Ardbeg has a long but complicated history. The distillery was founded back in 1815, passing through a number of hands before it was shuttered from 1983-1989. It was brought back to life at reduced capacity during the early to mid-90s, before it was bought by Glenmorangie in 1997 - who in turn are owned by Louis-Vuitton-Möet Hennessy.
As an interesting side-note, when Mark Reiner was looking for a distillery to buy he considered purchasing Ardbeg, but eventually picked the neighboring Bruichladdich distillery instead. One can only imagine what its rebirth would have been like under his and Jim McEwan's quixotic hands instead of the corporate behemoth of LVMH.
I wrote a bit about the distillery before, largely in the context of their bevy of No Age Statement releases, which have become a hallmark for them. But today I will be considering their single remaining whisky with an age statement, the entry-level 10 year old.
Ardbeg 10 Year
Nose: Triscuits (salty, oily, grainy), lightly sweet creamy malt under an herbaceous (rosemary?) and vegetal cloud of peat, some industrial notes of tar, smoke, and grease, a thin layer of oak, some maritime notes, a little bourbon barrel caramel, a little chocolate. After adding a few drops of water, the nose is significantly diminished and seems to fall flat - it gets maltier, with more integrated but weaker peat, which becomes ashier.
Taste: black pepper, olive oil, and salt throughout, with sweet malt and vanilla up front, which becomes more bittersweet with a moderate dose of peat, then slides back towards sweetness at the end. After dilution, the black pepper becomes dominant, with more malty sweetness and bitter tannins, while the oil fades a bit and some chocolate appears near the back.
Finish: sweet peat and malt, with olive oil, salt, black pepper, and flashes of oak and peat
While reasonably pleasant, Ardbeg 10 reminded me of another whisky on my shelf with a similar flavor profile - Kilchoman Machir Bay - so I decided to see how they stacked up against each other. From the first sniff, it's clear that the Kilchoman simply blows Ardbeg out of the water. The depth and intensity are something the current iteration of Ardbeg 10 Year can't even hope to touch. Kilchoman simply does everything Ardbeg 10 does, but better. It's not a matter of craft presentation - both are bottled at 46% without chill filtration or caramel color. Kilchoman is simply better at distilling, wood management, and cask selection. Admittedly, Kilchoman does get a bit of a boost from finishing some of the whisky in ex-sherry barrels, whereas Ardbeg reserves their sherry barrel stock for their Uigeadail expression, but even a pure bourbon barrel Kilchoman would be head and shoulders above. I can only imagine what their single malts will be like when they have a comparable amount of age behind them. Ardbeg needs to step up their game - while they have the volume to undercut Kilchoman by a bit (though they're more or less the same price here in the great state of Oregon), it's not enough to make up for the lack of depth in their whisky. While Ardbeg 10 was a bruiser in the early 2000s due to the inclusion of a lot of older whisky being blended in to cover up the distillery's production holes, I'm guessing that in the Glenmorangie era a) their distilling practices have shifted to focus on getting more spirit out of a given weight of malt, which means that there's less flavor making it into the whisky and b) LVMH is saving all of the really good stuff for their higher priced and limited edition bottlings. But with an introduction like this it's going to be hard to convince me to pony up for those pricier offerings. If nothing else, Ardbeg really needs to be throwing more first-fill casks (and maybe a precious sherry cask or two) into their entry level offering to cover up the weakness of the underlying malt. Going forward I'd love it if they'd shift their fermentation and distilling towards creating more depth. The tiny farm distillery on the other end of the island is utterly putting them to shame.