I did not like La La Land when it came out. It felt like everyone else did, which in itself might have given me unrealistic expectations about how life-changing it might be. Perhaps my nonplussed reaction to it came from the fact that I don’t watch a huge amount of musicals (does anyone any more?). Whatever the reason, I thought it was poor. Nice songs, good cast, let down by meandering plotline and a sense of smug self-satisfaction.
Fast forward to 2020, during one of those rambling scrolls through Netflix I stumbled across it again and thought, well let’s give this a go. It’s relatively PG, so I can stick it on when the kids are about. Why not watch it again on the off chance I missed what everyone else saw, just like I did with Magic Eye paintings, moving statues, and that blue/gold dress? Long story short, La La Land is amazing. Since that second viewing I have watched it again, and again, and again, and loved it more each time. The film didn’t change, but I and the world around me did; I came to it the second time round with no expectations, with a more open mind, and besides, I was now in lockdown and the primary colours and big musical numbers of La La Land was just the escapism I needed. I’m sure there is an irony in the fact that a film about good things happening with bad timing became my top film of the last 12 months, but there you go.
Ardbeg Ten was the first peated whisky I tried. Someone I knew had a bottle and it was clear they were not into it, so they offered it to me. I gave it a try and was struck immediately at how different it was to all the other whiskies I had tried (I almost refused to accept it was whisky, checking the label to make sure, like a drunk in a movie who sees a UFO or talking dog and then throws a bottle over his shoulder). An acrid, smokey tang, it was a thunder bolt for my senses. I genuinely wasn’t ready for peat, especially not at that level of intensity. I was only starting my journey into whisky and frankly this came a little soon. It’s like suddenly being told oh, you like Guns ‘n’ Roses, well how about you try some Pig Destroyer? Like boiling a frog, you gotta do it gradual.
But I still took the bottle away with me (the owner was delighted to see the back of it). I nibbled away at the bottle over the intervening years and while you couldn’t say it changed, I did. Like Alan Patridge’s sudden revelation that, actually, he likes wine, despite all those things he said earlier – I actually really like peat, despite my initial recoil. It’s not the centre of my universe but peat is one of the facets of whisky that is accessible for a casual fan like me. I can taste something and say, yeah, this is peated. I couldn’t tell you cask type, age, mashbill, or anything else, but smoke is one of those things that triggers the primitive parts of our brain – Smoke! Danger! Fire! Warmth! We can all identify smoke. I could be nosing forever to try and guess a single other detail about a whisky, but peat will always make itself known. It is a broad and beautiful brushstroke in any whisky, and, in my experience, I have yet to taste a whisky where I thought wow, they should really dial down the peat here.
I still have that bottle of the ten sat in a press somewhere. I never got around to finishing it, but I have milled through three bottles of Uigideal, which is an absolute gem that I recommend to anyone. Aside from that I don’t know much about Ardbeg, aside from the usual Hunger Games of their committee releases, when Whisky Twitter goes into meltdown in its attempts to secure a bottle. I’m here for the everyman, on-the-shelf-in-the-offie drams, I don’t need to hassle or the drama of trying to get the rare exclusives. I don’t want to have to find the mythical isle of Tortuga, Torbay will do just fine.
So while I like to sound the fanfare for the common dram, I am also comfortable with the odd freebie, which is why I was happy to celebrate Ardbeg Day this year by taking delivery of a free bottle of the ten from my new best friends at The Hive. I assume they are a PR firm and not an invading alien species who think with one mind and whose sole aim is to destroy humanity, but even if they are flesh eating creatures from another galaxy, free booze, amiright?
So on to some stats lifted straight from the Ardbeg website –
- Ardbeg uses malt peated to a level of 50ppm at the maltings in the village of Port Ellen. It is then milled in Ardbeg’s rare Boby malt mill, installed in 1921.
- Water comes from Loch Uigeadail, via Loch Airigh Nam Beist, via Charlie’s Dam at the distillery, and into the mash house.
- The washbacks at Ardbeg are made of Oregon pine. Fermentation time is longer than other distilleries because of the high phenolic content of the original malt.
- Ardbeg distils twice.
- On the Lyne arm of the spirit still at Ardbeg there is a piece of apparatus called a purifier. As the boiling continues in the spirit still, the heavier impure alcohols reach the top of the still (the initial light alcohols are sweet and fruity). Some of the heavier compounds are captured in the purifier and fed back down into the main pot of the still. As the boiling process continues, the heavier phenolics come through, this occurs from about halfway through the spirit run. The purifier gives a little extra reflux, so we have two distillations and a little bit more. The purifier is unique on Islay and balance is the key.
- The vast amount of whisky matures in ex-Bourbon oak. In maturation only 1st and 2nd fill casks are used. Their new 1st fill Bourbon casks come from suppliers in the US. Other casks come from Speyside Cooperage, and Craigellachie.
- Primarily barrels have been used in the past, but now there is a substantial mix between barrels (for Ardbeg Ten Years Old,) Sherry Butts (some of which are used for Ardbeg Uigeadail), and new French Oak Barrels for Ardbeg Corryvreckan. And these are their three core expressions.
- Because Ardbeg sits very close to the sea, the whisky receives a certain salty, iodine character while it matures.
I included that last factoid despite my best judgement as, if I’m honest, I am extremely cynical about maturation location as a factor in flavour. If it’s stuck in a pine forest will it faintly taste of pine? Midleton’s Dungourney warehouse complex is surrounded by pine woods, and I will chortle if they ever claim it gives a pine-fresh Toilet Duck-esque flavour to the whiskey.
So Ardbeg Ten – a dank bass note of a dram, in a bottle with a label that looks like a biker insignia, and tastes like arson. So from that first smokey taste years ago, what do I reckon now?
Nose: Cordite, treacle, liquorice.
Palate: Smoke! Fire! Etc! Fenugreek, caramel, dark chocolate, aniseed.
Finish: Demerara sugar, mint, toffee.
Is Ardbeg Ten the best intro to peat you can have? I would say not – I’d steer any newcomer to one of the more subtle peated drams (always love a Benromach) before this hefty unit. Ardbeg is unashamedly peated, and while I respect that, and while I found my way back to peat over time, not everyone will give it that second chance. But everyone and everything changes – the idea that we spend our lives in some kind of epicurean stasis is a sad one indeed, so here’s to second chances.