While we usually write single reviews here at Barrel and Brew, we occasionally have some head to head battles. Some spirits sport many similarities that they often compete with each other in a much stronger way than usual – much like rivalries we see in sports. For example, we have compared Tito’s and Ketel One, Jack Daniels and Evan Williams, and many others.
In this article, we are going to compare two very similar Islay Scotch whiskies. Laphroaig vs Ardbeg is a popular comparison for many reasons, and we’re going to touch on those shortly, along with flavor profiles and which we think is the better choice.
Laphroaig vs Ardbeg History
Before we get into the actual tastings of these whiskies, we’re going to cover how Laphroaig vs Ardbeg became a popular comparison. They’re similar whiskies, come from the same region – just miles apart – but it really begins with their history as both companies were founded in the same year.
In the early 1800’s, two brothers, Donald and Alexander Johnston, leased 1000 acres on Islay for herding cattle. They used barley to feed their cattle and had used their excess grain to distill whisky. By 1815, it was more profitable for the Johnston brothers to distill and sell whisky than raise cattle, so Laphroaig Whisky was founded.
Over the next 100+ years, the business stayed in the family, but not without some problems. The biggest being Mackie & Co, the owners of Lagavulin. They had a deal with Laphroaig and were purchasing most of their whiskey to go into the blended whisky that was popular at the time. However, there was an ever growing amount of support and desire for the single malt that Laphroaig was producing. Ian Hunter, a descendent of the Johnston brothers, terminated the deal which caused a lot of problems for Mackie & Co as well as Lagavulin.
Fast forward just a couple years to the early 1920’s, and the owners of the land decided to put it up for sale – Laphroaig having leased the land over the last 100 years. Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig were all potential buyers, but Laphroaig ended up walking away as the new owners.
Since then, Laphroaig has seen tremendous growth, switching hands between a couple of international conglomerates after the company was sold in 1972. Current day, Laphroaig is owned by Beam-Suntory.
Ardbeg was founded in 1815 by John MacDougall, just two miles away from Laphroaig in Islay. John kept the distillery for 23 years and sold is to Thomas Buchanan in 1838, but Alexander, John’s son, continued on as manager. After Alexander’s death in 1853, his sisters, Margaret and Fiona, took over operations – two of the first female distillers in Scottish history.
Ardbeg saw huge success and was eventually purchased by Alexander MacDougall and CO LTD in 1922. After another 50 years of success, things changed. Hiram Walker purchased Ardbeg in 1977 and closed down in 1981. After being revitalized and closed for a second time, The Glenmorangie Company bought the distillery and revamped Ardbeg to it’s previous levels of business.
These two distilleries were founded in the same year just miles apart on the 240 sq mi island of Islay. While they took different paths, both brands produce some of the most popular and renowned scotch whisky in the world. Let’s keep going and see how close this Laphroaig vs Ardbeg comparison can really get.
Laphroaig vs Ardbeg Overview
Before we go any further, let’s make it clear that we are comparing Laphroaig 10 yr vs Ardbeg 10 yr. Both brands offer many other selections, but these are their two standard bottles. Not that that’s settled, let’s take a look at some of the similarities and differences between these two bottles.
- Both are aged 10 years
- Both are Islay Scotch whiskies
- Both are peated
- Both are single malt – they use 100% malted barley in the mash bill and are produced at their own, single distillery
- Both are aged in ex-bourbon barrels
- Laphroaig 10 Yr is bottled at 43% ABV
- Ardbeg is bottled at 46% ABV
- Laphroaig sources water from the Kilbride Stream
- Ardbeg sources its water from Loch Uigeadail
- Laphroaig is owned by Beam Suntory
- Ardbeg is owned by LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy)
As you can see here, there are a lot more similarities than differences which is one of the reasons Laphroaig vs Ardbeg makes for such an interesting comparison. As these two are located close by, just off the coast of the Atlantic ocean, we’ll have to see how the two differ in taste. Before we get there, let’s cover some basics about peated scotch and Islay scotch.
What is Peat?
Peat is, essentially, the soil. It’s the top layer of earth with decomposed organic matter. How does this play into peated scotch, though? Well, malted barley is dried out over a peat kiln. Peat is burned and the smoke rises up to dry the barley. Laphroaig ‘cold smokes’ the barley – a process that takes 17 hours because they burn the peat at a low temperature.
Islay, an isle located at the most south western tip of Scotland, is known to produce smoky, peated scotch whisky. In addition, the whisky is known for it’s salty, oceanic characteristics due to it’s proximity to the Atlantic and its weather.
Laphroaig vs Ardbeg Tasting Notes
Now that we’ve covered all of the basics, it’s time to dive into the meat and potatoes of this article. What does Laphroaig taste like? Ardbeg? Which is better? Let’s pour ourselves a glass and find out.
Laphroaig Flavor Profile – smoke, seaweed, wet oak, dip spit, dead fish
Nose: Smoky, seaweed, dead fish. Not a fan of the nose here at all.
Taste: Wet oak, dip spit, smoky and fishy notes as well.
Finish: Medium – long, smoke and tobacco.
Ardbeg – salty air, smoke, lemon and pine, charred oak, tobacco, coffee
Nose: Sea breeze, smoke, lemon, and pine.
Taste: Smoky, charred oak, tobacco, coffee, earthen and floral notes chime in as well.
Finish: medium – long, pine and tobacco finish.
Laphroaig vs Ardbeg: Which is Better?
Let me start by admitting this – my palate is not very refined when it comes to scotch, specifically when it comes to Islay, peated scotch. I know this is a whisky, or type of whisky, that takes a little bit of time and a lot of drinks to appreciate, and I’m certainly not quite there. I am learning with you.
Now that I’ve prefaced that, I can say that Laphroaig may be the worst tasting, quality whisky I’ve ever had, certainly the worst nose I can think of. Ardbeg had a very similar profile to Laphroaig with some slight differences. Ardbeg was clearly smokier, but everything else was pretty much the same. The major difference is this: with Ardbeg, I got notes of a salty sea breeze. With Laphroaig, it was seaweed and fish. With Ardbeg, I got notes of tobacco, and with Laphroaig, it was dip spit. It was smoky, charred oak with Ardbeg but smoky, wet oak with Laphroaig.
I don’t want to be too harsh on Laphroaig because I know much of my distaste comes from a lack of experience, so let me say this – Laphroaig is not something your average whisky drinker will enjoy. If you don’t like – or haven’t experienced – peated Islay scotch, do not start here. Personally, I found Ardbeg to be much more enjoyable, although still not quite my style…. yet.
Laphroaig vs Ardbeg Price
If you like a whiskey, the next most important thing is certainly price. This determines the value, it shapes how often we buy a bottle, what we do with the bottle, and how we drink it. A $20 bottle of whiskey, I have no problem mixing with coke. A $50 bottle will be enjoyed neat or on the rocks. So how much does Laphroaig 10 Year cost? How much does Ardbeg 10 Year cost? We take a look at prices from various Total Wine stores across the country to determine an average price range.
- Laphroaig 10 Year Price: $50-60
- Ardbeg 10 Year Price: $48-58
Ardbeg is just a hair cheaper than Laphroaig, although there is a large variation in prices here depending on location and store. My bottle of Ardbeg was $46, but the Laphroaig cost $64. I didn’t make the trek to Total Wine and visited my local store instead. However, it seems that most places will have these two whiskies listed in the $50-55 range.
Laphroaig vs Ardbeg Value
After reading around and speaking to some more tenured Islay scotch drinkers, it seems that Laphroaig is a love hate whisky. Some people swear by it, and some people find it to be the low man on the totem pole of Islay and peated scotch whiskies. At $50+ dollars, I wouldn’t recommend buying a bottle to test it out. Find out if you like peated scotch or Laphroaig before shelving out the money.
Ardbeg, while noticeable smokier – although not by much, was a much tastier sip than Laphroaig. I still don’t recommend buying a bottle for $50 to test. If you’re interested in trying peated scotch, start with Ardbeg, but start with buying a glass at a bar or a drink from a friend.
Laphroaig vs Ardbeg Summary
I know what I like when it comes to my bourbon and rye whiskey. I’ve drunken a lot of it, and I know that rye is my clear favorite. I know what rye I like as well. I can’t say the same for scotch. I’m trying to drink more and more of it to gain knowledge, and hopefully a taste for it, too. Right now, Aberlour 12 Yr is a clear winner in the scotch department for me.
Peated scotch isn’t the easiest whisky to start drinking, and if you’re looking to get into it, there are better places to start than Laphroaig and Ardbeg. Here at Barrel & Brew, we certainly found Ardbeg to be a better whisky, but some people out there swear by Laphroaig. The best intro into Islay scotch is probably not spending $50+ on a bottle you may or may not like. We recommend trying the whisky at a bar or from a friend before going all in on it.
Even though we may not be the biggest fans of these two bottles, we can tell it is good, quality whisky. It’s simply not something that many first time drinkers will immediately enjoy. We’ll keep drinking it and who knows, maybe down the road we’ll be fans like many others already are.