People often ask me what “peat” tastes like. I struggled with a go-to answer for a while because it’s more than just “smoke” or “the hospital” – descriptions which only add to the sense of confusion. It was while reviewing this bottle of Ardbeg 10 that the answer dawned on me: peated whisky tastes like someone found an old wingback armchair decaying in the forest, fermented it and distilled it into alcohol.
Ardbeg was the original peat monster. This was before the days of these new fangled Supernovas and Octomores, perhaps rivalled only by Laphroaig. And Ardbeg marketed themselves as such: the box still claims to be the “peatiest, smokiest, most complex whisky of them all”, and although that’s clearly no longer true, peat is still very much the name of the game:
Peat. Lots of peat. Bucketloads of the stuff. And old people. Soil, wet grass. A light sweetness after a while in the glass, and a faint clinical band-aid tang. But also a surprising fruitiness lurking in the background.
Smoke – the taste you get in your mouth when the wind changes and the braai fumes are relentlessly trying to destroy you. Charcoal, overcooked meat, moss, rubber and leather. Red fruits, slightly salty. Tightly integrated – I want to use the word “balanced”: no single taste too overpowering or underwhelming. Clearly well crafted, and an absolutely delicious taste. The finish is endless! There’s a reason granddads drink this – they have the patience to ponder life’s little mysteries in their worn-out yet comfy sofas while the Ardbeg runs its course. Starts sweet, ends bitter. Faint Strepsil taste, rubbery and grassy.
Ardbeg 10 handles water very well, opening up while retaining interest. Sweet, slightly floral. Ice kills the experience, though – while it doesn’t drown quickly at 46%, the flavours become very muted when chilled.
I’ve never been a fan of one-trick-pony peat monsters (I have a love/hate relationship with most Laphroaigs). The flavour always seems like overkill – a peaty bludgeon, a phenolic, grassy sledgehammer that lands without subtlety (or forgiveness). But I always liked the complimentary effect that peat had in something like a Highland Park, where medium to low levels of peat give it a noticeably smoky, grassy flavour, but don’t dominate. But peat taking centre stage? No way…
Ardbeg 10 changed all that. Ardbeg was the malt that made me love peat for peat’s sake (ha!). It surprised me with a deep, interesting complexity and perfectly balanced richness. It has become my benchmark for comparing other heavily peated whiskies, and retains a permanent spot in my liquor cabinet.