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Islay Distilleries #8 of 8: Ardbeg – The Phenomenon — Dramming

Islay Distilleries #8 of 8: Ardbeg – The Phenomenon

by Oliver Klimek on May 22, 2010

Finally we have come to the last of the eight working distilleries on Islay, Ardbeg. What might surprise some of you is that Ardbeg actually is the smallest of the seven “old” Islay distilleries in terms of capacity and bottles sold per year.

In the whisky world, Ardbeg has become somewhat like the synonym for the word hype. The fans of the distillery are numerous and loyal, many of them even take special care to find out what batches of standard bottlings are best by looking for that tiny L number etched into the bottom of each bottle. Discusion forums are full of discussions what might have caused L8 bottlings to taste different from L7 ones, or the likes.

But then again, Ardbeg is just a whisky distillery as any other. Nice white washed buildings, patches of succulently green lawn overlooking a beatiful bay at the southeastern coast of Islay. Actually the site is very pretty, for me it is the most attractive of all on Islay.

Ardbeg can be reached by a 3 mile car or bus ride from Port Ellen which is equivalent to a nice one hour walk, passing Laphroaig and Lagavuling along the road.

My attempts to get an appointment with a distillery official had been going on nicely, but then I received no answer to my final email with a proposal for time and date. So I decided it might be best to show up at these coordinates in the spacetime continuum and see what will happen. It was a bit like over at Laphroaig, my email had been pushed aside by other business. But much to my surprise, Jackie from the visitor centre still made it possible that I could have a few words with distillery Manager Mickey Heads over a cup of coffee at the Kiln Café.

Now time has come to confess that Ardbeg is the only Islay distillery that I have not seen from the inside. When I arrived at 11 o’clock the little blackboard on the cashier’s desk at the visitor centre said “Tour at 15.00”. Oh well, I thought by myself. After the talk with Mickey Heads I had ordered the drink for my lunch when I noticed that the writing on the blackboard had mysteriously changed into “Tour at 12.00” and people were just about to set off for the tour.

This was just about the only incidence during my stay on the island where I encountered the fabled Islay Time phenomenon that according to reports of previous travelers may manifest itself anytime by strange warps in the aforementioned continuum. I have to admit, though, that I hadn’t checked out the officially published tour times before, so part of the blame goes on me.

But the chat with Mickey Heads more than made up for the missed tour. And if you had the choice between the two, what would you prefer?

My first question was if there had been any changes in production after the re-opening of Ardbeg in 1997 after having been bought by Glenmorangie (and then having been passed along to LVMH). According to Mickey, they had carried on as before, also noting that there was a minimal level of operation even during the mothballing phase. But he also mentioned that Glenmorangie had invested large sums of money to turn the run-down distillery into the nice place that it is now.

Ardbeg seems to have been taken a bit by surprise by the enthusiastic embrace of their fans. But excellent whisky (the legendary 17 yo undoubtedly played a major part in this) combined with clever marketing did the job. The distillery does its best to fullfill the demands and there are no current plans to increase the number of stills. But I would not be surprised, if thoughts like this were already circling in the brains of the important people at Glenmorangie and LVMH.

Mickey Heads asked me how I liked the Supernova and I told him about my twofold experience. There do not seem to be any plans so far to realease an aged version – unlike with Bruichladdich’s Octomore – but it looked like Mickey was not totally opposed to that idea.

A question that may be of interest to many of you is if there will be a new 17 yo. According to Mickey, final decisions are not made yet. They seem to be a bit afraid that the new 17 yo might disappoint some because it would be a true seventeen, distilled after the reopening, unlike its predecessor that had gained its reputation because it also contained a significant amount of older whisky.

But if you think about it, can a distillery with a tradition and reputation like Ardbeg really afford to sell only young whisky? They will just have to have an older expression in their portfolio sooner or later. And I am also convinced that whisky lovers will recognise the fact that the good old days are gone for good. There seems to be no signifciant amount left of the old stock anyway, if at all.

Much to my delightment, Mickey said goodbye by pouring me drams of the two latest Ardbeg single cask bottlings. The first one was #2763 (refill sherry) which is currently on sale at the distillery. A very fine dram, but still topped by the already sold out #1275 (first fill bourbon) which I think is absolutely magnificent.

And I have to say, despite all the hype and all the fuzz about the LVMH takeover, Ardbeg is a very nice place, and they make very nice whisky. And after all, this is what it’s all about, isn’t it?.

Grazing sheep in front of the distillery

The old kiln, now housing the visitor centre and the Kiln Café

Bourbon barrels on the distillery grounds

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