The Islay distillery of Ardbeg has proved adept at generating positive publicity ever since it was rescued from silence by The Glenmorangie Company in 1997, but it has surpassed itself with the headlines garnered during the past few months along the lines of 'Ardbeg in space.'
On 12th September a vial of Ardbeg spirit re-entered the earth's atmosphere after spending almost three years aboard the International Space Station. For lovers of minutiae, that means the vial orbited the earth's atmosphere at 17,227 miles per hour, 15 times a day for a total of 1,045 days. Back on earth, a control sample of the same spirit was less energetic, spending its time in Warehouse No. 3 at Ardbeg distillery.
So is there any real purpose to this exercise, other than to generate lots of media interest for the Ardbeg brand. According to Dr. Bill Lumsden, head of distilling and whisky creation at The Glenmorangie Company, "It's genuinely scientific and certainly not a marketing gimmick. Nanorex is the company which organises all the experimentation on the Space Station, and they are big Ardbeg fans, so they asked if there was something they could do with us.
"We sent the spirit with new ex-Bourbon barrel shavings, and I'm analysing the samples on an organoleptic and chromatographic basis. I'm hoping that the whole thing might lead to new expressions or new techniques. We've had a huge amount of international publicity over it, and we chose to re-release a variant of Supernova (SN 2014) to coincide with the vial's return to earth."
First released in 2009, with another batch appearing in 2010, Supernova is the peatiest Ardbeg to date and just one of many highly regarded expressions created by the innovative Lumsden, described by Harper's Wine and Spirit Trade News earlier this year as 'The Willy Wonka of Whisky!' To most people in the Scotch whisky industry he is
When Glenmorangie acquired the rather sorry-looking Ardbeg distillery from Allied Distillers for £7 million, some £5.5 million was reputedly for whisky stocks. However, the distillery had been closed between 1981 and 1989 and again in 1996, after several years on intermittent production, so there were a number of significant gaps in the inventory.
Glenmorangie worked towards releasing a 10 Years Old comprising spirit made under the new regime, offering exclusive 'For Discussion' bottlings to its 'Ardbeg Committee' members along the way, and this practice has continued since the 10 Years Old appeared in 2008. The Committee now boasts more than 100,000 members, and, according to Bill Lumsden, "this has been a way of repaying the committee members for their loyalty and interest, giving them a sense of approving the bottlings."
It can be argued that while No Age Statement (NAS) single malts have become a point of contention in terms of perceptions of quality, Bill Lumsden's work with Ardbeg has given the NAS genre a great deal of respectability.
Back in 2003 he broke with Ardbeg tradition by releasing an NAS expression. Named Uigeadail, it was a cask strength bottling with a palpable sherry-wood influence, and Lumsden recalls that "When we launched Uigeadail it was purely about creating a different flavour profile," insists Lumsden. "It was not about having a lack of stock or any of the other factors that lead to distillers offering NAS expressions. At the time, I was using some stock from the 1970s in
Uigeadail! We are currently filling several hundred sherry butts with new spirit each year to service future bottlings of Uigeadail so that it can go on for the foreseeable future."
Uigeadail has been followed by the likes of Blasda (lightly peated) and Corryvreckan (matured in a mixture of ex-Bourbon casks and new French oak casks), while Alligator (part-matured in heavily-charred barrels) appeared in 2011, followed the next year by Galileo, prepared from a mix of cask types all filled in 1999. Earlier this year Auriverdes hit the shelves, and this time the Willy Wonka of Whisky had employed some Bourbon barrels with replacement heads made from toasted oak, along with standard Bourbon barrels.
"I think that Ardbeg releases such as Corryvreckan did give a lot of credibility to NAS whiskies." declares Bill Lumsden. "We have done well with NAS bottlings because we have never used very young stock and we are talking about well-made spirit being filled into high quality casks. That is the key. We've had a very robust wood management policy for a long time now."
When it comes to the ethos surrounding new Ardbeg creations, he explains that "It's relatively easy to flex Glenmorangie's style, but it's difficult to change Ardbeg's big, peaty style. So I use its backbone of peat smoke and nuance it in other ways. It's a hard whisky to work with. When we did the Alligator char level for Ardbeg Alligator, it would have been far too brutal for Glenmorangie. It was almost too brutal for Ardbeg!"
"I do slightly more extreme things with Ardbeg than I do with Glenmorangie. The ethos is to shock people at times and to create some very extreme tastes. And sometimes the real aficionados don't feel I've been extreme enough. Some said that about Galileo and Auriverdes."
Demand for Ardbeg has been growing significantly, with volume sales rising by some 43 per cent during the past two years alone. In order to meet future requirements, Ardbeg has operated a seven-days-per-week distilling regime since 2012, with 16 or 17 mashes currently taking place in the distillery's 4.5 tonne semi-lauter mash tun each week. 55 hour fermentations are carried out in Ardbeg's six wooden washbacks, and the site operates a single pair of stills, with a purifier fitted to the spirit still. The effect of this is to create a lighter, more delicate spirit than would otherwise be the case, and an annual total of around 1.2 mla of that spirit is now produced. Bill Lumsden adds that "We run the distillery in an experimental manner for two weeks of the year, focusing on all aspects of production."
Legal distillation has been taking place at Ardbeg since 1815, when one John MacDougall took out a licence to make whisky, though his family had been distilling there since 1798. The first record of whisky making at Ardbeg dates from four years earlier, when Alexander Stewart operated a still. As Bill Lumsden notes, "Next year marks the 200th anniversary of the founding of the distillery, and I'm working on a very special bottling to launch on 'Ardbeg Day' during the 'Feis Ile' festival in May."
So we have that to look forward to, and for the time being we have the recently-released Supernova 2014 to keep us happy, along with a distillery exclusive bottling of Ardbeg Kildalton. This contains spirit matured in a mixture of ex-bourbon and former sherry casks, and profits are being donated to a local charitable project on Islay. We would all love to know what Dr Bill and the team get up to during those mysterious two weeks each year?
Ardbeg Kildalton 46% ABV
Nose: Classic Ardbeg smoky fruit, vanilla, brine and white pepper.
Palate: Mouth-coating, with warm tar, liquorice, aniseed and sweeter malt notes.
Finish: Long and spicy, with a flash of vanilla, before drier peat notes develop.