There are several elements that need to be put in place to establish a successful whisky distillery; location is one of the most important, closely followed by having the right team in place. With regards to the former, Ardnahoe Distillery couldn’t have a better placement, perched as it is on Islay’s northern coast and overlooking the Isle of Jura. As for the latter, it is family bonds, as well as vast industry experience, that ensures the company behind the project had the strongest possible foundations on which to build Islay’s ninth working distillery.
Overseen by patriarch Stewart Laing – a whisky veteran of almost 60 years – the project saw the experienced managing director, along with sons Scott and Andrew, take the next step in the evolution of their business. Already successful independent bottlers in their own right, Scott and Andrew had previously set up their own whisky company, Edition Spirits, and later joined their father to create a new company, Hunter Laing. This new entity formed following Stewart’s departure from Douglas Laing, the company established by his grandfather that’s now headed by his brother Fred and niece Cara. Using the knowledge, expertise and stock the trio had built up over three generations, Hunter Laing and Ardnahoe Distillery further safeguard the legacy of this venerable whisky family.
Established in 2013, the portfolio of the Glasgow-based firm includes brands such as Old Malt Cask, the Old & Rare selection, and Hepburn’s choice.
According to Stewart, the plan from the start was to end up with a distillery, though building one was not the first option they jumped to.
“Scott and Andrew had joined me six years ago, when my previous company and I parted ways amicably,” explained Stewart. “And what we’ve always wanted to do is to have our own distillery, but it was difficult to acquire one at a price that made sense, and because the prices went so far out of our reach, we decided the better plan was to build a distillery of our own.”
Much like the decision to own a distillery, the location for where they should build one was also never in doubt – again the family history and connections played a big part.
“We got together and decided where we wanted to build our distillery and there wasn’t any competition: it was always going to be Islay. I have always had a huge affinity with the island and its malt whiskies,” said Stewart.
“I came here to begin my distillery training in the 60s. A dear friend of my father had owned both Bruichladdich and Bladnoch at that time, so on that basis I was able to come here and work over the summer of 1966, learning about the distillation of whisky and finding it fascinating.” It was a period Stewart describes as one of the happiest times of his life.
The trio also discovered that some of their descendants had married in the Round Church way back in 1793, adding another element of Illeach association and contact for the family. “When we discovered this part of the island and we were able to visit it, we decided it was the ideal place to build a distillery, and we were fortunate enough to be able to buy the land and be given planning permission.”
At the tail end of 2016, construction of the site on a four-acre piece of land – purchased from Islay Estates – began at Ardnahoe, on the north-east coast of Islay near Port Askaig. The £12 million distillery, which has a focus on creating single malt whisky, opened to the public in April 2019. It is the island’s ninth working site and the first to be built on Islay since Kilchoman was established in 2005. It has been predicted that Ardnahoe might have been Islay’s 10th working distillery but the proposals for Gartbreck Distillery, though lodged far earlier, stalled at the planning stage.
A very modern distillery with, according to the team, a “traditional mindset’”, Ardnahoe has two copper pot stills and can yield around 900,000 litres of spirit a year. It began producing liquid in October 2018, with its first cask filled just a few weeks later.
Ardnahoe uses traditional equipment and methods such as wooden wash backs (of which there are four) and long fermentation times, along with the only worm tubs on Islay and what is thought to be Scotland’s longest lyne arms (24.5ft). The mash uses malted barley that’s been peated to 40-45ppm and production yields a spirit that is moderately peated and fruity.
It’s perhaps surprising that, despite the fact that it sports one of the most spectacular views of any of Scotland’s distilleries, with the sweeping vista of the Sound of Islay and the Paps of Jura visible from the distillery’s glass-fronted still house and café, the original blueprint didn’t necessarily factor in visitors. According to export director Andrew, the plans to include a dedicated tourism offering evolved along with the project and they now expect to welcome 20,000 visitors in a normal year.
“We knew there was opportunity there, as well as the space, to create a very special visitor experience offering with not just a shop but also the café – so it wasn’t the idea right at the beginning but as it developed it grew and we sort of ran with it a bit more when we got the right staff on board,” explained Andrew. “Our family business values and our distillery team, most of whom are islanders and steeped in the whisky industry, offer a warm Islay welcome to all who want to be part of the Ardnahoe journey.”
“Being Scottish in Scotland, we have a certain way of looking at things, “ adds Stewart. “We want our visitors and whoever comes in here to receive a warm welcome and to think, ‘Gosh, that was a bit special’.
“We are obviously very proud of the distillery and we want to have as many people through the doors as possible to see it and hopefully take away a desire to drink some of the whisky produced here in the future.”
As for the whisky, distillery manager Fraser Hughes is proud of what they’ve achieved so far in terms of establishing the spirit character that will be at the core of any future bottlings. “Ardnahoe’s character will be a unique and iconic Islay single malt Scotch whisky. Iconic because of the smoky Islay peat aromas in the malt, but unique in that we are the only Islay distillery operating with worm tub condensers,” said Fraser. “We are only two years old but are seeing signs of the character it will mature into. It is a dynamic spirit that comes to you in layers when nosing and tasting. First, you get the fruity aromas followed by the sweetness and spiciness. The peaty phenols follow on nicely with a rich creamy texture.”
There’s no rush to bottling, though, and not yet a definite date for when whisky fans will get the chance to try it. “The whisky will tell us when it’s ready,” business development director Scott began. “The plan to sell at exactly three years has definitely not been built in, we haven’t factored in case sales for many years to come – so there’s no pressure at all.
“It’s going to be quality led, the quality is what Ardnahoe is all about – we haven’t cut any corners in production, so we certainly wouldn’t cut any corners in the maturation process. Potentially the most important bottling that we ever release will be the first one, so you can bet we will make sure it’s as good as it can be and if that takes longer than four or five or six years then so be it. It’s our absolute goal to have something we can be extremely proud of when we put it on to the market and the success of Hunter Laing allows us to invest in the process, the slow distillation, the best quality barley and of course, the best quality wood.”
It’s this dedication to quality, and the chance to work for an independent family-run firm like Hunter Laing that was the was the big draw for Fraser. He explained that working for Stewart and his sons has a lot of benefits, including the experience and passion of the trio, their closeness to the project, the success of their already established brands and the fact that when it comes to making decisions they don’t take an age to go through.
“It is a joy to work at Islay’s newest distillery. It is also quite humbling because at established distilleries you are producing whiskies that have built up hundreds of years of history, whereas we have been given the opportunity to create our own history at Ardnahoe at the very outset,” said Fraser. “We have a great blend of both experienced operators and operators who are new to the industry. The family, board of directors and myself are delighted with the consistent great quality of spirit they are producing week in, week out.”