It occurred to me over the weekend that despite heading towards 700 tasting notes and musings, that there are still some obvious bottlings that The Dramble has yet to write about. Walking through the aisle of my local supermarket I spotted the familiar green glass of Ardbeg, which served as a timely reminder that I’ve yet to cover this much loved (and relatively recently expanded) distillery core range. So, this week, we’ll right that wrong and log our musings on the four bottles that make up the Ardbeg ‘ultimate range’.
Ardbeg describe the Ten as ‘…the peatiest, smokiest, most complex single malt of them all.’ Whilst ignoring marketing puffery, I still consider the bottling to be at an important intersection. A point where character, quality and consistency all meet and result in a definitive expression. One which still has relevance because of its general availability and price point. We could all sit around for days and debate what makes a ‘classic’, but to my mind, the significance of Ardbeg Ten as a benchmark for quality stems from its widely known identity and reputation. That’s something which money can’t easily buy. Whatever it is, it doesn’t develop overnight.
Rather than bringing you a straight review of the latest edition of the Ardbeg entry-point bottling (which we will certainly do in time), I thought we’d open our look at the distillery’s ultimate range with a dig into The Dramble liquid archives. Today we’ll be looking at the Ten as it was some 13 year old ago. The ‘old’ Ten ran from around 2000 to 2009 – much of it distilled before Glenmorangie purchased the distillery in 1997. Originally priced at around £20 (yeah, those really were the days), you can roughly date editions of Ardbeg bottlings from the adornments on their labels (or the bottle codes on Whiskybase if you’re wanting to be particularly precise). These have evolved over the years, sometimes so subtlety, at a glance you’d barely notice. Regardless, bottlings have, as far as I can tell, always been made up of a marriage of 1st and 2nd fill ex-bourbon barrels, and, barring a few outliers have likewise been delivered at 46% ABV.
Nose: An expressive combination of wood fires and coal ash with distinctive coastal minerality. Burning logs, earthy peat smoke, tar, seaweed and spent cigarette ash collide with granite cliffs, shale and a bucket of salt water. There’s a vein of fruitiness that runs throughout – apple, lime juice, even a hint of pineapple – these sit with rich buttery langoustine and musty damp walls. Reduction unleashes deep wet earthiness akin to a water drenched dog and saturated forest undergrowth.
Taste: The arrival has excellent balance – just enough oiliness with just enough bite and impact. There’s a deftness of touch here. Bonfire smoke and brined fish are joined by citrus (both lemon and lime), apple, hewn limestone and beach shingles. The mid-palate expresses a more ashy texture with salt and pepper, liquorice and fibrous ropes meeting mango slices and a hint of chilli pepper. The addition of water emphasises sweeter flavours with candied fruits and a glug of pineapple juice.
Finish: Long and quite progressive – smoke envelopes drying saltiness which fades into carved minerality.
Regardless of its release year, Ardbeg Ten has long been considered to have the je ne sais quoi of classic status. Describing it as an entry-point whisky doesn’t do this bottling justice – there’s powerful aromas and flavours here that are precise and chiselled, but at the same time seemingly wild and untamed. Regardless of how adroit that feels, the end result is pretty impeccable.
I’ll be looking to add more Ardbeg Ten tasting notes to The Dramble over time – exploring the variance in compositions of releases from different years. I’ve heard that earlier bottlings were heavier and bolder – likewise, more recent batches, have to my tastes, proved to be particularly sharp and crystalline. Regardless, there are few commonly available expressions in this price bracket that so ably encapsulate what high quality heavily peated Islay whisky is about.