Welcome to KWM Whisky Advent Day 6!
Ardbeg is one of two Islay distilleries which marked their 200th birthdays this year. The iconic Hebridean Island distillery has been on a tear for the last 15 years, and it has one of the strongest and most loyal cult followings of any distillery in Scotland. Look at the popularity of its annual Ardbeg Day release if you need proof of this point. Or the sums people are willing to pay for older vintages like the 1974s or 17 year old expression. This makes it all the more striking when you consider that the distillery only operated intermittently from from 1981 through 1997, and it could easily have been demolished and lost forever!
Between 1885 and 1887 Alfred Barnard, a beer and whisky historian working for Harper’s Weekly Gazette, travelled across the United Kingdom visiting 162 distilleries (129 in Scotland, 29 in Ireland and 4 in England). He wrote about his experiences and each of the distilleries he visited in his still referenced work, The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom. At the time of Alfred Barnard’s visit Ardbeg was the largest distillery on Islay, producing 1.2 million liters of spirit a year, only slightly less than its annual production today. The distillery first started as most of Scotland’s 18th and 19th century distilleries did as a farm. Although 1812 is the official founding date of the distillery there is some evidence it was operating as far back as 1794.
In 1888 the distillery was acquired by the Hay family in who’s hands it would remain for nearly 100 years. In 1973 Hiram Walker acquired the distillery, and Ardbeg’s fortunes turned. The new owners started moving away from barley peated in their own maltings in favour of relying on commercial maltings like the nearby Port Ellen maltings. This shift was most notable in 1974, which is regarded as a the benchmark vintage from the distillery. Sadly whiskies from this year are now rarer than hens teeth and command huge prices. The on site maltings closed for good in 1977. The photo above is of the old malting floors lit up during the Feis Isle festivities this past May. The party the night before Ardbeg Day was the finest Ardbeg tasting I will ever attend in my life. Ardbeg’s most devoted fans brought back their bottles to the distillery and shared them with invited friends new and old from all over the world. I was poured healthy drams of Lord of the Isles, four different 1974s, 1975, 1977 and 1978 to name just a few. It was the Ardbeg tasting of a lifetime.
In 1981 Ardbeg was closed. Hiram Walker had a problem, the industry was in crisis, the various whisky companies had vastly overestimated future demand for whisky and there was a glut. Hiram Walker had two Islay disilleries, but they only needed one. That year Ardbeg was closed, while Laphroaig is kept open. In 1989 increasing demand prompted the firm to reopen Ardbeg, but it would only operate intermittently for the next 16 years. In 1996 the distillery is closed again and put up for sale. The next year Ardbeg’s fortunes finally turned for the better. The distillery was bought by Glenmorangie PLC and its iconic 17 Year and Provenance (1974) whiskies are released for the first time. Within a year of reopening the distillery has a visitor center and a new path forward opens up before it. Over the last decade Ardbeg fans have been patiently awaiting the release of older whiskies. It will likely be a few more years before we start seeing expressions like the Ardbeg 17 again, but the future is bright, with a touch of oily peat smoke!
Ardber 10 Year - 46% – Andrew’s Tasting Note: “Nose: orange and tangerine with French bakery notes and chewy peated malt; honeyed and fruity, some licorice and candied fennel emerge; then sweet smoke and salted caramel; Palate: sweet, fruity and very smoky; the chewy peated malt dances with more salted caramel while the more delicate fruit notes are left at the edges of the room to watch; becomes peatier and earthier with the dark spices emerging on the second and third sip; coming in waves it softens and settles down becoming creamier and more fruity; Finish: long, coating, salty and smoky; the malty notes linger as the palate dries with the fruits and caramel fading first; Comment: the nose belies and understates the prominence of the peat and salt on the palate; this is a benchmark whisky that never disappoints; now if only we could see the return of an older incarnation! – $79.99 (750ml) or $8.49 (50ml).
Purchase the Ardbeg 10 Year 50ml Here! – $8.49+GST
Purchase the Ardbeg 10 Year 750ml Here! – $79.99 +GST
Stay tuned for Day 7 of KWM Whisky Advent Tomorrow