Ardbeg: Cold Smoke on the Rocks

By Joe Micallef / September 6, 2016

The Ardbeg whisky distillery sits on the south shore of Islay. The distillery’s name is derived from Scotch Gaelic, Ard Beag, for “small headland.” Along with its neighbors, Lagavulin and Laphroaig, it produces a range of intensely peated Scotch whiskies that are, for many, the quintessential expression of the Islay whisky style.

There are four particular features of whisky production at Ardbeg that are responsible for its signature style: the peating level, the milling of the barley, the fermentation length, and the distillation itself.

Typically, peated whiskies are classified by the level of phenol in parts per million (ppm). The measure is based on the amount of phenol that is absorbed by the malt while it is being dried.

According to the distillery, the average peating level of the malt is around 55 ppm, while the peating level of the new make whisky is around 25 ppm. Typically, wash loses about one-third of its ppm phenol in distillation. The ppm concentration will decline further as the spirit ages: about 10-12 ppm in a 10-year-old Scotch and six ppm in a 30-year-old.


Taking in the scene at Ardbeg. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash/Lindsay Brandon)

There are over 100 different identifiable chemical compounds in peat smoke. Peat from different parts of Scotland, and from different depths, will exhibit different chemical profiles. The temperature at which peat is combusted also affects the smoke’s chemical composition. Every peat bog has a unique chemical signature that carries over into the whisky. Port Ellen Maltings, Ardbeg’s supplier, uses peat from the Castlehill bog in the center of Islay.

Islay peat, for example, tends to be rich in lignin derivatives, nitrogen compounds, and aromatic hydrocarbons compared to peats from eastern Scotland. When burned, they produce more plastic-like aromas. Hence a general measure of ppm phenol at malting tells us little about how the peat reek will express itself in a whisky.

Secondly, roughly half of the peat reek absorbed by the malt is in the husk. The distillery’s treatment of husks, therefore, impacts the amount of peat infused barley in the wort. Ardbeg grist is 70 percent middles, an unusually high 20 percent husks, and 10 percent flour.

Fermentation at Ardbeg averages about 55 hours versus an average 45-hour ferment in Speyside. Phenolic malts need longer fermentations because the phenol suppresses yeast activity. That’s why phenol, in the form of carbolic acid, was used as a disinfectant in the 19th century. A benefit of longer fermentations, however, is that more fruity and floral esters are produced.

Distillation temperatures, still capacity and charge level, and cut points, are all among the factors that determine the amount and type of phenols in new make spirit. Of particular import, however, is the amount of reflux produced during the distillation. Reflux refers to the vapor that condenses before it leaves the lynn arm and falls back into the pot to be redistilled.

Reflux prolongs contact with the copper in the still giving it more time to absorb the harsher and heavier compounds in the spirit. Secondly, the repeated distillations of the spirit breakdown some of the chemically larger aromatic compounds into lighter compounds. It will also cause more sulfurous compounds to be absorbed. The higher the reflux, the lower the concentration of phenols in the resulting spirit.

The length of the neck of the still has a major bearing on the amount of reflux produced. Tall necks will produce a lot of reflux and create a lighter style of whisky with pronounced floral and fruity aromas. Glenmorangie’s still necks are over 18 feet high. Ardbeg’s still necks are around 10 feet in height. Lagavulin’s, which produce very little reflux, are even shorter.

An upward pointing lynn arm functions as an extension of the neck and produces more reflux than a downward pointing one. At Ardbeg, the lynn arms point upward, same as Laphroaig and Bowmore, while Lagavulin’s lynn arm points sharply down.

The use of a purifier has a similar effect as a tall neck, creating more heat loss. By cooling the vapor before it reaches the lynn arm, purifiers increase the amount of reflux. Ardbeg’s spirit still has a purifier.

Additionally, the necks also have a constriction, lamp glass style, where they join the pot, which also creates more reflux. The net effect of all this reflux is that the wash at Ardbeg gets a particularly long and repeated distillation. At the distillery this is referred to as a two-and-a-half-time distillation.

The retention of a large proportion of husks, long fermentation, heavy peating and an extended distillation produces a distinctive and signature Ardbeg style. Typically, the core expressions, the 10 YO, Uigedail and Corryvreckan, while all different from one another, share a common foundational character.

Ardbeg Haar

image via Ardbeg

These whiskies tend initially to be light and crisp and exhibit a lot of dry smoke and char and the slight sweetish note typical of whiskies with a lot of reflux. There is a pronounced phenolic aroma, at times plastic-like. While distinctive, it is drier, lighter, almost like the residue of an old disinfectant bottle. As the whisky opens up, the char gives way to more of an asphalt/tar like aroma while pronounced cereal notes also emerge – a curious combination of hot tar and cold oatmeal.

There is some creaminess and the oily, vaguely fishy aromas of cold-smoked mussels or kippers that you sometimes find in Lagavulin, but less pronounced. There is some iodine and a bit of seaweed, but not the pronounced marine and seaweed/kelp notes sometimes found in Laphroaig.

There is the characteristic pepperiness associated with heavy peating (think Octomore), an almost tingling-like sensation at the back of the mouth after you swallow that gradually gives way to a slight bitter coffee note; Talisker is similar, but less pronounced.

Ardbeg is the most extreme expression of the current trend toward producing a heavily peated whisky that is very smoky, but is otherwise light and dry. It’s a style Ardbeg shares with its Hebridian neighbors, Laphroaig and Talisker, although it lacks their pronounced marine character. It’s a feature that is found in many of the Octomore expressions. Caol Ila has a similar, although sweeter, style. Campbeltown’s newest distillery, Kilkerran also has a bit of this character, although it stops well short of Ardbeg’s intensity.

Feel like some cold smoke on the rocks with a distinctive medicinal chaser? Then Ardbeg is the malt for you.