Ardbeg. Oh Ardbeg. I’ve been a hardcore fan of The Ultimate Islay Single Malt since I first got into whisky in my early twenties. The powerful peated notes coupled with a conspicuously smooth finish have always held my interest as well as a special place in my heart, so to be hosted at the distillery by the brand for a tour and a full range tasting, followed by lunch made this pilgrimage of an Ardbeggian even more incredible.
Having had an early breakfast, we got on what we found out to be the island’s school bus from the bottom of the Ballygrant Inn’s driveway to Bowmore to have a walk around the town briefly, then we jumped on a connecting bus with a destination that simply read ‘Ardbeg’ and my excitement levels went through the roof.
How glad we were to have gotten the local bus instead of walking to Ardbeg as this was much further than ‘the good Islay mile’ we walked to Laphroaig. This time it was not the sight of iconic green warehouses that told us we were close to the target distillery but the smell of the peat.
Once at the distillery I was again awe struck and spent ages taking photos of every little detail from the outside from benches made from old wash backs to a row of barrels with the letters of Ardbeg pained on them and the last copper still to be replaced.
This, we found out later, was turned into a feature outside the distillery as the wholesale price of copper at the time meant selling it for scrap made no commercial sense, whereas creating art did. A mentality you see throughout the site and throughout the ever-fun Ardbeg communications and brand strategy.
My fiancé and I were welcomed as Ardbeg’s guests for a full range tasting and distillery tour.
The tour itself was fantastic, in contrast to Laphroaig it felt a lot more nimble, a lot more ‘craft’ and a more light hearted despite being a big producer and having big brand backing from Glenmorangie.
Highlights included learning the following:
- The story starts two hundred years ago on what was a barley farm. The farmer used to make five or six jugs of spirit a year for himself, his family and his farm hands to consume.
- Right up until the 1970s, 95% of Islay single malt whisky was used for blending purposes.
- Between 1989 and 1996 the distillery, now under the control of Allied Distillers, only opened for two months per year to make enough stock to put into the market.
- Nowadays, for operational efficiency, Ardbeg buys its barley pre-peated from the Port Ellen Maltings, owned by Diageo
We learnt fascinating details about their range including the origins of some of the products’ names:
- Uigeadail is the name of the Ardbeg water source and means dark or mysterious valley in Gaelic
- Ardbeg, pronounced Arrr-beeg, means small headland in Gaelic, referring to its geographical location on the west coast of Islay
- Corryvreckan is named after the world’s second largest whirlpool, it’s the epitome of ‘the untamed spirit of Islay’.
They we got to the full range tasting. We tried, with enthusiasm:
The staple of the Ardbeg core range, and one of my all time favourite whiskies and World Whisky of the Year in 2008. The spirit that goes into the ten year old actually ranges from ten to fifteen years old with Dr. Bill Lumsden, Head of Distilling & Whisky Creation, testing every single batch to ensure it is worthy of and lives up to its 10 Year Old credentials.
For example, if the liquid itself is too light, he will request the distillery send more first fill casks to be added to the vatting to balance out the colour and consistency of the spirit’s flavour.
Released 2003, won World Whisky of the Year 2009.
Released 2008, won Single Malt Whisky of the Year 2009.
Meaning tasty in gaelic, has just gone off the shelves as its limited edition run has come to an end.
Also a limited edition and one I’ve always wanted to try but never had the chance, I was not disappointed. Interesting fact; it was named by an anonymous member of the marketing team who said the excessively-charred cask felt the same to stroke as an alligator. Quite how she knew that is anyone’s guess but fair play, it made it to the pack.
After the tasting we had an incredible lunch in their Kiln Cafe including lobster bisque and a pulled pork open sandwich, washed down by a couple of local Islay ales.
Overall the staff were incredibly friendly, they were only too willing to muck in with Dougie, the senior tour guide also serving tables in the cafe and administering tastings. We were really impressed with the Ardbeg vibe, it reaffirmed everything I had always thought about the brand and more. We were also lucky enough to be on Islay when Ardbeg Kildalton, their distillery only limited edition, was released so got to pick up a couple of bottles.