"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Ardbeg Distillery, Islay

After my pilgrimage to Loch Uigeadail and then a second and final night at the Youth Hostel I made my way back round the island to my first distillery visit at Ardbeg.  Barnard’s Islay adventure also began there and I was keen to follow his footsteps as much as possible; keen also to compare the distilleries now to how they were 125 years ago.

Ardbeg Distillery from shore
Barnard narrates his four mile journey from Port Ellen to Ardbeg, pointing out key elements of the landscape that the slow passing of geological formation has done nothing to change since – green slopes and heather coloured hills to the north, the rocky shore and picturesque bays to the south, the coast of Kintyre just visible across the waves.  He also points out the human occupation of this landscape, ruins of castles and churches reminding his party that they were on “one of the most historic islands of Scotland, in the land of romance and the home of the “Lord of the Isles”.

Hopeful of a wee taste of some of my favourite whiskies later I abandoned my car at Lagavulin where I would be touring later that day.  I hoped that I could balance a few samples with the relentless march of time and be safe to drive to my new resting place that evening.  The walk over the rolling countryside to Ardbeg took around twenty minutes and I arrived just in time for the first tour of the day.

Our guide for the tour was Jackie Thomson who has a long association with Ardbeg.  Jackie is knowledgeable and passionate about both the distillery and Islay and a true ambassador for whisky.  Her enthusiasm for the Ardbeg story is infectious and after an hour and a half in her company we felt quite at home.  Indeed by the time I had enjoyed a few samples and a fantastic lunch I would happily have called it home, but more on that later.

"Substantially built Dutch settlement"?
Barnard described the Ardbeg he found as “one of the most interesting [distilleries] on the island; the buildings have no pretentions to taste and elegance, nevertheless they look picturesque and are substantially built…somewhat scattered and have the appearance of a Dutch settlement”.  Jackie described the buildings now as “cared for…a sensory place…a feeling of location for the single malt”.  Most of this latter experience has come from the investment made by Glenmorangie in 1997 and since, yet a feeling of ‘location’ seems to have always been present here.

The history of the place reflects the long tradition of distilling here, a noted haunt of smugglers for many years before the distillery proper was built by the McDougall family in 1815.  Ardbeg is Gaelic for ‘small headland’ and Barnard describes it as an isolated and romantic place, perfect for an illicit still.  Pure water flowed from the verdant hillside above and the sheltered cove offered protection from weather and from prying eyes and allowed the whisky to be smuggled out by sea.  Inevitably the smugglers' time would come to an end and thereafter the distillery was founded to make the best use of the water “the chief characteristics of which are its softness and purity”.

Smugglers cove where the Ardbeg burn runs to the sea
Jackie brought us up to date with the history, beginning with the time of Barnard’s visit when the 1881 census records 200 people living at Ardbeg with 50 children in school.  Barnard recorded that 60 persons were employed, now there are only 10 men working the distillery plus Jackie and the other staff who run the visitor centre and restaurant.  A few scattered farms and homes nearby make up the rest of this now small community.

The distillery only produced around 25,000 gallons (114,000 litres) per annum twenty years after it was built and yet was still one of the larger ones on Islay.  By Barnard’s time it was producing ten times this amount and it still has a capacity of over 1m litres per year.  This large capacity kept the distillery going through the decades to follow, mainly producing whisky for blending and largely missing out on the single malt interest that developed from the 1960s.

After a few changes in ownership it was bought by Allied Distillers in 1977 and the level of production by then created excess stock, so it closed its doors at the end of 1981 and remained silent for 8 years.  In response to later demand a limited production run restarted from 1989 and then in 1997 the distillery and stock were bought by Glenmorangie for a total of £12m.  An initial investment of £1.4m saw the buildings and equipment renovated or replaced, new branding produced and new life then breathed back into those hallowed halls.

After the introduction our tour began in the same way as Barnard’s did with a visit to the barley lofts.  Five in number when he visited and well used - like most other distilleries at the time Ardbeg malted their own barley and did so up until the 1981 closure.  Four of the five lofts still remain, one having been removed to make way for a stairway, and Jackie advised us, with a smile and a fond memory or two I’m sure, that the old malting floors now provide a great venue for a ceilidh.

Inside an Ardbeg barley loft
Two of the old kilns, with their bold pagoda hats and steep tapering roofs, are now converted into the visitor centre and restaurant.  Once used to dry barley, on floors of hair cloth over wire netting, only local peat was burned in the Victorian chauffeurs.  Barnard seems fascinated by the peat here for the first time on his journey.  He describes the absence of “sulphur or other offensive mineral, the composition of the peat being purely vegetable deposit, not highly decomposed”.  Almost on queue, Jackie describes cut peat as having two distinct layers, a top half that produces more smoke and is used more commercially, the bottom half being denser and better for providing heat for domestic use.  Ardbeg’s barley is now malted at Port Ellen maltings, peated to 55ppm, the taste in the peated barley known here as “the heart of Ardbeg”.

From the old barley lofts we descend to the millroom, the 97 year old mill now fed by two modern steel hoppers.  From here the grist feeds a semi-lauter type mash tun, the base dating from 1961 and the top from 1999, and we arrived just in time to see the mash being charged into the tun.  In Barnard’s time the spent draff was drained from here for use by both local farmers and for export to Ireland, now all is used locally.  The mash tun was once on the level below the washback lids but now rests on the same floor level.  The eight washbacks observed by Barnard held 8,000 gallons each (36,000 litres); the six that are there now hold 23,500 litres.

Mash tun being charged

The Still House was once “a spacious and ancient building” which is, not surprisingly, still ancient but no longer feels spacious.  Barnard observed “two Old Pot Stills” and a “handsome timber Wash Charger placed on an elevation so as to command the stills”.  The two current stills, one meticulously replaced in 1997, are ‘commanded’ by a less than handsome steel charger, the ‘Ardbeg Green’ paint doing its best to disguise its sheer functional demeanour.  The wash still is now only slightly larger at 18,270 litres, the spirit still more so at around 17,000 litres, from 13,600 at Barnard’s visit.  An old still sits in the courtyard as you arrive at Ardbeg, a bold guardian of the traditions still held dear here.

Purifier on spirit still
Jackie describes the key characteristics of Ardbeg as smoky, deep, complex and balanced, the balance coming from the distillation.  The spirit still has at some point been fitted with a copper purifier which produces a kind of 2 1/2 times distillation by rerouting the heavier vapours from the bottom of the lyne arm back into the still.  This helps to provide sweeter, fruitier notes to the spirit to balance with the peat and provide that classic Ardbeg experience - a ‘peaty paradox’ I have heard it called.

We next visited the spirit store which Barnard had little to say about but where we witnessed a ‘parcel’ of 100 casks waiting to be filled.  This building is also where the matured whisky is decanted for vatting, all vatting now being done on site before the spirit is transferred to the mainland by tanker for bottling at Glenmorangie’s new plant at Alba Business Park in Livingston.  When once the firm were “distillers from malt only, not dealers or merchants otherwise” and most of their production went into blends, now most is for sale as single malt.

An Ardbeg parcel
Barnard noted five large warehouses containing 6,000 casks, there are now around 27,000 casks on site and Ardbeg are moving towards all maturation being done on Islay.  The old number 2 warehouse stands out from the others, never whitewashed and “never will be”.  The Islay distilleries are painted white with their names in large black letters so that they could be easily seen and identified from the sea when deliveries were once received that way.  Navigating these rocky shores would be hard enough without calling at the wrong location.

Historic Number 2 warehouse

Ardbeg was the whisky that got me hooked on the Islay style, in either 1997 or 98 after the relaunch of the brand.  I remember being introduced to it at a tasting in Edinburgh, the Glenmorangie staff teasing us with a few of their highland malts before hitting us with this mouthful of intense flavour.  Some love it, some hate it but from that moment on I was a committed peat freak.  Even as my palate has broadened and my whisky knowledge has increased, over the years an Ardbeg has always remained in my favourites list, the 10yo, Uigeadail and currently Corryvreckan all holding that top spot at some time.

After the tour we were treated to a sampling of these wonderful whiskies, along with the Blasda, and then Jackie found a treat.  I had never tried the Kildalton before and given the price they are now going at auction for I may never again.  This was a short run experiment from 1980-81 of very lightly peated whisky and we tried just a drop of the cask strength version.  Sooo not like Ardbeg, lots of peach and coconut with a sweet, well rounded finish, and just a drift of peat in the undercurrent.  Not like Ardbeg, but wow!

Classic line up
I was not the only note taker on that tour - I met Eric Fergie who runs a bar and grill in Vancouver.  Eric was on Islay for a golfing trip with friends and stopped to indulge his passion for great whisky.  We spent some time talking and shared lunch together while shooting the whisky breeze.  Eric also joined me at Lagavulin later before cramming in as many Islay experiences as he could before his flight back home (I hope you made it out to the American Monument, Eric?).  His tale about being chased by cows in the field above Ardbeg while taking photos reminded me of my experience with the bull yesterday.

The restaurant at Ardbeg is a gem and was very busy on a Monday lunchtime.  People come from all around on a regular basis just for the food, which I can heartily recommend.  I have eaten there twice now and found great flavours, satisfying portions, enticing preparation and welcoming service on both occasions.  I have to go back as I still haven’t tried Mary’s famous Clootie Dumpling!  You never know, I may even enjoy a whisky when I am there.

Ardbeg will always have a warm place in my heart and in my glass.  That earlier introduction to a new world of flavour that whisky could provide may well be the seed that grew into this journey over a decade later and brought me to these shores.  The pain and pleasure of my pilgrimage to Loch Uigeadail and the sensory experience that Jackie invoked at the distillery are stories to share over a dram.  You know which one.