There's something about Mary

If you visit Islay you have to try the cooking of Mary McKecknie and the outstanding visitor centre at Ardbeg Distillery. Richard Jones reports
By Richard Jones
A visit to a whisky distillery anywhere is always a memorable experience, but there are some that are more anticipated than most.

In many cases, it is the quality of the whisky that arouses the expectation, the opportunity to learn more about your favourite dram and taste it in situ; in others it might be the surroundings, the architecture of the distillery or a jaw-dropping location. Or it could be the warmth of the welcome you hope to receive, the friendly faces of the staff and the high standard of hospitality.

There are very few distilleries, however, that manage to combine all of these attributes. And there are even fewer that manage it quite so dramatically as Ardbeg.

Like many, I suspect, my first trip to Ardbeg was about the whisky. This is one of the undisputed greats of the world of whisky that fate, or more precisely the machinations of global business, had conspired to deny us for so long.

The tale of woe will be familiar to you all: silent between 1981 and 1989, run sporadically between 1989 and 1996, then silent again between 1996 and 1997. It was saved on the brink of extinction by Glenmorangie in 1997 who poured investment into this much neglected distillery and, equally importantly, brought Stuart Thomson and his new wife Jackie to Islay to manage the production and visitor sides of the operation.

Eight years down the line, the whisky side at Ardbeg is in better shape than ever with a range of world-class releases from inherited stocks plus the recent arrival of the baby in the pack, Ardbeg Very Young.

Yet for visitors to the distillery today it is by no means the only attraction. With its location on the southern coast of Islay, the spectacular situation of Ardbeg has never been in any doubt, but under Glenmorangie’s regime the site and buildings have been transformed into arguably the most picturesque distillery on the island. And the new-look Ardbeg is not simply a feast for the eyes…

“The growth of the visitor centre and Old Kiln Café has been a very organic kind of thing,” explains Jackie Thomson, visitor centre manager.

“When we first started out we only intended to serve tea and scones to a small number of tables, however it just seemed to get bigger and bigger.”

Mary McKecknie, head chef, agrees: “When I applied to Ardbeg it sounded like an easier job than the hotel work I’d been doing, but then the demand made us expand the menu and open up another area for tables. Now we also get weddings and other large functions, things that we never dreamt we’d be doing.”

Visit the Old Kiln Café now and you will be treated to some of the finest home-cooked food not just on Islay, but far beyond.

This is great value, unpretentious, café food at its mouth-watering best. Hearty soups packed with warmth and flavour; classic sandwiches executed superbly using the best, locally sourced (where possible) ingredients; and a specials board that, at the time of my trip, included: Islay smoked beef and venison pastrami with a fruity chilli jam; tender beef in red wine with fluffy rice; and Fishtastic Seafood Salad containing the freshest prawns, mussels, smoked and roasted salmon, herring and mackerel.

And for dessert? How about the moistest, most accomplished and (probably) the most calorie-laden chocolate cake I’ve ever tasted with creamy vanilla ice cream? Or runny honey and pecan bread and butter pudding with a splash of Serendipity (a blend of very old Ardbeg and Glen Moray 1992)? Or perhaps even Mary’s Famous Clootie Dumpling (laced, again, with Serendipity), a traditional Scottish pudding that, admittedly in my limited experience of the genre, had never tasted finer?

For such an accomplished cook, the rather grand title of ‘head chef’ sits uneasily with Mary McKecknie.

“Although I’ve done a little bit of work in hotel kitchens, I’m not a qualified cook,” she explains. “I’m a home cook who happens to work in a kitchen.”

She is also quick to point out that everything at the Old Kiln Café is a collective effort.

“We all muck in, it’s very much a team thing. We get so busy we couldn’t do it all ourselves. Jan’s in charge of soups and salads, Debbie fills in when I’m off and Katie, who’s a student, helps us during the busier summer months.”

Mary herself prefers to specialise in baking and desserts, typically baking three cakes every day to satisfy the demand for her talents. The recipes are those that she, “has acquired over the years.”

In the front of house, a team of friendly, busy staff are headed by the seemingly inexhaustible Jackie Thomson. The atmosphere in the café is lively and informal with the lofty ceiling of the old kiln building providing a fine setting and excellent acoustics (“particularly good when you’re having a party,” according to Jackie).

The customers during my visit were a mix of both tourists and locals, a real source of pride to Jackie.

“The thing that I love about this place most of all is that people from the island also use us. Today it was roughly half local and half visitors for lunch. People now come all the way from the other side of the island to have lunch with friends and, maybe, to buy a bottle of whisky.”

And the popularity of the Old Kiln Café and Ardbeg Visitor Centre shows no sign at all of abating.

“During the last five or so years, the tourist season has got longer,” observes Jackie.

“It now gets so busy during the summer months that canny whisky visitors tend to come earlier in March and April, or later in Autumn – September and October.”

That plus weddings, anniversaries, christenings, festivals, large sailing parties from Ireland and the crew of the Ark Royal aircraft carrier. And all of them thrilled, without doubt, by the incredible quality of Mary McKecknie’s chocolate cake.

Mary’s Clootie Dumpling Recipe


  • 1lb self raising flour

  • Teaspoon of baking powder

  • Pinch of salt

  • 8oz soft margarine

  • 8oz caster sugar

  • 1lb sultanas

  • 3 teaspoon of mixed spice

  • 6 rich tea biscuits, crushed

  • 1 apple, grated

  • 1 egg, beaten

  • 3 tablespoons of black treacle

  • Enough Ardbeg to make

  • dropping consistency

  • Muslin cloth

1. Sieve together flour, spice, salt and baking powder.
2. Rub in margarine to fine breadcrumb stage.
3. Mix in sugar, sultanas, apple and biscuits.
4. Make a well, add liquid, and mix well.
5. While making mixture, boil large pan of water and scald your cloth.
6. Lay cloth out and flour it well.
7. Put mixture in centre and shape into ball.
8. Gather cloth and tie it loosely at the top with string.
9. Place a plate at the bottom of the pan and boil for 31/2 hours.
10. When out of the pan, plunge into cold water and remove the cloth carefully.
11. Upturn onto plate and let it steam for a while.

Mary’s Tips for Cooking with Whisky

I’m not a great fan of recipes or precise proportions when it comes to cooking, rather I prefer to use my instinct when it comes to creating dishes. So instead of formally pairing a certain whisky with a dish, I prefer to experiment and only use whisky when I feel it is right to do so.

I tend to use a drop of whisky instinctively – Ardbeg 17 Years Old in clootie dumplings, Serendipity in bread and butter pudding and a splash of Ardbeg Ten Years Old in cranachan. For savoury dishes Ardbeg Ten Years Old works brilliantly in a mustard dressing for the smoked meats and Glen Moray 12 Years Old is great with mustard chicken. I have also just created a creamy mustard sauce using Ardbeg Kildalton.


Old Kiln Cafe at Ardbeg Distillery

Port Ellen, Islay, Argyll PA42 7EA
Telephone: +44 (0) 1496 302 244