History

Tarry rope and smoked fish

Might the revival of Ardbeg one day lead to the release of a new 10-year old? If so, would it be like the Ardbeg of old? Neil Wilson looks at the ups and downs of a legend
By Neil Wilson
When I first visited Ardbeg the year was 1984 and the distillery had been closed for three years. By 1990 the distillery was up and running again, but the whisky was intended mostly for blending. By the mid-nineties it was clear that Ardbeg’s owner, Allied Distillers, wanted to commit to Laphroaig as its premium malt, and the future of Ardbeg, the world’s most phenolic malt whisky, seemed to be at risk. It was, indeed, up for sale.That a distillery with so much history and such a unique reputation might have ended up as a cast-off seems unthinkable, but the corporate logic was understandable. What was the point of Allied possessing two malt distilleries producing similar whiskies? Fortunately, Ardbeg’s reputation was its saving grace, and after a number of suitors had showed their hands, Glenmorangie plc bought the plant for around £7 million in 1997. When I revisited Ardbeg last September, the transformation was amazing; the walls were bright with new white render, and doors, staircases and window frames were picked out in Ardbeg green.Ardbeg’s re-emergence has been widely welcomed by the competition. Its character has always given the blender an essential building brick in the complex construction of a whisky blend. Without Ardbeg, the blender’s art and craft is further compromised. That much may be obvious, but there is more to Ardbeg’s pedigree than mere whisky.Perhaps the most unlikely part of it is the claim to being the first distillery in Scotland to be run by women. Strictly speaking, Laphroaig, where the redoubtable Bessie Williamson was in control between 1954 and 1972, may not have been the first to be so managed. Margaret and Flora MacDougall, descendants of the original Ardbeg crofter-distillers, were described in a lease of 1851 as ‘co-partners carrying on business at Ardbeg as Distillers under the firm of Alexander MacDougall & Co...’ It is doubtful if they ever got their hands dirty the way Bessie did, but no-one can dispute the fact that they were in control of a distillery a century before her. Ardbeg is also a classic example of a small croft distillery supplying the local island market that gradually evolved into a larger, two-still Victorian plant. In 1850 Ardbeg had been the centre of a thriving community of some 200 people. Similar distillery villages had also existed around neighbouring Lagavulin and Laphroaig, but Ardbeg was the most remote and the most easterly of the three Kildalton distilleries. Like its close neighbours, Ardbeg’s establishment was directly due to the foresight of the Campbells of Shawfield, the lairds of Islay between 1725 and 1853. They came into ownership of the island in peculiar circumstances. ‘Great’ Daniel Campbell, MP for Glasgow Burghs and Deputy Lieutenant of Lanarkshire had taken a security over the island from his distant kinsman, John Campbell of Cawdor, who had had to borrow £6,000 from Daniel in order to shore up the faltering island estate. In 1725, Daniel voted in Parliament for a tax increase of 3d on a bushel of malt and in the resulting street riots in Glasgow, Shawfield House in Glassford Street was ransacked by the mob. The city fathers paid out a staggering £9,000 to Campbell in compensation and with part of that sum he renegotiated his security of Islay into an outright purchase. What then followed is rather untypical of many of the tussles which have pervaded Scotland’s ancient feudal land-ownership system over the last three centuries. Instead of using Islay as his weekend retreat in which to indulge himself in country sports while the crofters eked out a meagre living, Campbell took the agricultural system by the scruff of the neck and began a system of improvements which took Islay to the forefront of farming in the Hebrides. The old rota of winter and summer grazings on common pastures was thrown out as tenant farmers like the MacDougalls were allowed to run much larger crofts on advantageous leases and so make them more productive. When Campbell arrived in Islay, only one-eighth of the cereal crop was barley, but distilling was beginning as a way to turn spare crops into cash. These small farmyard concerns were further encouraged by Campbell’s son, Daniel the Younger, who inherited the island in 1753 and ran it until his death in 1777 when his younger brother Walter took over. He too continued the Campbell policies of agrarian reform which saw large tracts of moss turned over to crop production. This meant that meaningful amounts of barley could be produced at a time when markets for malt whisky were opening up on the mainland. Add to that Islay’s inexhaustible supply of peat and its numerous sources of soft water, and one can understand why the farmers took so readily to the still.The other curious factor which added to Islay’s early whisky industry was that the exciseman did not appear until 1797; until then, the gathering of duty had been ‘in farm’ to the laird. After their arrival new leases were negotiated with many of the crofter-distillers and in 1798 Duncan MacDougall signed a 19-year lease with Walter Campbell to continue farming at Ardbeg, Airigh nam Beast and half of Lagavulin farms. By 1815 Ardbeg was a legal distillery run by Duncan’s son Alexander, whose small operation was then producing an annual few hundred gallons of malt. A year later Walter was dead and his son, Walter Frederick, fell heir to the island. Over the course of the next 30 years Islay fostered another nine distilling operations. In 1825 a young Lowland Scot, John Ramsay, arrived to help out at the newly-established Port Ellen distillery. He was later to purchase Kildalton estate from James Morrison who had in turn acquired Islay from Walter Frederick in 1853. Just as distilling had prospered on Islay under the Campbells, the burden of debt on Walter Frederick had proved too much and the Campbell’s connection with the island was over. Ramsay was a philanthropic laird who made sure that the distillery owners enjoyed long leases and had properly secured water rights. Ardbeg even gained a school through his influence and he ensured that the teacher’s salary was met, even though he was not responsible for it. In 1833, Ardbeg was producing around 25,000 gallons of spirit a year. Under manager Colin Hay, who inherited the distillery after the death of the MacDougall sisters, Ardbeg steadily developed. When Barnard visited Islay in 1886 it was being managed by Hay’s son, Colin Elliot, who was producing ten times that volume, or over 1.13 million litres. Today’s output of less than half that (much less than capacity) tends to confirm not only how popular Ardbeg had become when Barnard visited, but also how little the distillery has changed over the last century.Stuart Thomson arrived as the new manager in 1997, having been assistant manager at Glen Moray for four years. Prior to that he had spent 12 years at Glenmorangie and although he wanted to be a stockbroker, he has spent his working life solely in the whisky trade. He doesn’t regret his latest move. ‘The location is fantastic and it’s a wonderful place for children to grow up in.’ His wife Jackie takes care of the peat-reek-perfumed Kiln Café and the overall management of visitor facilities. These latter contributed a six-figure sum to the total distillery income in 1998. Thomson took me on the internal tour I had been unable to make in 1984. Phenolic malting levels aside, I was curious to see if there were any other factors which make Ardbeg so unique. Inside, there are a number of curiosities. First, both stills are almost the same size and there is a strange piece of plumbing beneath the wash still lyne arm. It resembles a copper bucket with a pipe coming out from below it which, after taking an s-bend turn, descends back to the body of the still. Stuart explains, ‘That’s the purifier which acts as a reflux route to capture the heavier, more impure alcohols. And look at the bulbous bases of the necks of each still. Those also aid reflux and help create its characteristic sweetness. If we put our wash through the Laphroaig stillhouse the whisky would be indescribable.’The style of Ardbeg is a matter of some debate at the moment: the 1975 vintage, matured in ex-bourbon casks, hints at a return to the traditional Ardbeg style, which some feel has been missing from the more recent expressions: the 17-Year-Old and 1978. Provenance (1974), however, did display all the traditional Ardbeg characteristics for those lucky enough to have bagged a bottle. These three are all products of the old (pre-Allied) Hiram Walker regime and the 17-Year-Old was distilled when the distillery was about to close. Furthermore, one school of thought believes that the traditional 10-Year-Old was over-aged, in that it contained a high proportion of older stock.This somewhat confusing picture is being addressed by Dr Bill Lumsden, the director of maturation at Glenmorangie. ‘While the 1975 is more like the old 10-Year-Old with good depth and balance and complex nuances of tarry rope and smoked fish, it can only ever be a limited release expression. We are now looking at ten year old stock distilled when Iain Henderson was here [he ran the distillery when Allied took it over in 1989] and that is very promising indeed.’ If the release of a 10-Year-Old Ardbeg is a possibility I for one would welcome it.And what about wood policy? ‘We are going to use top quality ex-bourbon on a first fill and second fill basis, but I am keen to experiment with Ardbeg in the same way as we have with Glenmorangie and Glen Moray.’ Now that last comment is very interesting indeed. (For a taste of Lumsden’s work with Glen Moray, see New Releases.) Further development will also mean that output is doubled, taking the distillery near to its 1886 output. It nearly didn’t happen. n