This battle of Islay is for all the peat heads out there. This matchup between two of the most well-known peated scotches is one that any serious Islay fan should understand.
Many whiskies may be described as ‘smoky.’ But if you hear someone describe a smoky scotch whisky with ‘medicinal’ flavor notes — there’s a good chance they’re describing a peated Islay malt.
But if all this talk of smoky flavors leaves you scratching your head, you’ve come to the right place. When scotch fans get to showing off their levels of knowledge, it can be hard to fit a word in edgewise. But this post takes two of Islay’s most famous distilleries — Ardbeg and Laphroaig — and pits them side-by-side.
This way, your taste buds will know what they’re getting themselves into.
The Ardbeg and Laphroaig distilleries are about two miles apart on the Isle of Islay — an island of mainland Scotland that is part of the Hebrides.
These two distillation sites represent a snapshot in time when distillers who had been operating as illicit entities suddenly went respectable. Investments in copper stills laid the groundwork of a single malt region that has survived as a distinct region well into the 21st century and thrives as a one-of-a-kind treasure coveted by passionate whiskey fanatics the world over.
Both brands have timelines on their websites. So, maybe we should do it here. You know, analytics, search optimization and all that.
Open scene: A foggy and ragged seascape, crashing waves and the smell of turf smoke in the air. The year is 1815, and King George III has just relaxed prohibitive taxes, allowing illicit distillers to go legit.
- Founder John Macdougall was granted a distilling license and established the Ardbeg Distillery as a legitimate entity.
- Brothers Alexander and Donald Johnston leased some land and established Laphroaig Distillery.
- The two distilleries are about two miles from each other on the same bay on Islay, an island in the Hebrides as the Atlantic Ocean meets the Firth of Clyde.
- The Excise Act of 1823 was enacted in the United Kingdom.
- Alexander Macdougall died, and the distillery operation was taken over by his sisters Margaret and Flora, along with associate Colin Hay.
- The Ardbeg Distillery reached 250,000 gallons of whisky production.
- A new wash still and spirits still were installed at Laphroaig.
- Laphroaig went global. During Prohibition, the brand lobbied the American government to be registered as a medicinal whiskey, which allowed it to be sold legally by prescription while general whiskey sales were prohibited. This introduced Americans to the ‘medicinal’ quality of Laphroaig.
1939 to 1945
- World War II disrupted most of the whiskey world. Still operations in Scotland were converted to making medical and mechanical ethanol to help the British war effort. But a generation of American soldiers, sailors, and airmen were first introduced to single malt whisky while stationed in the United Kingdom and learned to appreciate the distinctly smoky and medicinal flavors of Islay malts like Laphroaig and Ardbeg.
- Laphroaig owner Ian Hunter — last of the Johnston line — died, leaving the distillery to manager Bessie Williamson.
- The Ardbeg Distillery was closed and mothballed. Sad face emoji.
- After being acquired by Allied Lyons, the Ardbeg Distillery was restored, and operation resumed.
- Ardbeg was purchased by Glenmorangie PLC, then acquired by Paris-based Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy in 2004.
- Vials of Ardbeg new make and wood chips were sent to the International Space Station to research the effects of microgravity on the maturation process.
- Beam Suntory become the most recent owner and operator of the Laphroaig Distillery, after a long succession of mergers, acquisitions and name changes that saw ownership pass (from most recent to earliest) from Bessie Williamson to Allied Domecq, Pernod Ricard, Fortune Brands, Jim Beam, Inc, and Pernod Ricard.
Single malt scotch whisky must contain 100 percent malted barley and be distilled at a single distillery. Islay is a designated region of single malt scotch production, and to carry that term on the label, the distillery must be located on the Isle of Islay. Both Laphroaig and Ardbeg utilize peated barley in the production of their whisky. While the Islay region has a long history of utilizing peated barley, Islay distilleries are not required to use peated barley.
Laphroaig uses local Islay peat from the Glenmachrie bog and is one of the few distilleries in Scotland to malt their own barley. Ardbeg no longer has its own malting floor, and their malt comes from nearby Port Ellen. Both distilleries send spent grains to feed local cattle.
Laphroaig’s fermentations last for only 55 hours — a rapid turnaround compared to other types of whiskey. This is possible because single grain whiskies — made from 100 percent barley — do not need to cook and hold at high temperatures to induce saccharification the way multi-grain mashes do.
Ardbeg’s wash backs are made from Oregon pine, which creates a microenvironment in which colonies of microorganisms such as lactobacillus can add tart ester flavors to the ferment. Ardbeg also utilizes a multi-day fermentation duration — much longer than Laphroaig.
Distillation & Production
The source of water for the Laphroaig Distillery is the Kilbride Stream. It’s peaty in flavor. Pulled from the stream, it’s pretty muddy and full of sediment. The water used by Ardbeg comes from Loch Uigeadail, another native water source.
Laphroaig has seven stills — three wash stills and four smaller spirits stills. By comparison, Ardbeg only has two.
Both Laphroaig and Ardbeg have language on their websites that notes their distillers’ make the hearts and tails — or feints — cut deep into the run, which keeps more of the phenolic flavor from the grain in the finished product.
Fans of Islay malt may discuss phenol content. It’s a term that whiskey brands use to describe how smoky the whisky should taste, based on a parts-per-million basis. However, this ppm figure is based on analyses of the malted grain before it is ground, mashed and fermented. Various production attributes throughout the fermenting, distillation and maturation process influence how much of the overall flavor will reflect the peat smoke used in the malted process. So, while the phenolic ppm measure is meaningful, it should always be considered with the big picture in mind.
To learn more, the Laphroaig website offers some great educational content about their production process.
Laphroaig is barreled at 125-proof, or 63.5 percent alcohol by volume — the same entry point as most bourbons.
Both brands utilize primarily used bourbon barrels, with sherry casks mixed into the maturation equation. In addition, Ardbeg uses French Oak barrels for some expressions. Laphroaig has a Quarter Cask selection, but it doesn’t describe ¼ of a bourbon barrel, but rather a quarter the size of a sherry butt, which is much larger.
Both brands receive nuanced briny sea notes from the proximity of the resting barrels to the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean.
Ownership, Price Point & Value
Today, Laphroaig is owned by Beam Suntory, the American subsidiary of Tokyo-based spirits giant Suntory.
In 2005 Pernod Ricard acquired longtime owner Allied Domecq and quickly sold the brand to Fortune Brands, which later would rebrand as Beam, Inc. in 2011. Three years later, Beam, Inc. was acquired by Suntory to become Beam Suntory.
While we’re here, we might as well look at the rest of the lineup. In addition to Laphroaig 10, there are several products that peat freaks should keep an eye out for. Below are some of the most available expressions. Laphroaig Aged 10 Years will cost you about $62 for a 750mL bottle at 86-proof, or 43 percent ABV.
Laphroaig’s standard lineup includes: Laphroaig Four Oak, Laphroaig 10 Sherry Oak Finish — The classic 10-year finished in sherry oak barrels and Laphroaig Quarter Cask. The brand also offers several limited editions, such as the Laphroaig Càirdeas PX Cask Strength bottling 2021 edition.
Today, Ardbeg is produced by the Paris-based conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, or LVMH. Ardbeg Ten Years Old will cost you about $57 for a 750mL bottle at 92-proof, or 46 percent ABV.
Ardbeg’s standard lineup includes: Ardbeg Corryvreckan — French Oak casks are utilized for this expression, Ardbeg Ten Years Old — the core expression and Ardbeg Uigeadail — with an emphasis on the sherry finish.
Laphroaig Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 10 Years
Description — In the glass, Laphroaig 10 is chestnut in color, with a straw-gold hue and moderate legs at 86 proof, or 43 percent alcohol by volume.
Nose — The nose is all medicinal creosote smoke. Secondary aromas include a pine and cedarwood notes, cinnamon, clove and baking spices, mint and tobacco.
Palate — Again, prominent peat flavor. Cinnamon, vanilla, toffee, honey, oak, black pepper.
Finish — Smoke, with tobacco, black pepper and dark chocolate.
Ardbeg The Ultimate Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky Ten Years Old
Description — In the glass, Ardbeg Ten is pale gold in color with a light yellow hue. It has healthy legs at 92-proof, or 46 percent ABV.
Nose — Medicinal, with mint, cloves, and a sweet malt cereal note.
Palate — Light bodied, medicinal off the bat, with a floral quality. White chocolate, leather, tobacco, licorice, clove and black pepper.
Finish — Medicinal peat flavor, pine, leather and tobacco.
If you’ve been introduced to bourbon, rye and scotch basics and want an introduction to more intense types of whisky, these two peated Islays are the perfect ticket. Wide availability means liquor stores across the country — including one near you — will stock both brands, making it the perfect blind tasting and a gateway to the smoky flavor of peated malt whisky.
Other Islay Whiskies to Try
Because we have an Islay-on-Islay matchup, we should mention some of the other contenders. Once you’ve learned to appreciate the peat-forward flavor of Ardbeg and Laphroaig, compare them to some of the other Islay malts.
Other prominent Islay malts include: Caol Ila, Peat Monster — a blended malt whisky from Compass Box, Lagavulin, Bowmore, Bunnahabhain and Kilchoman.