|Ardbeg Distillery from shore|
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"?|
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|
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|
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|
|Purifier on spirit still|
|An Ardbeg parcel|
|Historic Number 2 warehouse|
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|
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.