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Peat: A History and Comparison

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

This is avaialble almost everywhere so shop around, Master of Malt ask for £39.95, The Whisky Exchange also come in at £39.95, Amazon ask £42.44 and Shared Pour have this Stateside for $77.99.

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.

Conclusions

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.

Score: 5/10

Ardbeg 10 Year Old – review

This is avaialble almost everywhere so shop around, Master of Malt ask for £39.95, The Whisky Exchange are in at £42.45, Amazon also demand £42.45 and Shared Pour have this for $77.99.

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.

Conclusions

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.

Score: 5/10

Photographs kindly provided by The Whisky Exchange and we have some commission links above if you want to support Malt and make a purchase.

CategoriesFeatures
David

Dave hails from Northern Ireland, but currently lives in England. His whiskey journey over the last 6-7 years has been vast.... and expensive! His hobbies include spending time with his family, rugby, fitness and trying to come up with ways of hiding whiskey purchases from his wife. You can see what he is drinking on Instagram.

  1. Mathew Pritchard says:

    Another fantastic read by this reviewer. It has definitely given me food for thought when I make my next purchase.

  2. Przemek says:

    Thank you for this article, it’s always great to get back to these classics!

    I don’t think I’m objective when I compare those, Ardbeg being the first single malt I ever tried and one that convinced me I could like whisky, but I always placed Laphroaig a point or two lower than Ardbeg (in my book that would be 4 for the Laphroaig and 6 for the Ardbeg).

    The technicalities such as caramel coloring, ABV and chill filtering would grant the first point, while taste and aftertaste another. Laphroaig 10 is interestingly medicinal, that’s a plus, but I find it a bit bland and unorganized. Ardbeg 10’s peat, on the other hand, is of the breezy kind. In the mouth I find it quite smooth and elegant, while very smokey, and I love the sweet note that resides on the tip of your tongue.

    Cheers!

    1. David says:

      Thanks for your kind words Przemek. I just love how far Ardbeg have come in the last decade or so, and their Ardbeg Day releases are getting better and better!

      Cheers to you

  3. Sarah Taylor says:

    Thank you David, another fascinating article. I am surprised to see caramel colouring is added, is this common? Wonderful Bessie made such an impact, she must have been some woman to rise from being a secretary to chief distiller.

    1. David says:

      Thank you Sarah! It’s a shame but sadly there is a market for it! What a woman indeed- she paved the way no doubt, there’s so many fantastic women employed with the business now!

      1. Craig says:

        Is Sarah Williamson the reason that independent Laphroaig is sometimes called williamson?
        I had never put any thought in to the origins behind the names

          1. Mark P says:

            Yes Bessie is the reason indie Laphroaig is often called Williamson.

            Laphroaig 10 year old is hot trash. Still, one man’s trash is another man’s 5/10

  4. Mike says:

    Very interesting article. Reading it made me realise that I’ve probably got an inherent bias towards the Laphroaig- it’s the whisky my father would always drink when I was growing up, so naturally was the first I tried. After reading this, though, I might have to do my own side-by-side comparison. It does raise the interesting point of how much our preferences are affected by our memories and experiences.

    1. David says:

      It’s a great point Mike. I think it can come down to where you are from sometimes as well! I tried laphroaig before ardbeg too so I think I was in the same boat!

    1. David says:

      Thanks John, that’s really kind. I don’t get that much oily texture from it to be honest, it certainly coats the mouth though!

  5. William says:

    Nice read! Have them both in the cabinet and they are also both very enjoyable. I met the Laphroaig 10 quite early in my whisky journey and then considered it as one of the more brutal drams compared to what I was drinking by that time.

    However, now I rank the Laphroaig Quarter Cask a little bit higher than the 10YO, even though it is a NAS but with higher ABV. Can pick both of them (Laphroaig 10YO or QC) for almost the same price (just above 30€) here in the Netherlands and in that case go for higher ABV.
    Ardbeg Ten is very good but also more expensive in most of the cases (8-10€).
    Slainte mhath!

    1. Pablo says:

      Just realized that you beat me to it, William. I hadn’t seen your comment before typing mine. I completely agree that the QC is the better choice when compared to the Laphroaig 10. To be honest, I think the ten year old is quite rubbish. I can’t think of any other whisky suffering that much from a low ABV. It seems to make a huge difference for Laphroaig spirit in particular.

    2. David says:

      Thanks for the comment William. I know a lot of people that prefer the QC, but thought for the purposes of this I’d do both 10s side by side! I agree though, the 10 can be quite brutal early on in ones whiskey journey!

      Slainte mhath

  6. Pablo says:

    The pricing differences between countries can be really puzzling. Over here in Germany I wouldn’t even put those two in the same price category, since Laphroaig 10 is usually around 32€ and Ardbeg 10 costs around 40€. Not a long time ago (maybe a year or two) Laphroaig 10 was below 30€ in a lot of shops, while Ardbeg 10 has been close to 40€ for some years now. So yeah, still different price categories over here, even if the difference is getting less pronounced.

  7. Thijs says:

    David, thanks so much for your article. I’m not sure I follow your part about PPM. On what basis do you conclude Laphroaig’s PPM varies from 20 to the high 80s? And how so is the Barley for 10 CS peated at a higher level than Laphroaig’s standard 35 PPM. Same for the Corryvreckan: what do you base your statement on that its barley’s PPM is much higher than the Ardbeg standard of 55 PPM?

    You may well already know this, but I’d also like to point out that the PPM measured in barley is not a great barometer for how smoky a certain whisky actually comes across. Me (and others) have written about this in the past: https://blog.distiller.com/phenol-count/

  8. Greg B. says:

    Neither of these are a bargain in Nova Scotia, with Ardbeg 10 going for $85Cdn and Laphroaig 10 commanding $80. Interestingly, the Laphroaig Quarter Cask and Triple Wood are almost the same price as the Ardbeg, while the Uigeadail and Corryveckan offerings from there are on offer for $130 to $140 apiece. At those prices I much prefer the Laphroaig range from a value standpoint. Interestingly, a few years ago I had the opportunity to try an Ardbeg 10 from their 1990s bottlings side by side with the current 10, and there was no comparison. The current product was quite harsh and one-dimensional by comparison.

  9. whiskyrunner says:

    I find Laphroaig 10 doesn’t hold up well in the bottle if left for months unlike Ardbeg 10 which continues to evolve and gain complexity with each passing month, at least for me it does. It’s just a better presentation. The Laphroaig Quarter Cask is a better option at this price range in my opinion.

  10. Sue Charnley says:

    Fab reviews David, very articulate .
    I’d be interested to try the Laphroaig… for no other reason than it made me think of my dear Dad.
    Served in Royal Navy…. briny saltiness & he always gargled with TCP!!

  11. bifter says:

    When questions are asked about why differing abv or age statements are present in different markets there usually comes in response some corporate flannel, something to do with market research, blah blah; there’s barely any point in asking. However you always suspect it’s to do with money and what they can get away with (e.g. Americans won’t buy Glenlivet Founders Reserve). But the mind boggles when it comes to Laphroaig. Very few producers are still holding out at 40% these days and the rest of the market seem to be happy with the notion that Islay whiskies are pale as straw. Why do they persist with this? Why do the US get 43% but the home market has to make do with 40%? (And the yanks get 75cl bottles!) And why do they emasculate a great product that they market as raw and wild, by chill-filtering it? WHY?

    As for Ardbeg 10, they do everything right but, personal preference, those peat notes just aren’t as appealing to me.

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