When you look back over the whisky industry in 2008, what will you remember most about it?Will it be the spate of distillery openings, distillery re-openings, the distillery sales or rumours of sales; or the flurry of new packaging and excellent new brands that are shaping 2008 in to an extraordinarily dynamic year?The year has been a vibrant and varied one, but without doubt the distillery that has shaped it for me has been Ardbeg.Through a series of unrelated and coincidental events,Ardbeg and its mother company Glenmorangie/LVMH have loomed large throughout my year, and have provided some of its most vivid memories.My first winter visit to Ardbeg, and indeed Islay, for instance.Under broody brown skies and through lashing horizontal rain the distillery was cold and silent, the distilling equipment stripped for maintenance, the Old Kiln Cafe empty.Nothing a few select drams and the welcoming smile of new distiller Michael Heads couldn’t cure of course, but still a sobering experience when set alongside the mental picture I have of the distillery, all laughter and light.At the other extreme, I witnessed Ardbeg at its most breath-taking and most dramatic, at dawn on a summer’s day from a sailing boat as the sun sharded one golden arrow across the waters and our bows plunged through the waves sending shards of broken sea to momentarily obscure the view,before the distillery’s white walls once more rose up above the swell.Then there has been the whisky: the wonderful new 10 Years Old, worthy of the accolades that have come its way; a drop of committee bottling Corryvreckan, named after the seething whirlpools just off Islay and an intense, spicy and fruity pearl of a whisky, shared with friends ; and finally Renaissance, the end of the four year, four bottle journey that has plotted the progress of Ardbeg from tempestuous youth through to its full glory.And finally, there was the surprise of a phone call from Bill Lumsden,head of whisky making and distilling,who was calling from Disneyland in Florida during a family holiday about the plans for his company to sell Glen Moray, move out of Broxburn and spend money on bottling plants and warehouse space for Ardbeg and Glenmorangie.Though truth be told I suspect in my case he was ringing as much to find out what was going on with the All Blacks, for whom we share a mutual love and who had just been beaten by South Africa.Pertinent and evocative as those other memories are, it’s the last one that we may look back on as the most important.The decision by Glenmorangie’s owners Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey to offload its own label and value whisky operation and to cut loose Glen Moray is a cold and calculated commercial one and one that may mark the beginning of the end for the destructive and self-serving relationship between the British supermarket sector and their whisky-producing collaborators.For Ardbeg it may well come to symbolise the moment when the distillery came of age and turned a loyal and passionate following in to a broader and more populist fame to give the likes of Laphroaig a run for its money.The move to focus on the company’s two premium malts provides Ardbeg with the freedom and funds to pursue the premium end of the malt market and to open the brand out to a whole new audience.Hallelujah to that. For if ever a distillery captured the essence of all that is good in a Scotch distillery, it’s the shaggy dog that is Ardbeg, its paths windswept and its wall battered by winter gales; last in a triple-decker peaty distillery sandwich made up on the magisterial and magnificent Lagavulin, and the throbbing monster and worldwide success story that is Laphroaig.It’s a tiny distillery, its courtyard leading in to the now famous Old Kiln cafe complete with make-shift shop.Old maltbarns give the dinky buildings a rustic charm,their walls still adorned with chalk marks stretching back 60 years and recording ‘dram times’when distillery workers were permitted to enjoy a wee whisky while working.In terms of making malt,Ardbeg is just like the little girl in the song who when she’s sweet she’s very very sweet, but when she’s not, she’s horrid. She – and Ardbeg is a she, no doubt about it – is a complex and difficult madam, capable of tantrums. It’s no coincidence that the distilling equipment has been stripped down for maintenance in winter, and ever since her rebirth,when production was stopped and started on several occasions before settling in to some form of order, she’s been troublesome.That, though, is what makes Ardbeg special. Even now there’s no real explanation for the unique and special style of the spirit that comes off the stills.In keeping with most other distilleries Ardbeg is working hard.It’s producing more than a million litres of spirit a year, and although Bill Lumsden says that he could squeeze a little more out of it, there’s not much leeway from the distillery’s single pair of stills.Ardbeg runs a system of 13 mashes one week and 14 the next, producing 22,000 to 23,000 litres of spirit each week.The malt, delivered in 60 ton batches two or three times a week, has a ppm of about 55.Fermentation takes place in six washbacks, each capable of holding 23,500 litres, and lasts for 55 hours.But the distinctly complex and sweet characteristics of the finished spirit are almost certainly the result of the imposing spirit still, an old Bentley engine of a still that holds court over the distillery operation like a grouchy old lion.The cut for Ardbeg is a substantial one, running for four and a half hours,more than half of the total, and covering spirit that declines from 74% ABV to 62.5%.The spirit is then casked at 63.5%.About a quarter of all casks are currently stored at the distillery though that is set to rise thanks to the LVMH investment.The resulting spirit is, of course, like no other.There may well be some who argue that Ardbeg isn’t what it used to be, but they are few.And I would argue there are few distilleries that have consistently turned out top quality malts again and again, with barely a blemish in sight.In the 10 or 11 years since the distillery was patched up, repainted and kick-started back in to life it’s established itself as a malt whisky of the very highest order.This is not by chance: Glenmorangie has gone out of its way to involve loyal Ardbeg drinkers in its progress through the Ardbeg committee, and under the watchful eye of Bill Lumsden the company has been careful to make sure that the malt stays close to its ideals.On my last visit to the distillery Micky Heads produced some weird and wonderful casks: virgin toasted oak, various wine finishes, and they were never less than fascinating.But they’re probably not for this world either, not in their raw form.Indeed Lumsden goes out of his way to draw a distinction between what he can do at Glenmorangie and what he does with Ardbeg.“The nature of the whisky at Ardbeg makes it very different,”he says.“There isn’t so much scope with the peat to try some of the finishes we do with Glenmorangie because they just wouldn’t work.That’s not to say we won’t try new things.But they have to fit in with the overall nature of Ardbeg.” The Corryvreckan, for instance, may join the core range next year just as Arigh Nam Beist and Uigedail have successfully done in the past.For now,we’ll stick. It’s been a great, great year for Ardbeg. It’s provided great, great memories.And the indications are that there’s plenty more to come.TASTING NOTES
ARDBEG 10 YEARS OLD
Nose:Clean,smoky and citrusy.Lemon seared on barbecue
Palate:Weighty,intense smoke,a sweet and peat one two,and a cocoa coating to finish.
Finish:Powerful,clean and tarry.
Nose:Rich,full,and dusty,with melon and oil
Palate:Citrus fruits,tar,engine oil and some crystal barley.Changes in the mouth.
Finish:Odd for an Ardbeg.Warming,lingering and pleasant but with the smoke
AIRIGH NAM BEIST
Nose:Gentler winey notes,subtle peat notes,rich
Palate:Creamy,spicy and smoky,kippers.Rich and pleasant.With water,some cocoa
and coffee notes
Finish:Sharp,intense,peaty,pleasant and long.Bang on the money.
Nose:Big smoke,big soot,a touch of citrus,a touch of salt,a touch of rich ice
Palate:Full,growling and sooty,then the sweet and purring centre,like kickstarting
a Harley Davidson
Finish:Athoroughbred,balanced and full.Much as I enjoyed the three strike
experiment in youth,this is Ardbeg in all its glory.
1975 CASK 1375 54.2%
Nose:Noticeably richer,sherry,worn leather,dusty,with grape and
gooseberryin the mix
Palate:An intriguing mix of smoke and prune juice,the smoke less intense.In
fact not heavy at all but with coffee and pepper notes
Finish:Sweet and sour,with a sooty dusting rather than heavy peat
1975 CASK 1378 53.7%
Nose:Sherryand lots of cocoa and smoke
Palate:Darkchocolate up front,then a woody bitterness and spiciness –
perhaps nutmeg – and an unusual sharpness.