Ardbeg is proud to be the ultimate Islay malt whisky. Ardbeg Whisky was founded in 1815 and is described, by those who know it well, as the most peaty, smoky and complex Islay whisky. Despite its smokiness, Ardbeg is known for a wonderful sweetness, a phenomenon known as the peat paradox.
Focus on Ardbeg
Just over 10 years ago Ardbeg ended a period of start-stop production and thus came back at full steam. As Dominic Roscrow says, it goes from strength to strength.
If you look back at the whisky industry from 2008, what do you remember best?
Is it the stream of distillery openings, the distillery re-openings, distillery sales - or rumors of sales; or the throng of new packagings and excellent new brands, which made 2008 an extraordinarily dynamic year?
The year has been vibrant and very varied, but the distillery that has shaped it for me has undoubtedly been Ardbeg. Through several random and unconnected events, Ardbeg and its parent company, Glenmorangie/LVMH, has dominated my whisky year, and delivered some of the most living memories.
My first winter visit at Ardbeg, and in particular Islay. Under rumbling clouds and whipping horizontal rain, the distillery was cold and quiet, the distillery equipment taken apart for maintenance and The Old Kiln Café was empty. Nothing that could not be cured by a few select tastes and the welcoming smile of the new distiller Michael Heads. Still, it was a sobering experience, in light of the mental image I had of the distillery, filled with laughter and light.
On the other end of the spectrum I have experienced the most enchanting and dramatic Ardbeg; at sunrise on a summer’s day from a sailboat; just as a rising sun sent a golden ray over the croppy sea and our bow plowed through the waves, sending sprays of saltwater afloat through the air which would for an instant obscure the view, before the white walls of the distillery once more rose above the swells.
And then there have been the whiskeys: the wonderful new 10-years, worthy of the praise it has been getting; A Drop of the Committee tap of Corryvreckan, named after the seething maelstroms just outside Islay and an intense, spicy and fruity whisky pearl, shared best with friends; last but not least, Renaissance, the last of the ‘four years - four bottles’-journey, which has shown Ardbegs progression from stormy youth to its full glory.
Finally, there was a surprising call from Bill Lumsden, chief of whisky production and distillation, whom called from Disneyland in Florida during a family holiday. It was regarding the plans to sell Glen Moray, move from Broxburn and spend more money on bottling plants and storage space for Ardbeg and Glenmorangie. Truth be told, I suspect, he called just as much to hear what happened to the All Blacks (The national rugby team of New Zealand, red.), for whom we share a love and whom had just been beaten by South Africa.
How relevant these memories are and how many emotions they may evoke, the important part we must focus on has to do with Ardbeg and Glenmorangies. The decision, on the part of Glenmorangies owners, Louis Vuitton Möet Hennessy(henceforth LVMH), to sell their own brand, to definitively put a price on a whisky distillery and to cut off Glen Moray; is a cold and calculated decision. It may well mark the beginning of the end of the destructive and selfish relationship between the British supermarket sector and their whisky producing collaborators.
For Ardbeg, this may very well symbolize the point where the distillery became independent; A time when it went from being part of a loyal and passionate group of followers to a more populistic celebrity to give Laphroaih-lovers bang for their buck. In football terminology; when it stopped being Aston Villa and started to compete seriously with Manchester United and Chelsea.
The shift of focus to the two highly sought-after malts of Ardbeg, gives the firm the freedom and the means to strive for the better end of the malt market, and to make the brand available to a whole new audience.
Hallelujah. If any distillery ever caught the essence of all that is good about a Scottish distillery, it is the hardy old dog that is Ardbeg; its windswept paths and its walls both of which worn down by winter storms, and lastly in a triple ‘smoky distillery’-sandwich it was made by the authoritative and grand Lagavulin along with the pulsating monster and worldwide success which is Laphroaig.
It is a tiny distillery, the courtyard leads to the Old Kiln Café, which is now famous, complete with changing shop. Old malt barns give the nice buildings a rustic charm, where the walls are still adorned by chalk lines, as old as 60 years, marking ‘dram pauses’, when distillery workers could enjoy a small amount of whisky during their work.
Regarding production of malt, Ardbeg is exactly like the little girl in the song who is very, very sweet, when she is sweet, but when she is not sweet she is terrible. She - and Ardbeg is a she, there can be no doubt - is a complex and cumbersome lady, excellent at throwing tantrums. It is no coincidence that the distillery equipment is taken apart for maintenance during the winter times and since her rebirth, when production was stopped and started multiple times, before it settled into the right capacity; she has been problematic.
It is what makes Ardbeg special. Even now, there is no real explanation as to the unique and special style of whisky that comes from the stills.
Ardbeg works hard to keep up with other distilleries. It produces just over one million liters of raw spirits every year and even through Bill Lumsden says he can press out a bit more, there is not a lot of room to play with in each individual still.
Ardbeg runs a system with 13 mashes one week and 14 the next, which produces between 22.000 to 23.000 liters of raw spirits every week. The malt, which is delivered in 60-ton portions 2-3 times a week, have a ppm of about 55.
The fermentation takes place in six washbacks, each of which can hold up to 23.500 liters and lasts 55 hours, but the finished spirits pronounced complex and sweet character is almost definitely the result of the impressive spirits still; an old Bentley engine of a still which lords over the operation of the distillery, like a grumpy old lion. Ardbegs cut, which is significant, runs more than 4½ hour, more than half of the total, and contains raw spirits, which falls from 74% alcohol to 62,5%. The raw spirits are tapped onto casks at 63,5%. Approximately a fourth of all casks are currently stored at the distillery itself, and this number is expected to rise thanks to the investment of LVMH’s investment.
The finished raw spirit is of course special. There are of course those who will say that Ardbeg is not what it used to be, but those are few. I would say there are few distilleries, which have consistently delivered products of top quality again and again, with barely a mistake in sight.
In the 13 or 14 years since the distillery was patched together, painted and kickstarted back to life it has established itself as a malt whisky of the finest order. This is not just random. Glenmorangie has made great effort to involve loyal Ardbeg-drinkers in the process through Ardbeg Committee, and under the ever-watchful eye of Bill Lumsden, the firm has made sure that the malt is close to its ideal.
During my last visit at the distillery Micky Heads produced some odd yet fantastic casks: freshly roasted casks, different wine finishes and they were never less than fascinating. But they are probably not of this world, not in their raw form. Lumsden really makes an effort to separate when he does at Glenmorangie and what he does with Ardbeg.
“The nature of the whisky at Ardbeg makes it very different,” he says. “There is not much room to play with regarding the smoke, so we can’t try some of the finishes that we do at Glenmorangie, because it just would not work. That does not mean we do not want to try new things, but they have to fit in with the general nature of Ardbeg”.
It has been a good year for Ardbeg. It has made sweet, sweet memories.
Everything points to there being many more to come.
Owner: Region/district: The Glenmorangie Co Islay
Founded: Status: Capacity:
1815 Active (vc) 1 150 000 litres
Address: Port Ellen, Islay, Argyll PA42 7EA
01496 302244 (vc) www.ardbeg.com
1794 – First record of a distillery at Ardbeg. It was founded by Alexander Stewart.
1798 – The MacDougalls, later to become licensees of Ardbeg, are active on the site through Duncan MacDougall.
1815 – The current distillery is founded by John MacDougall, son of Duncan MacDougall.
1853 – Alexander MacDougall, John’s son, dies and sisters Margaret and Flora MacDougall, assisted by Colin Hay, continue the running of the distillery. Colin Hay takes over the licence when the sisters die.
1888 – Colin Elliot Hay and Alexander Wilson Gray Buchanan renew their license.
1900 – Colin Hay’s son takes over the license.
1959 – Ardbeg Distillery Ltd is founded.
1973 – Hiram Walker and Distillers Company Ltd jointly purchase the distillery for £300,000 through Ardbeg Distillery Trust.
1974 – Widely considered as the last vintage of ‘old, peaty’ Ardbeg. Malt which has not been produced in the distillery´s own maltings is used in increasingly larger shares after this year.
1977 – Hiram Walker assumes single control of the distillery. Ardbeg closes its maltings.
1979 – Kildalton, a less peated malt, is produced over a number of years.
1981 – The distillery closes in March.
1987 – Allied Lyons takes over Hiram Walker and thereby Ardbeg.
1989 – Production is restored. All malt is taken from Port Ellen.
1996 – The distillery closes in July and Allied Distillers decides to put it up for sale.
1997 – Glenmorangie plc buys the distillery for £7 million (whereof £5.5 million is for whisky in storage). On stream from 25th June. Ardbeg 17 years old and Provenance are launched
1998 – A new visitor centre opens.
2000 – Ardbeg 10 years is introduced. The Ardbeg Committee is launched and has 30 000 members after a few years.
2001 – Lord of the Isles 25 years and Ardbeg 1977 are launched.
2002 – Ardbeg Committee Reserve and Ardbeg 1974 are launched.
2003 – Uigeadail is launched.
2004 – Very Young Ardbeg (6 years) and a limited edition of Ardbeg Kildalton (1300 bottles) are launched. The latter is an un-peated cask strength from 1980.
2005 – Serendipity is launched.
2006 – Ardbeg 1965 and Still Young are launched. Distillery Manager Stuart Thomson leaves Ardbeg after nine years. Almost There (9 years old) and Airigh Nam Beist are released.
2007 – Ardbeg Mor, a 10 year old in 4.5 litre bottles is released.
2008 – The new 10 year old, Corryvreckan, Rennaissance, Blasda and Mor II are released.
2009 – Supernova is released, the peatiest expression from Ardbeg ever.
2010 – Rollercoaster and Supernova 2010 are released.
2011 – Ardbeg Alligator is released.
The above timeline is a quote from Malt Whisky Year Book, written by author Ingvar Ronde, we thank you for your inspirational work -
The book is written by Ingvar Ronde in English, with contributions from many whisky experts, just to name a few: Chris Bunting, Gavin D Smith, Ian Buxton, Charles MacLean, Dominic Roskrow, Colin Dunn and Neil Ridley.
The 2012 edition has been extended by 24 pages to a total of 300 pages. Malt Whisky Yearbook 2012 tells you everything you need to know about the Scottish, Irish and Japanese distilleries, flavored with more than 500 pictures. Additionally, there is a detailed walkthrough of brand new and planned distilleries, along with distilleries from countries we do not usually associate with whisky.
Shortly put, Malt Whisky Yearbook 2012 is a fantastic piece of reference, which will tell you everything you need to know about the malt whisky of the world - and more!