Islay’s south coast is a rocky stretch ruled by three kings of the whisky industry: Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg – the last stop on the road east and the smallest of the three. Yet its reputation is huge: the Book of Kells-inspired Ardbeg logo glimmers on the shelf like a pair of eyes in the woods. Ardbeg is a beast of a whisky veritably clawing its way out of the bottle, a dangerous dram for the faint-hearted or those afflicted with a delicate constitution. My only touchstone was a night of being savaged by Ardbeg 10 Year’s bite at the hands of Maxx, the proprietor of the Hotel Ceilidh-Donia in Edinburgh.
I’m not one to take it on the chin and slink off, so I made my way to Ardbeg’s lair on Islay, whose water source, Uigeadail, means “dark place” in Gaelic. Was this a fool’s errand?
I arrive to clean, white-washed buildings and curated grounds blazing in the morning sun while the sea sparkles between warehouses stuffed with aging barrels. It’s simply beautiful, vying with Bunnahabhain for most beautiful distillery on Islay, maybe even Scotland. This is Ardbeg in its ascendency, but its past has been a bit of a rollercoaster. Legally founded in 1815 and used mostly for blended whiskies, Ardbeg was shut down in 1981 before reopening on a limited basis in 1989. It wasn’t until 1998 that Ardbeg resumed full production, this time under the ownership of Glenmorangie Plc and LVMH, and repositioned their production to 100% single malts. Much like Bruichladdich, it’s taken a decade to ramp up to their current range of whiskies.
It’s not long before distillery manager Micky Heads comes down to meet me in the gorgeous gift shop. He’s a gray-haired, fatherly man who speaks rapidly and lovingly of Ardbeg, and he loves seeing others enjoying Ardbeg. This would be a good day for him. Micky’s a native Ileach who used to cut peat over at Laphroaig long ago; more recently, he’s been the distillery manager at the Isle of Jura distillery. We clamber up a set of exterior stairs and enter the museum-quality malt house. Old wooden bins in excellent condition illustrate the past while downstairs a huge mill churns along. Every distillery has one of these 100-year old behemoths grinding up the malted barley to the right consistency for mashing.
As we make our way around the pristine mash tun and washbacks, I’m struck by just how small of a place Ardbeg is – it brings to mind distilleries like Bruichladdich and Benromach, which simply does not compute with how large of a shadow Ardbeg casts over the whisky world. A cool sea breeze blows through an open window up by the washbacks. Micky used to work at Ardbeg before he accepted the position at Isle of Jura. Now he’s back and taming the beast with fascinating limited release bottlings each year.
Two enormous stills – one wash still and one spirit still – kick off loads of heat as we enter the still house. Two stills – that’s it – and a tiny spirit safe that sees about one million liters of newmake pass through it each year. Each still has a condenser tube, or purifier arm, at the top of the swan neck that captures impure spirits and returns them to the boil at the bottom of the still. Because they have more wash ready for distillation than room in their stills, Ardbeg follows a unique process whereby they shunt the wash into the stills in two separate loads. Does it have an impact at the end of the line? It’s hard to say, but, given the complex and mysterious nature of flavor development in whisky, it’s possible.
Outside the stillhouse in Ardbeg’s back yard guys are rolling casks across the cement and standing them in lines. Ardbeg uses mostly first- and second-fill ex-Bourbon barrels in their maturation, though a few Sherry butts and, surprisingly, new French oak barrels can be found too. It’s a compact and orderly operation.
We head inside the visitors center and Micky leads me to the Chairman’s Room, a small rectangle of a space lit up beautifully with bottles of Ardbeg from over the years. Lined up in a row on the table are the Ardbeg beasts: five bottles which I’ll be tasting over the next half hour under the guidance of Micky. I love what I do.
First up is the limited release Blasda, the only Ardbeg I’ve ever seen in a clear bottle and one that serves as a counterpoint to the rest of their range. Bottled at 40% ABV and possessing about half their typical peating level (8ppm), Blasda is light gold in color with creamy, melony, citrusy notes on the nose with a subtle smokiness in the wings. It’s soft and fizzy on the palate with a surprising amount of body. Lots of white fruit sweetness. Blasda would make a nice aperitif and really shows Ardbeg’s range.
We move on to the world-famous 10 Year, which is bottled at 46% ABV and aged in first- and second-fill ex-Bourbon barrels. In the glass it’s pale gold and oily with thick legs. The nose is huge and complicated with very sweet citrus, vanilla, and sweet cream notes balanced against peatsmoke, saltwater, smoked fish, and seaweed. It blooms on the palate to take over the whole mouth and sinuses, moving from sweet to smoky to peppery spiciness with coffee on the back of the tongue. The big, rich finish goes on forever, changing flavors and aromas the whole time.
I enter the dark place when Micky hands me the Uigeadail. Bottled at a cask-strength 54.2% ABV, the Uigedail is much darker, fittingly, because part of its makeup spent time in Sherry butts. The color is a deep gold on its way to amber with a thick oily body. It has an incredible, complex nose with a rich depth of spiciness reminiscent of Christmas (cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, etc.), cigar smoke, lemon zest, and subtle rum raisin sweetness. On the palate it puffs out like an angry cat or a cobra’s hood: Christmas cake sweetness followed by a blast of powerful pepperiness and peatsmoke, smoked dates, red fruits, and tobacco. Another finish that lasts for ages. Incredible balance of flavors and aromas.
The Corryvreckan is named after a massive whirlpool north of Jura, and it’s bottled at a cask-strength 57.1% ABV. I might get sucked in. Aged in new French oak and ex-Bourbon barrels, it’s another light gold dram with the same characteristic Ardbeg oiliness. Spicy and sweet on the nose with menthol, cloves, blackberries, and something earthy like dried seaweed. The palate is a rich build-up of oily leather, saltiness, smoke, and vanilla sugar. Intense flavor that tingles on the palate. Great mouthfeel and a marathon finish. The smoke amplifies rather than masks the other flavors.
Finally, the Alligator, Ardbeg’s latest limited edition release. 51.2% ABV and non chill-filtered like all of their whiskies, this whisky gets its name from the level 4 char (the “alligator” char) on the barrels used to age the whisky. This charring makes the wood look like alligator skin. It’s a rich, dark gold from the charring and the nose is all first-fill ex-Bourbon barrel. There’s creaminess with loads of spices, ginger, vanilla, and a touch of earthiness and tropical fruit. It’s buttery and rich, though again balanced with the smoke. The ginger and spices stand out on the palate, but there are a host of savory flavors like seaweed, smoke, wet stones, and soil, too. On the ridiculously long finish I find mint and pineapple and more vanilla.
I bask in the afterglow while eating at Ardbeg’s Old Kiln Café; it turns out they also make some of the best food on the island. I made several inappropriate sounds during the tasting, but it wasn’t the Ardbeg beast savaging me once more. No, I’d been given a kindly introduction and become fast friends with the beast instead. For Ardbeg is a beast, make no mistake, it’s just one you want to have at home on the shelf. That’s where my Uigeadail is.
Disclosure: I arranged the visit to Ardbeg; Micky provided the excellent tour and drams. All thoughts and opinions expressed here are my own.