The southern coast of the Scottish Hebridean Island of Islay is a Mecca for whisky lovers. One of the most remote places in Scotland, it is also one of the most hospitable and welcoming. The island has a culture all its own, nurtured by its isolation and in no small part by its rich history of whisky making. Today there are eight active distilleries, a ninth on the nearby Isle of Jura, and two more set to open soon. Of these eight active distilleries, the three southernmost (Kildalton distilleries), generally produce the most heavily peated whiskies. They are iconic and beloved brands, Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. But of the three, none has a more loyal following than Ardbeg.
It might be a coincidence, but Ardbeg is both the most heavily peated of the three and the most remote. The three distilleries, Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg are staggered at roughly 1 mile intervals heading east from the town of Port Ellen. Each distillery would have started as a farm built around a small sheltered bay. Until the middle of the 20th century the only way to get things to and from the distilleries was by boat. Hence the construction of the distilleries in sheltered bays. While Ardbeg uses very heavily peated malt, the spirit is always soft and smooth, owing to a unique feature on the distillery’s stills. A “spirit purifier” on the stills line arm acts as a trap door for heavier vapours, drawing them back into the still and encouraging reflux.
Ardbeg, along with its neighbour Lalphroaig, celebrated its 200th Anniversary in 2015 (Lagavulin reached that mark this year). While that may be the official opening date, there are records of distilling on the site going back to 1794. The founding dates of most distilleries are not the day they started distilling but rather the day they took out, or were compelled to take out a license. In the early days, the Ardbeg distillery had its own town, built around the distillery’s buildings to house its employees. Fluctuations in demand for whisky and changing production techniques made many of these employees redundant over the last half of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
By 1973, when Hiram Walker bought the distillery, it was a shell of its former self. The next year Ardbeg began using pre-malted barley from the nearby Port Ellen maltings, which lead to the closure of its own floor maltings in 1977. The change would have meant layoffs for as many as half of the distillery’s employees at the time. But it was only going to get worse, in 1981 they were all laid off and the distillery was closed. The 1980s were a dark period in the industry with as much as a third of all distilleries closing, some never to reopen. Ardbeg would not suffer this fate. New owners reopened the distillery in 1989, but with only two production employees there was very little production. Things didn’t really start taking off again until 1997 when Glenmorangie PLC purchased the distillery.
Glenmorangie PLC itself was acquired by luxury goods juggernaut Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy in 2004, but Ardbeg’s ascendancy continued unabated. Over the last 19 years the brand has become arguably Scotland’s biggest cult whisky. The Ardbeg Committee, Ardbeg’s preferred customer club, has over 120,000 members worldwide. People line up at the distillery for hours each year on Ardbeg Day to put their hands on rare limited releases. Many of these appear online a short time later for 5-10 times the original asking price!
We are thrilled to have the Ardbeg Uigeadail in our 2016 Kensington Wine Market Whisky Advent Calendar. Last year we featured the Ardbeg 10 Year. Uigeadial kicks things up a notch, partly because of the strength at 54.2%, but also because of the prominent sherry influence. Uigeadail, pronounced ‘Oog-a-dal’, is named for the mysterious loch from which Ardbeg water source flows.
Ardbeg Uigeadail – 54.2% – Andrew’s Tasting Note: “Nose: salty Dutch licorice, coal fired kitchen stove, burnt bacon dripped in maple syrup and seared dates and figs; big dark chocolate with cayenne spice, cinnamon hearts and raw new leather. Palate: very big, bold, fruity and chewy; smooth smoke drifting over plump wet malted barley; rich spices emerge: fennel, clove and anise leading the way to firm oily peat and Cuban cigar smoke; candied fruits and Christmas cake with bacon infused spicy dark chocolate; underneath the whisky’s bold outer shell are soft fruits: orange, melon, banana and mango; the salt and smoke come back as the whisky comes full circle. Finish: big, long, oily and coating; more juicy malt, coal smoke fading in and out of earthy peat; the fruits, chocolate and bacon notes are all there too. Comment: this whisky changes a little from batch to batch; once named World Whisky of the Year by he who shall not be named; but vary as it does, it never disappoints: always sherried, peaty and meaty, and who doesn’t love that!” - $110
Maybe next year we’ll be able to finagle Ardbeg Corryvreckan… !