Ardbeg Day 2016: Islay Peat, Tradition, and Dark Coves

Peaty scotch can be a jarring introduction to whisky. In my time pouring whisky at various events, the number one reason people refuse a taste of whisky is that they assume the whisky will be “smoky” and they aren’t a fan of that flavour.

Let’s talk a bit about what makes that smoky flavour. It’s peat. Peat is decomposed vegetation found all over the place in bogs in Scotland - and originally it was used as a fuel source to dry malted barley. It also imparted it’s rich, smoky, salty, iodine flavour to the whisky. And for many Islay whiskies, became an important part of their flavour profile.

This is why I was so refreshed to hear The Brand Ambassador for Ardbeg state during this year's Ardbeg Day that if it was your first time trying whisky “you picked a bad night to start”. He’s right! If your introduction to single malts is Ardbeg, you could be in for a (literal) mouthful. 

In this new trend of searching for big, bold, high-proof flavour bombs, we are seeing whisky distilleries adding a peated option to their portfolio. But I’d like to highlight a whisky that’s been doing this all along. Unapologetically so. Ardbeg says they use the most phenolic malt in the industry for regular-release expressions. As the brand ambassador pointed out, they recognize that it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea (erm whisky). 

Peatiness in whisky is measured in parts per million of phenols - and Ardbeg clocks in at around 55ppm in their standard 10 year offering - and while that sounds like it could be a daunting amount of smoke flavour, there’s a lot going on in that glass. The key to appreciating a peaty scotch, I’ve found, is to get behind the smoke and search for those hidden flavours. Think about steak, tobacco, shoe polish (I’m not even kidding), leather, salt and picture yourself next to a campfire. Take small sips. Enjoy the whisky for what it is, rather than what you want it to be. You could surprise yourself with what you find in that glass. 

Ardbeg’s standard offerings - the 10 year, Corryvreckan and Uigeadail do also manage to hit a wonderful balance of traditional whisky flavours such as cherries, oak, vanilla and toffee - in addition to the salty, savoury notes that the peat provides. And this could be an important reason why it has maintained its popularity with whisky nerds around the world. 

Ardbeg hosts a yearly party called Ardbeg Day (this year it was Ardbeg Night) in conjunction with a special release. This year, I was able to get a preview of their newest special release, Dark Cove. Ardbeg says it’s their darkest offering yet - a marriage of whisky aged in american oak and sherry casks. It comes to market here in Ontario in July - but has seen a release in other parts of the world already. All the delicious earthy, iodine, salty, meaty notes are in this one. The sherry didn’t come through as much as I would have expected. But it delivers a tasty dram - and will fly off the shelves quickly. You can read Mark Bylok’s in-depth review for full tasting notes.

Ardbeg Day is a brilliant way to get whisky lovers in each city together - and to connect them to the Islay Festival regardless of how far away they may be. It also gives Ardbeg lovers (and potential Ardbeg lovers) the chance to try a special release that they may not actually get their hands on unless they’re a quick study in acquiring a special release. 

If you’re interested in learning more about Ardbeg, and getting your hands on the information about Ardbeg Day - I suggest joining the committee. You’ll get the inside scoop on all things Ardbeg, as well as first crack at some of the special releases (depending, of course on where you live. I am not this lucky.). 

Don’t be intimidated by a peaty scotch - just go for it. I love the idea of having a friend, or bartender walk you through a few different smoky offerings to acclimatise your palate, and check out your local Ardbeg Day when it swings around. You might just gain an appreciation for a particularly polarizing kind of whisky.