The Islay Series – Distillery #5: Ardbeg

The 5th distillery in my 8 part series about the Islay distilleries is centred around Ardbeg, which is one of my favourites. I have been a fan of their 10 Year Old expression for many years now and have also purchased their Auriverdes expression which was released for Ardbeg Day 2014 for my personal collection.

The first thing visitors see when they head to Ardbeg.

Ardbeg is located on the South coast of Islay near the village of Port Ellen. The name Ardbeg is derived from the Gaelic term Taigh-stail Àirde Beaga, which roughly translates as ‘little hill’. The distillery is one of three which are located on the South coast of Islay, the other two being Lagavulin (1 mile down the road) and Laphroaig (a further mile down the road).

While the official year of establishment is said to be 1815, records indicate that a distillery with the same name was founded in 1794 by Alexander Stewart. Whisky production commenced in 1798 and in that same year, the MacDougall family were actively producing on the site. Duncan MacDougall would eventually become a licensee of Ardbeg.

The distillery was officially founded in 1815 by Duncan MacDougall’s son, John, and was run by him until 1853, when it was passed on to his sisters Flora and Margaret MacDougall. The sisters were assisted by Colin Hay, who eventually took over the running of the distillery upon the death of the sisters.

The distillery was under the control of Colin Hay and Alexander Wilson Gray Buchanan from 1888 to 1900, when control passed on to Hay’s son. A limited company, Ardbeg Distillery Ltd, was founded in 1959 and in 1973, the distillery was jointly purchased by Hiram Walker and Distillers Company Ltd (DCL, the predecessor of Diageo) through the Ardbeg Distillery Trust for £300,000.

The administration buildings of Ardbeg.
The administration buildings of Ardbeg.

The distillery was known for malting its own barley on site for its whisky up till 1974, when the last bottlings which included barley malted in house were released for sale. After 1974, the malted barley was primarily sourced from the nearby Port Ellen maltings facility and has continued to this day.

Hiram Walker then assumed full control in 1977 and the Ardbeg maltings were officially closed. The distillery continued operations until March 1981, when it was mothballed. In 1987, Allied Lyons initiated a takeover of Hiram Walker and their whisky portfolio, which included Ardbeg.

The distillery resumed production in 1989 and continued until 1996. During this time, all malted barley was sourced from the Port Ellen maltings facility. However, this revival was to be shortlived as the distillery’s future was once again put in doubt when it was mothballed and put up for sale in 1996 by Allied Distillers (which changed its name from Allied Lyons).

Thankfully, the distillery was purchased in 1997 for £7 million by Glenmorangie PLC, the producers of the Glenmorangie brand of single malt whiskies. In celebration of the purchase, the distillery released the 17 Years Old and Provenance bottlings. Glenmorangie PLC committed to raising the profile of the distillery and built a new visitor centre, which was opened in 1998.

Tangible proof of the great job that Glenmorangie PLC is doing with Ardbeg.
Tangible proof of the great job that Glenmorangie PLC is doing with Ardbeg.

When the distillery was taken over by Glenmorangie PLC, the realisation was that they had insufficient casks to launch a core expression, which resulted in a series of NAS (No Age Statement) expressions being released in order to generate revenue while aging the spirit up to an optimal age. These expressions were known by the names Very Young, Still Young and Almost There.

However, the spirit reached the optimal age of 10 years in 2000 and was bottled as Ardbeg 10 Years Old. This whisky formed the foundation of the new core range of expressions offered by the distillery, the others being Uigeadail (Gaelic for ‘dark and mysterious’), Blasda (Gaelic for ‘sweet’) and Corryvreckan (Taken from the Gaelic term Coire Bhreacain, which means ‘cauldron of the speckled seas’).

In terms of equipment, the distillery utilises a 4.5 ton stainless steel mash tun and sports 6 washbacks made of Oregon pine. The fermentation time is approximately 55 hours and produces a weak beer of approximately 7-8% abv. The distillery has one pair of stills and a purifier is connected to the spirit still in order to create the fruity character that is representative of Ardbeg’s whiskies.

In 2012, the distillery switched from a 5 day production week to producing spirit 24/7, which allows them to undergo 16-17 mashes per week and run at full capacity. It is estimated that Ardbeg will be producing close to their capacity of 1.3 million litres of new make spirit in 2015 in order to keep up with the demand for their whiskies.

The core range of Ardbeg whiskies are as follows:

1) Ardbeg 10 Years (Peated to 55 ppm phenol)

2) Ardbeg Uigeadail (A mixture of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks)

3) Ardbeg Corryvreckan (A mixture of ex-bourbon American oak and French new oak)

4) Ardbeg Blasda (Lightly peated offering at just 8 ppm phenol)

The distillery also produces a very heavily peated offering known as Ardbeg Supernova, which is peated to 100 ppm phenol and not always available. The 2009 and 2010 versions were made entirely from ex-bourbon casks and are highly regarded and sought after by collectors and connoisseurs alike, while the Ardbeg Committee also decided to release a 2014 version of Supernova which was influenced by ex-sherry casks.

The 2014 Supernova does not have the same level of spiciness on the palate as compared to the 2009 or even the 2010 versions, but it does possess a more refined palate in the sense that the sherry influence smooths over the somewhat wilder nuances of the 2009 and 2010 versions.

The tasting room at Ardbeg, which showcases some of the most celebrated and significant releases from the distillery.

Ardbeg also releases a number of expressions that are not part of the core range of whiskies within its stable. Some of these whiskies are one-off bottlings for Ardbeg Day (and the Islay Festival by association), while others are released for special reasons and occasions.

Some of the releases that form this non-core range are as follows:

1) Ardbeg Rollercoaster (A vatting of one cask from every year between 1997 and 2006)

2) Ardbeg Alligator (A mixture of whisky from ex-bourbon casks and heavily charred casks)

3) Ardbeg Galileo (A vatting of 12 year old whiskies matured in a combination of different casks which were all filled in 1999)

Ardbeg also produced a one-off bottling for Ardbeg Day 2014. This whisky, referred to as Auriverdes, derives its name from the gold colour of the whisky (auri) and the green colour of the Brazilian national team’s jerseys (verdes) as well as the green colour of the Ardbeg bottles.

Auriverdes is a vatting of whisky matured in traditional ex-bourbon casks and whisky from ex-bourbon casks where the cask lids have been replaced with ones made with new American oak which has been toasted to produce a sweeter character that is reminiscent of vanilla. The whisky is then bottled at 49.9% abv and released for sale.

In terms of special releases, Ardbeg has also released a one-off expression known as Kildalton, which is named after the famous Kildalton Cross that is located a few miles down the road from the distillery. The funds that are raised from the sale of Kildalton will go towards funding a new community hub in the village of Port Ellen. In terms of composition, Kildalton is made up of whiskies from ex-bourbon casks as well as new and refill ex-sherry casks.

During my visit to the distillery, I was subjected to some truly awesome weather. With windspeeds reaching up to 87km/h and tiles being dislodged from the distillery roofs, it was quite an experience. Even walking along the roadside was somewhat perilous due to the wind dictating the path that I walked, sometimes even ending up on the road itself.

It was due to this bad weather that I was unfortunately not able to go for the premium tour due to the distillery being closed. However, the tasting rooms and the distillery store were open to visitors and so I went for the Premium tasting session. The distillery personnel were quite apologetic about there not being a tour on the day and so they allowed visitors to sample the whiskies free of charge rather than charging them the standard (and still bloody good value for money) £10 per person.

The whiskies that I tried at the distillery are as follows:

1) Ardbeg 10 Years

2) Ardbeg Kildalton

3) Ardbeg Uigeadail

4) Ardbeg Supernova 2014 Committee Release

5) Ardbeg 1994 Cask #728 Sample

I was also given the chance to try the Ardbeg new make spirit which forms the heart of all the whiskies produced by the distillery. The reviews for all of them can be found at the following link: https://whiskymate.wordpress.com/2015/03/07/whisky-review-5-ardbeg/

The tasting menu at Ardbeg. From left: Ardbeg 10 Years, Ardbeg Kildalton, Ardbeg Uigeadail, Ardbeg Supernova 2014 Committee Release and Ardbeg 1994 Cask 728 Sample.
The tasting menu at Ardbeg. From left: Ardbeg new make spirit, Ardbeg 10 Years, Ardbeg Kildalton, Ardbeg Uigeadail, Ardbeg Supernova 2014 Committee Release and Ardbeg 1994 Cask #728 Sample.

Overall, the experience at Ardbeg was quite good and the tastings were definitely the most memorable parts of my visit there, with the weather coming a close second. Even though I was unable to go on the tour, the experience somewhat lived up to my expectations and only further cemented my love for the distillery and the whisky that it produces.

I look forward to visiting the distillery again sometime in the near future and hope to go for the tour and revisit these tastings (and experience new ones) when I do so. Ardbeg will celebrate its 200th anniversary this year and the Islay Festival bottling is bound to be highly sought after due to the added provenance that comes with the anniversary, so do keep an eye for when it is released. I know I am!

The next post will focus on another distillery that is close to my heart (and close to Ardbeg), which has been making some truly stellar expressions. Like Ardbeg, this distillery will be celebrating its 200th anniversary this year and has just released a limited number of its Islay Festival bottling for sale to its members. No prizes for guessing which distillery this is (considering how many clues I have already given), but do watch this space!

Until the next post, have a great weekend ahead.

Slainte!

Brendan

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2 thoughts on “The Islay Series – Distillery #5: Ardbeg

  1. Gotta love Ardbeg!
    Out of all the tours I did on Islay this one was probably my favourite (and yes, I got to do the premium tour!). But just chilling in that little back room with five whiskies in front of me, relaxing, chatting to our guide and learning how to pronounce ‘Corryvreckan’ was magnificent!
    Plus we got to try the Alligator! Though I’m jealous we did not get to sample the Supernova – still on my bucket list!
    A great informative article, as always!
    Keep on waffling,
    Nick

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very much, Nick! I loved the time spent in the tasting room as well (considering it was just my friend and I and a gentleman from Japan) and the tastings were top notch as expected!

      Sadly didn’t get to try the Corryvreckan but am looking to purchase a bottle of it sometime soon. And u got to try the Alligator! Very nice (and kinda jealous too haha)!

      I’ve loved Ardbeg for almost a decade now and definitely look forward to heading back there in the hopefully near future!

      Like

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