Ardbeg Ten Review


Ardbeg Ten, bottled at 46% abv. Price NIS 260


Ardbeg Ten is probably the most enigmatic, perplexing, chameleon like single malt whisky on the mainstream market today. Just watch the many Youtube video reviews and read the blog reviews of this whisky and you will get numerous and contradictory impressions. What does seem to be common is the extremely varied smelling and tasting descriptives used which on their own sound unflattering at best and often quite awful at worst, yet somehow unites all reviewers in concluding that this is an absolutely delicious whisky, even if they cannot agree what it tastes like. Ardbeg Ten seems to be a mouth feel experience rather than a specific flavour. I know, it doesn’t make much sense but believe me, it works!
First, a word of advice:
Let me say from the outset that in my opinion, this whisky is definitely not recommended for the beginner to Islay malts. In fact, in my opinion, it is guaranteed to put off someone for life who has only ever experienced Highlanders. It was not an editing mistake that I wrote “in my opinion” twice because quite a few reviewers actually recommend Ardbeg as the perfect introduction to Islay malts. I think they are meshuga but isn’t that the nature of Ardbeg? It seems to completely divide opinion as to what it is.

Anyway, I’m sticking to my opinion and for your convenience, I have composed a table which should give you a gentle and gradual introduction into the wonderful world of Islay malts. Start from the bottom of the table below, say from Bruichladdich or Kilchoman, and work up the table. Caol Ila is a must along the way before you arrive at the really heavy island coastal drams of Laphroaig and Ardbeg.
Table of Islay Single Malt Peat strengths

I took the liberty of adding the brand new distillery, Ardnahoe


(PPM = Parts Per Million)

Ranking
Single Malt
PPM
1
Bruichladdich Octomore
167
2
Ardbeg 10
45
3
Bruichladdich Port Charlotte
44
4
Laphroaig 10
40
5
Lagavulin 12
35
6
Caol Ila 12
30
7
Bowmore Bourbon Cask
25
8
Kilchoman 100% Islay
25
9
Bruichladdich Islay Barley
5
10
Bunnahabhain Darach Ur
2

On first contact, Ardbeg can be a shock to the senses, even to those who have been drinking other Islay whiskies for a while. The reason is that Ardbeg is (well I think so), considerably dryer and less fruity than its Kildalton coastline neighbours, Laphroaig and Lagavulin, so even though all of that iodine Islay smoke peat influence (or PPM levels) may not, on paper, be much higher, Le’Ma’aseh, in practice, Ardbeg displays a much more intensely pungent and dry Islay Peat taste explosion.

The evening I first tried Ardbeg “Ten” for the very first time, around 20 years ago now, was after quite a few years under my belt with Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Bowmore and Caol Ila. However, I still found Ardbeg a traumatic mouth experience.
I remember as if it were yesterday. My parents had bought me a 1 Litre bottle of this rocket fuel in a black bottle from London when they passed through the Heathrow Duty Free to come and stay with us here in Israel for Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and the festival of Sukkot.
In my humble opinion, anyone who has never experienced the Yom Tovim and Sukkos in Eretz Yisrael, has never really experienced and celebrated the chagim (festivals)!
So, there we all were, all of the family sat around the Yom Tov table where we there upon cracked open our very first bottle of Ardbeg.

I have to tell you; it really didn’t seem likely at the time that this would be the first of many bottles. You see, Initial impressions by everyone at the table except my oldest son, were not favourable!

When experiencing Ardbeg for the very first time, a pretty popular remark is that it smells of old hospital wards, complete with burnt wet bandages, thick sticky plaster, plaster cast smoke and lemon and pine hospital disinfectant and Sudocream Zinc Oxide Healing cream. Many on first contact, hate it, vowing never ever to drink it again. Others fall instantly in love. Out of the first group, (which I must admit I was one), they will hopefully return to this bottle after a few weeks or even months and admit that, actually, it really isn’t as bad as they initially thought. Then, after another few months break, on the third session they may very well have made a complete 180 degrees U-turn in their opinion and incredibly, Ardbeg will become a firm favourite. That’s all part of the magic of getting to know this single malt.

Packaging:


The box design itself is identical to its sister distillery, Glenmorangie including that classic Glenmorangie inner flap holding the top of the bottle in place.

This is where the similarities end. Glenmorangie artwork is bright glaring orange and gold stripes like outlandish Parisian fashion, begging people to “PICK ME, PICK ME!”. The curvaceous shape of the bottle is reminiscent of a champagne bottle which is hardly surprising considering that both these distilleries are owned by the champagne producing French company - Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.
The Ardbeg artwork could not be more different. The bottle is chunky in feel, the black glass barely opaque. Ardbeg is very much a whisky with a fanatical cult following and the ancient Gaelic Celtic Island designs and dark green and black colours emphasises that this whisky is “Not for everyone”. The message here is one of an understated confidence and pride in its élite image.
Special Marketing Image
Ardbeg is a distillery with a very special “cool” and ultra-fashionable marketing image which attracts uncompromising whisky purists as well as whisky collection investors. To some extent, it deserves that image, insisting on bottling all its whisky without Chill-Filtration for maximum flavour and oily mouthfeel, natural colour (although for some reason, it doesn’t explicitly mention this on the label) and always bottled at higher alcohol strengths which keeps all that flavour complexity intact right up to the moment you come to drink it.
The ‘Ten” is bottled at a respectable 46% abv, that magic minimum alcohol number that seems to go hand-in-hand with non-chill filtered whiskies.
The “Ten” is Ardbeg’s only standard mainstream and affordable bottling. All other Ardbeg expressions are bottled at natural or near cask strength, they are given a very fancy name with some very long, “Bube Miser” tale to accompany it. All this comes with elaborate modern wacky yet at the same time, ancient Celtic artistic labelling with an equally fancy price tag. These bottles are unfortunately destined, more often than not, to end up in some wealthy guy’s whisky investment collection, never to be drunk and sold on auction at “super nova” premium prices in a few years’ time. Those really serious hard-core Ardbeg fans will buy two of each of the expensive bottlings, one to drink and the other to put away for investment.
I have tried some very expensive rare, Limited Edition expressions of Ardbeg and my honest opinion is yes, the cask strength does translate into extra flavour but, for the most part, is not worth the extra money. This “Ten” is going to give you pretty much the very best of Ardbeg and amongst the standard bottlings found on the shelves of serious wine and spirits shops around the world, is one of the very best classic and iconic Scotch single malt whiskies out there.
Halachic Problems but not the usual kashrut ones:
Although the Ardbeg Ten has been matured exclusively in American white oak Ex-Bourbon casks which means that there are no kashrus issues at all with this dram, there is however a halachic question when it comes to putting the box on your Shabbos table! The problem is that just outside the distillery, on the main road is a famous Chrstian Celtic land mark called The Kildalton Cross. There are many pilgrims to this junction, some visiting this stone pesel, others are fanatical pilgrims of a different sort visiting the distillery; and many combining both reasons for travelling there.

An image of this Chrstian religious symbol features prominently on the back of the Ardbeg Ten box. This is not just an uncomfortable emotional feeling that this is not suitable for the Shabbos table, there are real halachic issues here.  We are not just dealing with a car badge or Swiss luggage branding. This is an image of an actual carved pesel depicting possible Avodah Zara. I have spoken to quite a few Rabbonim and it seems that the consensus is that one should cover up this image. I use a thick black marker pen to completely obliterate the possible Avodah Zara image. For those interested, see these sources:
[See Igros Moshe YD, 1/69) who writes that a cross used in national flags, postage stamps, or commercial branding is not Avodah Zara. But also see Shach (YD, 141/6) who considers a cross used for worship, to be a Safek De'oraysa Avodah Zara and because it is a Safek, the halacha should be to go LeChumra.

Based on that Shach it would seem that it would be asur to even gaze at the image. However, Rav Moshe would seem to allow bringing the image of the pesel into your home as it serves no real benefit.]


So, let’s get down to the tasting notes.
Colour and Visual effect:

Pouring this Ardbeg into a Glencairn glass is an educational experience. The colour is a 100% natural clear pale straw yellow. As you can see from comparing the Ardbeg with its nearest neighbour, Laphroaig, Laphroaig has unfortunately had some E150a caramel colouring added to it to make it look more "whisky colour" like.

The Ardbeg sticks to the insides of the glass swirling around as if in slow motion. This is a very oily malt promising a lovely thick mouth feel to come.


Compared to the Chill-Filtered Laphroaig, after a violent swirl, the legs drop to the bottom immediately showing far less viscosity than the Ardbeg.

Being totally non-chill filtered, if you would add water or ice to the Ardbeg at this point you will witness an impressive transformation as the whisky quickly turns into a dirty and cloudy yellow like old murky washing up water. I suppose a more constructive description would be “Scrumpy cider” like?
Smell/Aroma:


OK, so imagine you are walking along the beach in Islay, the morning after the old abandoned First-Aid medical clinic (which is no longer in use but still fully stocked), has been blown up and the remnants of the clinic are strewn all over the shoreline. Amongst the puddles of sea water, wet seaweed, fine sand and pebbles, there are burnt bandages, fabric plasters, lemon flavoured mouthwash, sweet pungent pine wood disinfectants, scorched brush wood, salty heather, oily white pepper, milky toffee, smoked paprika, myrtle leaves, bamboo sap and lemon grass. So many aromas but there is that constant odour of heavy salty burnt wood smoke hanging in the air throughout. After a while you start to notice more background aromas like Etrogim (Citron fruit) and Hadasim (myrtle leaves).
My son describes it as wet burnt tree bark after a downpour. Burnt pine cones, spices, something dry and something sweet.
Taste and mouth feel:

Even with a few drops of water to open up all those flavours, the liquid remains thick and oily. It is like sucking on new leather. There is resin and wood sap. After your taste buds have acclimatised to the massive peat influence, you become aware of a delightful milky toffee with fresh hot creamy white pepper and sea salt crystals. There is a dominant green note with fresh “hadasim “(myrtle), eucalyptus leaves, white flaky cod grilled with barbeque briskets soaked malted apple cider, pickling spices, pepper corns and bitter sweet lemon marmalade. All this sits on a layer of creamy dry vanilla sponge cake with sour apple and lemon crumble desert.


That strange combination of sweet milky toffee and sea salt remains constant throughout the first sip right up to the long haunting finish. The finish itself is very clean with oily salty Dead Sea Cosmetics sun-tan lotion, sea water, thick sweet yet bitter lemon marmalade, salty beach twigs, Fisherman’s Friends liquorice lozenges, with menthol and sweet Aniseed balls.



This is a hugely complex whisky with bold yet elegantly combined flavours. Every time you drink this dram you notice something else. Gradually add a few more drops of water at a time and notice the subtle changes as the Ardbeg goes from dry bitterness to soft sweetness.


Lastly, the Ardbeg has one more trick up its sleeve. On a really hot day, especially after a walk in the sun, take out a large bell shape Ardbeg glass, add two ice cubes and pour a generous dose of Ardbeg Ten. Then sit-down in front of the mazgan (aircon) and relax. Bring the glass to your nose and breath in the freezing aromas of flowers and smoky zesty sweet lemon sherbet, spices and refreshing yellow fruits. With ice, the Ardbeg is transformed into a fruity floral sweet single malt with the taste of lemon and vanilla cheese cake. With ice, because it tones down the peat dominance, you notice a lot sweeter barley maltiness.



As I said at the beginning, Ardbeg is an amazingly enigmatic, perplexing chameleon and a must have malt for any remotely serious whisky lover.
BTW, For a technical explanation of that famous Ardbeg Ten bandages smell, see here:

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