of excellent Single Malt Scotch Whisky, please follow this link.
UPDATE: I should note that the Monster of Smoke gift pack is no longer available for purchase but each of the expressions mentioned is part of the current lineup.
Photo: Ardbeg/D.L. Chandler/Getty
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