There’s no question that Ardbeg and Laphroaig are two of the world’s most peated scotches. They both come from Islay, home of the peated whisky with all its rich smoky complexity. But which of these two campfires in a bottle will win your heart?
Main Differences between Ardbeg 10 and Laphroaig 10:
- Ardbeg 10 has BV (46%) and can be sipped alone, whereas Laphroaig 10 has higher ABV (58.6%) and benefits from water (for some)
- Ardbeg 10 is a bit more grassy and herbal with rosemary and mint, whereas Laphroaig 10 is strongly medicinal with flavors of bandaid and iodine
- Ardbeg 10 has a long and glorious finish of caramel and bonfire smoke, whereas Laphroaig 10 has a rich smoke finish.
What is Single Malt Scotch?
Both Ardbeg and Laphroaig are single malt scotches.
While this may seem like a complicated designation, it really just means that they are whisky, produced entirely in Scotland (hence the “scotch”, made entirely of malt barley (hence the “malt”), and created at only one distillery (hence the “single”).
Of course, “scotch” has many more specific requirements and labeling a bottle “single malt” carries even more specifications. But for our purposes, we can stick to this simple definition.
If you want something more, here’s a sample of how complicated it can all get.
- Scotch must be distilled at a single distillery
- Scotch must be distilled in a pot still
- Scotch must contain only water and barley
- Scotch must have been aged for a minimum of 3 years in oak barrels
- Scotch must have been Distilled and Fermented at the same location
- Scotch must have been made in a permitted Scottish warehouse
- Scotch must be bottled in Scotland
- Scotch must have the bottle year as well as the age of the dram marked on the bottle
It is worth briefly noting the age requirement of 3 years. All single malt scotch must be aged. These bottles will be marked with the age of the youngest whisky included in the bottle. This means that for both of our whiskys, the youngest whisky was aged a minimum of 10 years. There may be older whisky in the bottle as well, but you know it was at least 10 years. This way, you always know what you’re getting with single malt!
How is Scotch Made?
Scotch production is very tightly regulated and every distillery follows a similar procedure. (With some minor adjustments you can think of as “secret recipes,” as we’ll discuss.)
The basic process requires barley, water, yeast, and stills.
Malting and Mashing
First, the harvested barley goes through “malting” which involves allowing the barley seeds to germinate and just begin to sprout. The barley is then quickly stopped from germination by heat. The seeds are toasted slowly, then combined with warm water to create a mash. As the sugars break down the mash becomes what’s known as wort.
Fermenting and Distilling
Wort is transferred to a fermentation tank called a washback and combined with yeast to begin fermentation and alcohol production. Once it has reached around 8% ABV it is called “wash” and is transferred to stills for distillation.
The first set of stills are copper pot stills used to remove the first set of impurities and create low-wine. Once these vapors have recondense, the alcohol goes through a second distillation in a ‘spirit’ still to remove any more water or chemicals and create pure, high ABV whisky.
The final distillate is then transferred to oak casks for aging, a minimum of 3 years. The type of cask will vary based on the master distiller’s intention with the whisky.
What is Peat?
I’ve mentioned both Ardbeg and Laphoaig are peated scotches. Peat is really just decomposing plant matter and mud that has been compressed and deoxygenated underground for centuries. Sounds gross, right? Bear with me.
In swampy parts of the world where life is always a little wet, it’s hard to find dry wood to light fires and provide warmth. In fact, it can be hard to find any trees at all! Instead, all that moss and vegetation on the ground dies and gets beaten under new growth.
As it sinks into the marshy soil, it decomposes but never fully disintegrates since there is no oxygen. It becomes a solid black mass. Once removed from the swamps and dried, this solid mass of old plants can be burned. (Rather like cow-pies were used on the Great Plains… Isn’t that a fun image?)
So where does peat get involved in the whisky-making process? Well, we know that barley germination has to be stopped by toasting over a heat source.
People have been using peat to heat their homes and provide warmth for centuries. The peat is dug out of the ground in cubes (imagine digging a brick out of clay or mud). These bricks of peat are then dried and can be used as fuel for fires.
Needless to say, Scottish distilleries use peat as fuel for the malting fires as well! As the barley toasts over these peat fires, it absorbs the character of the peat, which is what gives peated scotch that distinct nose and palate.
What does Peated Scotch Taste Like?
Surprisingly for something that’s been dead and decomposing for centuries, peat gives off a delicious flavor and a very pleasant aroma. Simply, it tastes like a campfire in a bottle.
You’ll note very strong smoke flavors with hints of dark nutty earth and herbal grass or moss. And, if the distillery is near the sea, you’ll definitely notice hints of sea salt brine and maritime minerals as well.
Of course, there are different types of peat, based largely on the original plant matter, the surrounding area, the proximity to the sea, and a multitude of other factors.
- Aromatic (guaiacols) – fruity, sweet, honey, like caramel cooking on the stove
- Medicinal (phenols) – salt, some oaky vanilly, chili peppers, and antiseptic or bandaids
- Spicy (syringols) – salty, dried fruits with strong pepper and spice notes
Check out the Whisky Advocate article for more information on the different styles!
Both of these smoky ladies come from the home of peated scotch: the island of Islay off the southeastern coast of Scotland.
The island is cool (or cold) year-round, shrouded under overcast skies. Imagine a marshy, moss-covered island, dotted with sheep, surrounded by wild crashing ocean waves, whipped with salty rain and punishing wind. That’s Islay. (And, coincidentally, that’s exactly what peated whisky tastes like…)
There are no woodlands on the island, so most of the fuel is provided by harvested peat, which makes for some intensely smoky whisky!
Even better for a comparison, these two distilleries are right on the coast, near all that delicious maritime brine and sea mineral deposits. And they are 2 miles away. That’s a 5 minute drive. Or a 40 minute walk. Yep, Ardbeg Distillery and Laphroaig Distillery are really close!
Ardbeg was founded in 1815, and trademarked nearly 100 years later in 1911. While it achieved early success and popularity, Ardbeg hit a roadblock in 1991 and had to close its doors. Fortunately, Glenmorangie bought the distillery in 1997 and within a year Ardbeg was voted distillery of the year.
In 2000 they launched a committee to ensure the distillery never again closes its doors. Good thing, too, because Ardbeg 10 was voted World Whisky of the Year in 2008, 2009 and 2010!
Laphroaig was founded in 1815 as a farm and named after the land itself. They fed their cows barley, and obviously the only thing you can do with extra barley is…make whisky! It remained in the Johnson family for many generations despite the intense and hostile rivalry with Lagavulin next door.
But they certainly kept fighting long enough for Prince Charles to give the distillery his Royal Warrant in 1994, which is still found on every bottle. They began “Friends of Laphroaig in 1994,” and Laphroaig 10 became one of the fastest-selling whiskys in the world.
Production of Scotch
Each distillery has a specific recipe used to make their various scotch products. They vary in ingredients, equipment, length of the process. As long as they don’t contradict the national rules for Scotch production, distillers may do as they choose!
Ardbeg Scotch Production:
- Water – Loch Uigeadail which flows downhill (through even more peat) and into the mash house.
- Peat Type – Phenolic malt, which is the strongest peat variety, at 50ppm. All their malt comes from Port Ellen as there are no malting floors on site.
- Fermentation – there are two unique components here. The first are the pine washbacks which impart some pine notes like ester to the wash. The second is the longer fermentation time to allow for the extra phenolic compounds in the peat.
- Casks – Most casks are ex-Bourbon, but they also use Sherry and French oak for other expressions
Laphroaig Scotch Production
- Water – Kilbride Stream, soft water with strong peat and no minerals, very clean and pure
- Peat Type – hand-cut peat from their own peat beds. Because of the higher peat moss ratio, their peat has more phenols and therefore a more medicinal taste. Their Glenmachrie peat bog has a special mixture of heather, lichen, and moss and creates whisky with strong iodine notes
- Malting – At least 30% of their barley is malted on-site as they do have malting floors.
- Fermentation – their wort is “clear wort” which accounts for the fruity taste in their scotch
- Distillation – their second cut is 45 minutes into the process, which is the latest cut in the industry and removes much excess head from the low-wine. The final cut is also done late. This focuses the medicinal notes and removes any sweetness left behind.
- Casks – most are ex-Bourbon as well, but they also use ex-Sherry
Nearly every distillery has a wide range of potential bottles that might intrigue potential buyers. We won’t be taste-testing all of the themes, but these should give you an idea of the range each distillery offers.
- Ardbeg Uigeadail – objectively the most peated whisky looking at phenolic ppm
- Ardbeg Corryvreckan – strong in oak notes from fresh oak barrels
- Ardbeg An OA – uses a mix of sherry and bourbon casks for a unique flavor
- Laphroaig Aged – 25, 30 year options
- Laphroaig Triple Wood – strong peat and sweet notes, aged in American oak, then transferred to quarter cask, then transferred to Oloros Sherry casks for extra sweet and spice
- Laphroaig Quarter Cask – transferred to second, smaller American oak casks partway through maturation
- Laphroaig Cairdeas – the peaty-est option. Bottled at cask strength
- Laphroaig Lore – a combination of whisky from 7 to 21 years aged!
The Taste Test
What you’ve all been waiting for. Here are the results for both water and no water tastings.
Remember to always add water any time you taste scotch. It opens up new flavor compounds you might miss otherwise. And it can make a high ABV (like Laphroaig) much more manageable.
- Ardbeg 10 (46% ABV) Eye: Straw, Pale Gold, Green Flecks
- Laphroaig 10 (58.6% ABV) Eye: Burnt Orange with Golden Edges
- Ardbeg 10 Nose: Thick mossy peat and rich thick moss smoke too. Something a bit spicy and green. A hint of smoked meat.
- Laphroaig 10 Nose: A complex whiff. Burningly intense alcohol. Intense peat, Sea salt, Iodine, something medicinal like Antiseptic and Bandaids, Smoke from a distant wood fire
Nose with Water:
- Ardbeg 10 Nose with Water: The strong peat is somewhat diminished, but the overall complexity is increased. Stronger green moss and wet wood. Bacon or smoked venison. A bit of sea salt, but the iodine is gone.
- Laphroaig 10 Nose with Water: Much sweeter, strong notes of honey, campfire smoke, and wood.
- Ardbeg 10 Palate: Strong smoky peat, deliciously strong. But it’s full of green hints like mint and grass which keeps it from just being overwhelmingly smoky. There is a powerful earthiness to this dram. Just a bit of an iodine back taste.
- Laphroaig 10 Palate: Medicine with dried Driftwood and watered down honey. Less exciting than the honey. And it needs water to take away that high ABV burn, badly.
Palate with Water:
- Ardbeg 10 Palate with Water:
- Ardbeg 10 is fairly competitively priced, for scotch, and usually retails for around $50-$60. You may find some a little cheaper or more expensive depending on where you are.
- Laphroaig 10 is on the pricier side. Most bottles will sell around $70 to even $89, depending on location and impending holidays.
Since both are fairly similarly peaty, food suggestions are very similar. You won’t find much difference here! Both are less likely to pair with desserts in general.
What pairs with Ardbeg 10?
- Main Dishes: Smoked meat, smoked turkey, smoked salmon, Lamb, Eggplant (especially grilled)
- Cheese: Parmesan, Smoked Gouda, Cheddar, anything aged and smoky, Try it with salami too.
- Dessert: Dark chocolate with sea salt, flamed desserts
What pairs with Laphroaig 10?
- Main Dishes: Lamb, Barbequed Meats, Roasted Vegetables
- Cheese: Strong cheese, blue, Roquefort. Aged cheese, parmesan, Gruyere, Gouda, Cheddar
- Dessert: Christmas cake, rum cake, heavy rich fruit cakes
FAQ’s About Ardbeg 10 vs. Laphroaig 10
Yes. The distilleries produce heavy peated scotches with a significantly strong flavor and smoky note and are diluted with water in a ratio of 1:20.
There are lots of food combinations you can make with a Laphroaig including dark chocolate, fruit like pears, apples, cheese like Roquefort, pork ribs,
All distilleries create something special, using their own mix of ingredients, however, most scotch whiskies are having a peaty flavor, and the most common ingredients used in creating them are vanilla, citrus, herbs, toffee, and of course, a strong oak flavor that comes from the barrels they are aged in.
Final Recommendation: Ardbeg 10 or Laphroaig 10?
I have to be completely honest, Laphroaig 10 is probably one of my least favorite scotches on this great planet. I just can’t stand that heavy medicinal taste. Bandaids and bitter antiseptic are not high on my list of flavors. While I love peated whisky, I really enjoy the spicy flavors. Of these two, my personal preference is Ardbeg 10. I much prefer the intense grassy, minty peat. It’s just so much more welcoming and refreshing.
That said, I share my life with a staunch Laphroaig lover who can’t get enough of intense medicinal peat. He finds it relaxing and smooth. (But he spent a lot of time in hospitals as a kid, so I guess there’s some accounting for taste?)
But, in an effort to build bridges, I’ll be getting him Ardbeg 10 for Christmas. We’ll have to see if Ardbeg proves the perfect bridge between spicy peat and medicinal peat. For me, it’s a solid choice!