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Chapter 3: Part Two - Glenmorangie's Second Decade; “Heavenly Peated”

 

 

During Glenmorangie's ‘second decade’ of Ardbeg ownership, the company's reputation as an excellent guardian of the distillery and its single malt brand has been significantly enhanced by the release of some highly regarded new expressions and by developments at the distillery itself.

Head of Distilling & Whisky Creation Dr Bill Lumsden has continued to innovate with his use of different cask types, and building on his previous experience with The Glenmorangie to maximise the potential of the Ardbeg stock profile, bearing in mind how many gaps there are in it, due to periods of operational silence. Given that the distillery has now been working without interruption for 20 years, Lumsden has a strong inventory of well-matured whiskies at his disposal, which was certainly not the case during the early years of Glenmorangie's ownership.

This has led to the possibility of offering older bottlings with age statements as well as the much- vaunted ‘non-age-statement’ expressions with which the distillery's reputation largely has been made during the Glenmorangie years. In 2017, the first permanent addition to the portfolio for a decade came in the shape of An Oa.

a remarkable 1.4 million litres was achieved in 2016

Scotch whisky has continued to grow in global popularity during the past decade, and single malts in particular have found ever greater favour. The share of revenue earned by malts as a total of Scotch whisky exports has grown 26 per cent, hitting the £1bn mark for the first time in 2016.

 At the same time, the public's love affair with Ardbeg has also increased, with sales volumes rising by a remarkable 20 per cent in 2015 and 2016, and with 1.2 million bottles being sold in the latter year. Manager Mickey Heads has done a fine job of squeezing more capacity out of the distillery without compromising quality, and a remarkable 1.4 million litres was achieved in 2016. During Mickey's tenure, changes at Ardbeg have most notably associated with the move to 24/7 operation in 2010 and the return to the distillery of cask disgorging and batch assembly of whiskies, as well as work to improve the aesthetics of the overall site.

"We first installed steel vats at the distillery in 2010, to hold various expressions," says Mickey, "and in 2016 we replaced them with three new vats. The one for Uigeadail was increased in size from 18,000 litres to 36,000 litres, and Corryvreckan from 12,000 to 20,00 litres. We also have a vat for the 10-year-old, and we're usually tinkering out 28/29,000 litres of that at a time. An Oa has its own steel vat as well, where the whisky is pumped from the An Oa Gathering Vat when it's ready to be sent away.

"To produce An Oa we installed two French oak vats (15,000 litres each) and the main. 30,000 litres Gathering Vat where it sits while marrying, before being pumped to the A n Oa steel vat ready to be transported away. Whisky from three types of wood go into the An Oa recipe. The French oak vats are located in the second kiln house, which hadn't been used since 1979. It was derelict, so we've got a new use for an old building.

"In 2015 we carried out a bicentenary refurbishment. We moved the draff intake round the back, out of sight of the public, and created a new entrance and car park, giving us a nice pedestrianised area in front of the distillery, which is ideal for events like Ardbeg Day.

"The existing filling store is getting too small, as we are outgrowing it, so at some point we hope to build a new, larger one, which will move that part of the operation and the storage tanks away from where the public are. We've built a new boiler house, a new compressor building, and installed new malt holding bins, which have changed the look of the back of the distillery a bit.

"Most significantly, we plan to put in a second pair of stills—which will be exact replicas of the pair in place, along with a minimum of four new washbacks. The quality of the product is paramount, and that must be taken forward in all future developments. Our aim when expanding capacity will be to keep the existing ambience of the site intact. If you look at old photos of the Ardbeg stills, they are just the same, except they're rivetted, rather than welded. It will be well into 2019 before the expansion is completed and it will give us a potential capacity of 2.2/2.4 mla. So, these are exciting times."

To cope with 24/7 operation and enhanced warehousing functions, the Ardbeg staff complement has risen to a total of 19, in addition to those involved on the visitor-related side of the business. It is testament to the loyalty felt by employees that during Glenmorangie's ‘second decade’ owning Ardbeg, none of the production staff have left, apart from James Gillespie— The Gow'—who retired in 2016, and whose son Alex is now part of the distillery team.

One of those team members, occupying a position that previously did not exist, is distillery planner Janey Torrance. "I'm an Ileach born and bred," she declares. "I was born in Port Ellen and now live in Bridgend. I joined Ardbeg in 2008 as a clerical assistant. I previously worked in the office at Bowmore Primary School, and I feel I'm still working with a bunch of big kids here! My role has changed a lot since I started, and I'm now Ardbeg distillery planner.

 

When I started at Ardbeg, Mickey gave me a sample of the new-make to nose, and I thought it smelled like my father's old pipe!

 

"I get the recipes with cask selections for each batch sent over from head office in Edinburgh, and I pass this on the warehouse team for them to select and disgorge the appropriate casks to make up each batch. I also deal with Customs & Excise requirements, and time sheets for the staff, and I'm responsible for calculating how much electricity, oil etc is used per tonne of malt in the whisky-making process.

"It's a great team to work with here, there's a lovely team spirit and everyone is very supportive. When people come in the door they can sense the friendliness, I think.

"When I started at Ardbeg, Mickey gave me a sample of the new-make to nose, and I thought it smelled like my father's old pipe! Now I get the sweetness as well, and I enjoy drinking the 10-year-old and Uigeadail. Sometimes I drink it with water and occasionally with ice and dry ginger. I loved Dark Cove when it came out, too." 2015 saw Ardbeg distillery celebrate its 200th anniversary with releases of Perpetuum and Ardbeg 1815, while on June 26th, His Royal Highness, The Duke o f Rothesay (aka Prince Charles) visited Ardbeg.

After touring the site, he was presented with a bottle of Ardbeg Kildalton whisky, launched to support His Royal Highness's Initiative in its objective of promoting and strengthening the people, places and products of the rural areas of Scotland, such as Islay. The Kildalton Project' is the development of a modern community hall in Port Ellen, undertaken in collaboration with the South Islay Development charity and St. John's Church.

On His Royal Highness's departure from Ardbeg, Marc Hoellinger, President and Chief Executive of The Glenmorangie Company who accompanied The Prince on his visit, declared that "This is a very exciting time for Ardbeg. Since the renaissance of the distillery in 1997 Ardbeg has acquired a hugely passionate following amongst malt whisky aficionados across the world. This success and the hard work of all involved in Ardbeg means that today there are 38 full and part-time posts at the distillery, making a valuable contribution to the community and economy of South Islay.

"Ardbeg distillery with its Old Kiln Cafe is a vibrant meeting place both for whisky fans and the local community; and we look forward to extending this ‘community spirit’ further in the months and years to come—supporting the people of South Islay with the development of a much- needed new gathering place in Port Ellen. The visit of His Royal Highness to Ardbeg gives great encouragement to the staff of the distillery, their families and the wider Islay community."

 

ARDBEG IN SPACE

On 12th September 2014 vials from Ardbeg that contained a class of compounds known as ‘terpenes’ re-entered the earth's atmosphere after spending almost three years aboard the International Space Station. For lovers of minutiae, that means the vials orbited the earth's atmosphere at 17,227 miles per hour, 15 times a day for a total of 1,045 days. Back on earth, a control sample of the same compounds was less energetic, spending its time in Warehouse No. 3 at Ardbeg distillery.

The vials from the International Space Station were taken to a scientific laboratory in Houston, Texas, for analysis, and Bill Lumsden was one of those keen to explore potential differences between the vials of Ardbeg-crafted molecule that had been subjected to normal gravity and those that had spent time in space—with micro- gravity. According to Bill Lumsden, "It's genuinely scientific and certainly not a marketing gimmick. Nanorex is the company which organises all the experimentation on the Space Station, and they are big Ardbeg fans, so they asked if there was something they could do with us.

"We sent the compounds with new ex-Bourbon barrel shavings, and I'm analysing the samples on an organoleptic and chromatographic basis. I'm hoping that the whole thing might lead to new expressions or new techniques. We've had a huge amount of international publicity over it, and wechose to re-release a variant of Supernova to coincide with the vials' return to earth.

 

ARDBEG AND I – DR BILL LUMSDEN

 Dr Bill Lumsden is Head of Distilling &
Whisky Creation for The Glenmorangie 
Company. He obtained a BSc (Hons) in 
Biochemistry & Cell Biology from Glasgow
 University, followed by a PhD in Microbial
 Physiology/Fermentation Science from Heriot 
Watt University, Edinburgh. He then joined
 United Distillers in 1986, working as a researc
h scientist, in distillery/maltings management and quality assurance. In 1995, he joined The Glenmorangie Company Ltd, initially as distillery manager for Glenmorangie, taking up his present role three years later.

"The thing I enjoy most about Ardbeg is trying to create differentiated expressions. It's more of a challenge in that respect than my work with Glenmorangie. It's about trying to tame the peatiness. In terms of flavour profile, it's almost the opposite of Glenmorangie, and that's a challenge."

Taking creativity and experimentation to a new level, samples of Ardbeg spirit have spent several years on the International Space Stations, with the spirit still undergoing analysis. According to Bill, "The Ardbeg in Space' project is still ongoing. We've had the Scotch Whisky Research Institute (SWRI) doing intense work on samples, and they've found compounds that they've never found in whisky before. We're looking at that and carrying the research forward. It excites the chemist in me!"

In January 2000 a fan club was established and named the Ardbeg Committee. Not only was it intended to enable fans to have access to new releases, but to allow them to provide input towards new releases. Consequently, many of the expressions that go out as general releases will first have been tested as Committee bottlings. This feedback in greatly valued by Bill and the Glenmorangie development team.

According to Bill, “The Ardbeg Committee provides valuavle feedback to us, and one result of that feedback is that we now try to make more of the releases available globally. The Ardbeg Day bottling, released in 2012, was a global release, rather than just being available at the distillery, and that was an example of us listening to Committee feedback.

Regarding our Ardbeg releases to date, any differentiation has come through maturation, through using different cask types and by around with fermentation profiles and still ‘cut points,’ at the distillery.

We still have some old stock from the 1970s, and there could be a few nuggets coming from those in the future. The 21-year-old we launched in 2016 was the first of asporadic series of older whiskies, followed by Ardbeg Twenty-Something, actually a 23-year-old, which was launched late in 2017.

Demand for peated whiskies shows no signs of abating, and in my opinion, it will continue to increase. With that in mind, we're looking closely at doubling up Ardbeg by adding a second pair of stills. Mickey Heads has squeezed output up from a nominal maximum capacity of 1.lmla to 1.4m1a, but we really can't do any more than that with the present set up."

 


Ardbeg distillery from the east

 

 


Written by Gavin D Smith & Graevie Wallace

 

The text is an excerpt from "Ardbeg: Heavenly Peated" (pp. 71 - 79), written by Gavin D Smith & Graevie Wallace, published 2018 by Hogback Publishing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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