Distillery Focus

A Hebridean classic

The iconic Islay malt is doubling in size – we visit to find out more
By Gavin D. Smith
Demand for Islay single malts has never been higher, and the distilling scene on the Hebridean island has proved to be incredibly dynamic of late.

In terms of new distilleries, Ardnahoe started production in November 2018, while Diageo’s project to create the new Port Ellen Distillery progresses, Elixir Distillers hopes to build a new distillery near Port Ellen, and the much-delayed Gartbreck Distillery project close to Bowmore may now finally go ahead.

But there is also plenty of dynamism around the long-established distilleries, and nowhere more so than Ardbeg. Work began during 2018 to double the potential output to 2.4mla in an attempt to match future demand for the whisky, though coronavirus brought construction to a halt for a significant period of time.

Malt storage capacity is being increased from 60 to 120 tonnes, and a second boiler installed, while a new stillhouse with spectacular sea views will house four stills instead of the previous two. Four new washbacks are being installed in the old stillhouse and another two in the former fuel store.

As if that wasn’t enough, the Ardbeg team has also been busy with new releases, commencing last September with 19-year-old Traigh Bhan, matured in a combination of Bourbon and sherry oak, followed by the 2020 Committee Release Ardbeg Blaaack and, most recently, Wee Beastie. Not only that, they have also found time to create the first ever Ardbeg beer.

Ardbeg Blaaack was bottled in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Ardbeg Committee, founded in the year 2000 and now boasting more than 120,000 members. The whisky has been finished in pinot noir wine casks sourced from New Zealand and, as on Islay, sheep outnumber people in New Zealand, hence the name ‘Blaaack.’ It was officially launched at the virtual ‘Ardbeg Day’ of this year’s cancelled annual Fèis Ìle festival. Wee Beastie sits at the opposite end of the age range to Traigh Bhan, being just five years old, and like its elder sibling it carries an age statement, in contrast to most Ardbeg releases of recent years, due principally to the large holes in the distillery’s inventory.

Ageing has taken place in a mix of ex-Bourbon and oloroso sherry casks. Ardbeg’s director of whisky creation, Dr Bill Lumsden, says, “I’m in no doubt that Ardbeggians will love this tongue-tingling expression. The casks chosen for its creation make it ideal for enjoying neat, or as the mouth-watering main ingredient in a smoky cocktail.”

Distillery manager Mickey Heads adds that, “A new permanent expression in the core range is always momentous for the distillery, but Wee Beastie is a particularly special dram. As it’s a younger whisky, it means we’re able to get as close to the still as possible. So, it’s safe to say this is a ferociously good wee nip!”

Ardbeg’s foray into the world of beer came in August, with the limited release of The Shortie Smoky Porter, named after Ardbeg’s Jack Russell mascot. It was produced in association with Williams Bros. Brewing Co and Brewgooder, with all profits being donated to charity supporting clean water projects in Malawi.

Heads explains, “Not only is this a hugely important cause – that we’re delighted to be a part of – but The Shortie Smoky Porter is of course a first for the distillery. Helping brew a beer may seem like unchartered territory for Ardbeg, but as any whiskyphile worth their malt will tell you, beer and whisky share the same DNA.”

Heads has been in charge of Ardbeg since 2007, having been born and raised on Islay, and started his working life in the whisky industry at Laphroaig in 1979. Prior to his move to Ardbeg, he ran Jura distillery. This autumn, however, sees him step down from his well-loved role of Ardbeg distillery production manager.

He says that, “Being at the helm of Ardbeg for 13 years has been a great privilege. The whisky we make here is of wonderful quality, and being part of the team that creates it is fantastic. Ardbeg has such a long history that I’ve always seen myself as a custodian carrying it forward for the next generation. So, you just do it as well as you can and with as much passion as you can.”

Thomas Moradpour, CEO of The Glenmorangie Company that owns Ardbeg, adds that, “Mickey Heads is a hugely respected figure in the world of single malt whisky and will be sorely missed by Ardbeggians everywhere.

There cannot be many distillery managers who combine such a wealth of knowledge, depth of passion and warmth of welcome. His successor will have a hard act to follow.”
That successor has now been named as Colin Gordon, latterly manager at neighbouring Lagavulin, and previously operations manager at Port Ellen Maltings. Of his new appointment, Gordon says, “Ardbeg is an iconic name in whisky with an immense reputation. I’m absolutely delighted to be joining an experienced team producing such an exceptional dram. Ardbeg has built a reputation for producing amazing whiskies with Mickey Heads at the helm. He is a huge name in the industry and will be a very hard act to follow. It’s a privilege to be chosen to take over the reins from him.”

During Heads’ tenure at Ardbeg, some 24 different releases have been bottled, and physical changes have included a move to 24/7 operation and the return of cask disgorging and batch assembly of the whiskies. From the time when The Glenmorangie Company acquired the distillery, casks were transported by road from the warehouses to Glenmorangie’s Broxburn base in West Lothian, where disgorging took place, but for the past decade disgorging and the preparation of ‘batches’ of single malt ready for bottling have taken place at the distillery.

This development involved expanding the distillery team to six full-time warehousemen, and installing large steel vats to hold the various expressions as batches were assembled. The introduction of An Oa in 2017 necessitated additional vatting facilities, as Heads explains, “To produce An Oa, we installed two French oak vats (15,000 litres each) and the main 30,000 litres ‘Gathering Vat’, where it sits while marrying. Whisky from three types of wood goes into the An Oa recipe – PX sherry casks, charred virgin oak and ex-Bourbon casks.”

The term ‘derelict’ could have been applied to much of Ardbeg not too many years ago, though anyone seeing the gleaming distillery today, producing what is now a cult single malt, might be hard-pressed to believe it. Ardbeg is living proof that distilleries do come back from the dead and that sometimes the experience can make them even stronger than ever.

The distillery was established by John MacDougall in 1815 and operated in private ownership until 1959, when Ardbeg Distillery Ltd was formed. In 1973, Ardbeg was jointly purchased by Hiram Walker & Sons Ltd and the Distillers Company Ltd, with Hiram Walker assuming full control in 1977.

However, when blended whisky was truly king, a little of the powerful, assertive Ardbeg malt went a long way, and with the Scotch whisky industry facing a glut of maturing spirit, Ardbeg was silent between 1982 and 1989, during which period it became part of Allied Distillers Ltd when Hiram Walker was taken over by that company in 1987. Ardbeg re-opened two years later, but production was limited in quantity, and Allied finally closed the distillery once again in 1996.

The future looked less than rosy for the run-down plant, but then in 1997 Glenmorangie plc acquired Ardbeg, investing more than £10 million in the purchase and distillery refurbishment.

The year 2000 saw the introduction of one of the principal core offerings of Ardbeg: the 10 Years Old. Alongside this, Ardbeg embarked on an imaginative and diverse release programme with many products being exclusively previewed by the Ardbeg Committee. Stand-out bottlings have included Supernova in 2009, Ardbeg Alligator in 2011, Ardbeg Galileo in 2012, Dark Cove in 2016, and Kelpie in 2017. Additionally, limited quantities of 21, 22 and 23-year-old expressions were released from 2016 to 2018.

Although this year the whisky world, along with the rest of the planet, has been forced to hold its breath, as it were, once its expansion programme is complete Ardbeg looks set to be in fine shape and ready to face the future with the same determination to survive and flourish that has characterised the entirety of its colourful history over the years.