Peated whisky is a contentious subject that continues to divide opinion within the whisky community. Once you get past the basic argument of personal preference and taste, there are further disputes about proper country of origin, as well as the appropriate method of production. These whiskies are more common now than they have ever been with countries such as India, Ireland and Japan all starting to produce their own expressions. The weathered isle of Islay, nestled among the rugged islands of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, has long been a true proprietor of these whiskies, and that is typically put down to its history, remoteness, and enthusiasm to conform to the ages.
Islay’s geography is unique. Unwilling to let a lack of expansive forests and trees inhibit its ability, the region has a bountiful supply of peat (over 62,000 acres of it!) that generations of Islay distillers have fundamentally relied on to dry their barley. The peat-bogs from which they come have been conditioned and exposed by Islay’s own micro-climate of wind, rain and sea. These forces give their whiskies distinctive flavours of maritime, medicine and in some cases, iodine. Interestingly, not one peat bog is the same; each has its own eclectic combination of moss, decaying matter, grass and roots, which renders Islay a unique land in which to craft this distinctive whisky. Since they retain a hint of peat, even the water from the streams used for cooling wort and condensing vapours are idiosyncratic.
The process is also unparalleled: the peat needs to be cut at a certain length and a certain depth to ensure consistency across the batches. It takes longer, too; peat has to be dried before it can be used. It’s traditional; the use of malting floors ensures that barley is tricked into germinating and is exposed to as much smoke as possible through the perforations in the floor—even, in some cases, for 17 extra hours!
Laphroaig and Ardbeg are arguably the two biggest distilleries on the island. The two Islay colossi are separated by just two miles of coastline, are both iconic names in the industry who recently celebrated their bicentenary (in the same year!), and are both famous for that iconic peaty smoky taste and smell. The entry-level expressions from each are a 10-year-old, and you’d expect with the points I have just mentioned that they would be indistinguishable, but no!
Laphroaig are traditionalists. They use conventional malting floors, which sounds romantic to the unwitting tourist, but in reality, around 80% of their malt actually comes from the Port Ellen Distillery. The kilns they use for heating are as old as the distillery itself, and they are one of the only distilleries to make their first cuts after distilling for 45 short minutes. The majority of their whisky is matured in American white oak casks taken from the Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, Kentucky. Strangely, they chill filter their whisky and add caramel colouring, while Ardbeg’s recent regenesis led them to take the more modern artisan approach of eschewing chill filtering.
In contrast to Laphroaig’s two centuries of tradition and stability, Ardbeg has had a more turbulent history. Lack of business-led them to shut up shop in 1981, but they still produced whiskey on an extremely limited basis. Since Glenmorangie bought them in 1998, a rebirth has occurred, replete with a revamped and revitalised business. Their distillery and whole range were completely overhauled, resulting in award after award. The resurgence has seen them push the boundaries, quite literally: in 2011, they launched a sample of their whisky into space to see what effect the vacuum would have on it. Their tag as the ‘crazy guys’ of Scottish whiskey also seen them paint some of their 2014 ‘Ardbeg Day’ Auriverdes bottles gold for no reason whatsoever.
In terms of their whisky, when deciding what to taste to compare them, there are a lot of choices. Their one-off releases (the Laphroaig Cairdeas range, and the Ardbeg’s ‘Feis Isle’ releases) have both been well received, but I have gone for the two bottles that you are most likely to see in a humble local supermarket. Both are priced within a few pounds of each other, or depending on where you go, a few pence! One comes in a tube (a rather cheap-looking one at that, wherein you can customise via interchangeable sections what Laphroaig tastes like—yet there’s no need!), and the Ardbeg comes in a cardboard box. Prior to tasting, in all honesty, it is so hard to separate these two heavyweights. You almost feel that they’re both happy with the status quo.
It is also worth mentioning their different fan bases. The ‘Friends of Laphroaig’ are almost gimmicky in nature, and were introduced in the 1990s and then never updated—until very recently. They offer a lease on a foot of land behind the distillery and requesting the owner to ‘claim their rent.’ The Ardbeg Committee, however, is a fantastic vehicle to release some exciting and award-winning limited runs.
A good measure of the whisky is the measure of the peat itself. Measured in Parts Per Million (PPM), when peat gets burnt in the kiln, it releases phenols (smoke) which give a good indication of a whisky’s smokey potency. One can expect Laphroaig’s PPM to hit around 45. Ardbeg’s PPM is around 55. Regardless, neither one quite reaches Octomore levels.
Now, for a bit more on the past. Like most Scottish whisky production in the nineteenth—and a good majority of the twentieth—century, all whisky tended to be manufactured for blends. It just so happened that a woman by the name of Bessie Williamson realised the potential that Islay whiskies truly had. After starting work as a typist in Laphroaig, she was given a ‘field promotion’ that led to the role of full-time distillery manager within six years. Bessie is considered by some as instrumental in the promotion of Islay single malts, absolutely smashing the male-dominated, traditional mould of whisky-making.
I will admit that I have always liked Laphroaig, and drink it more than Ardbeg, but I have been recently swayed by the latest Feis isle release from Ardbeg, including the ‘Blaaack’ and the delightfully unrefined ‘Wee Beastie.’ One thing that I do feel adds an advantage to the Ardbeg 10 is its 46% ABV; the Laphroaig sits at just 40%, something recently rectified by adding a cask strength 10 year old. It’s a great addition but a hefty price jump to upwards of £76! Regardless: how do they actually taste?
Laphroaig 10 Year Old – review
Colour: Old Gold (E150 Caramel Colouring added).
On the nose: The briny saltiness comes through straight away, with some added chocolate notes, gradual peat, and some aniseed and liquorice. There’s a real niceness to the nose, but not quite the ‘smoky dragon’s kiss’ described upon the gimmicky packaging.
In the mouth: An instant dousing of peat, but it’s smoother than you’d think, with hints of milk chocolate and vanilla. It’s really quite pleasant, until the TCP comes through! You either love this or hate it. The finish hoes on for some time, and the traditional burning notes come through, which remind me of eating chili chocolate.
If you’re looking for a traditional peaty Islay whisky then take a punt on this. A higher ABV combined with better product marketing could see it rise to a 6.
Ardbeg 10 Year Old – review
Colour: White Wine
On the nose: Sweetness comes through really nicely; it evens cuts through the characteristic smoke. Hints of vanilla, with even some lemons and limes.
In the mouth: The smoke is the biggest player here. Some of the vanilla comes through from the nose, but it’s encapsulated in this concoction of smoke and ash, the proper Islay style, and is probably more of a ‘dragon’s kiss’ than the Laphroaig. The lack of medicinal character makes it less contentious. On the finish the extra 6% ABV really helps, and the finish really ‘bites.’ The non-chill filtering has more of an effect than you would think; it’s almost unrefined, but it works.
Slightly better than the Laphroaig. Its higher ABV and lack of chill filtering or colouring mark it out as slightly better than the Laphroaig, but this entry-level expression can’t quite earn a 6.
Photographs kindly provided by The Whisky Exchange and we have some commission links above if you want to support Malt and make a purchase.