If the Scotch whisky industry launched a competition for the best view from a distillery window, an Islay distillery would win it, whether it be the view of the Paps of Jura from either Bunnahabhain or Caol Ila, Loch Indaal from Bowmore or Bruichladdich, or over the rock pierced stretch of sea from Ardbeg. I believe that casks of whisky that lie maturing in the many dunnage warehouses on Islay, benefit greatly from the sea spray filled air around them, the spirit taking on some of this character, and once in the glass, telling the imbiber a little about it's past.
Ardbeg, established in 1815, the same year as Laphroaig and the Battle of Waterloo, has become famous for producing a heavily peated spirit. Years ago, barley was malted in these buildings, now the visitor centre and Cafe, offering a range of Ardbeg goodies including the amber nectar itself, clothing, postcards, books, warming soup....and lots of massive cakes.
In 2005, Richard Jones, Steve Birch, Tim Williams and I decided to walk up there, and we set off with a map, some butties and a few miniatures of various expressions from Ardbeg.
There was no clearly defined path, and after a short while, we began to loose our way, all arguing over which might be the best way to head.
Eventually we arrived at the Loch and we were surprised at how big and very dark it was. A few miniatures of Ardbeg 17 year old were consumed, and one was poured into the Loch, a custom among walkers who make the journey. We made our way back through the deserted plague village of Solum, where a whole community was lost to the disease, arriving just in time to be taken on a tour at the distillery.
Ardbeg has one of the smallest mash tuns on Islay. Typically the mash is 4.5 tonnes which happens ten times per week. The washbacks are traditional Oregon pine. Fermentations are relatively slow because the high peat content inhibits the yeast.
The wash still is not the smallest on the island but it is very dumpy and of lamp glass design, with a gently ascending lyne arm and an external condenser. Copper interaction or reflux, is being promoted here with plenty of contact between the fibrous metal and liquid.
The spirit still is also of lamp glass design. Here, the character of Ardbeg's spirit is shaped through reflux promoted by a additional feature, not present at any of the other Islay distilleries. The spirit still has been fitted with a purifier that hangs on the underside of the lyne arm with a pipe leading back down to the belly of the still. For the first hour and a half of the spirit run, it is the lighter alcohols that make the journey up the inside of the still and lyne arm to be collected in the spirit safe. Later on, the heavier alcohols become more apparent, these travel up the inside of the still and start to travel on the floor of the lyne arm but reach the purifier and are sent back down to be re distilled, so only the lighter alcohols remain in the spirit. This process results in a new make spirit that retains the smoky phenols whilst being incredibly light, fruity and floral.
Ardbeg produces around 950,000 ltrs of spirit per year. This compares to Bruichladdich at around 320,000 ltrs and Caol Ila at around 3 million ltrs so by no means the smallest producer, and not the biggest. There is storage on site for 24,000 casks in 5, mainly traditional dunnage warehouses. (Dunnage warehouses being the old style with earthen floors, maturation benefiting from the damp atmosphere that is promoted there).
50% of the casks filled at Ardbeg are first fill bourbon barrels and the rest are mainly second fill bourbon and a few ex sherry and wine casks. There are still a few amazing sherry butts in the warehouses but much of the Oloroso has gone and it is the fino and manzanilla casks that are now coming through.
Ardbeg 10 year old is among the best of the entry point malts. It is very pale in colour. There is much smoky peat and citrus fruit on the nose, following through on the palate with a very long citrusy finish.
Ardbeg 17 year old can still be found, although it costs at least £150 per bottle. Sherry notes are much more noticeable.
Recent bottlings of Ardbeg have commanded very high prices with drams from the early 1970's ranging from £300 to £1000 per bottle. Moet Hennessy, the distillery's owners, have launched edition after edition including a gun case containing two vintages from the 1970"s which retails at £10,000. Beware peat fans, some more recent bottlings like "Blasda" are not peaty. The whisky for these unpeated bottlings comes from casks marked "Ardbeg Kildalton". These casks are usually ear marked for the blended market. If you find an old bottle of Ardbeg in your cupboard, check it out with a whisky retailer first, it could be worth a fortune...if you do drink it however, you will never be disappointed, old Ardbeg's always seem to be the biz.
A visit to Islay is not complete without a tour of Ardbeg, a bowl of soup, a big cake, a natter with Jackie and a large dram of Ardbeg 10. Sign up to the Committee and you will be updated with events and new bottlings.
If you're interested in finding out more about Ardbeg, the other Islay distilleries and Islay itself, I would recommend you get a copy of "Peat Smoke and Spirit" by Andrew Jefford, and arm yourself with a bottle from each of the 8 distilleries.....available at all good whisky shops in Russell Street, Leek.