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Chapter 4: The Whisky Makers; “Heavenly Peated”

 

 

One of the key tools in selling Scotch whisky to the world is the image of a lovingly hand-crafted product, made in remote parts of the Highlands and Islands, using traditional ingredients and methods handed down from generation to generation of dedicated and skilful local men. Yet walk into some malt distilleries today and you are confronted by an array of computer consoles, with just one man per shift controlling the entire production process with the aid of a mouse—and not the kind that nibbles away at the malt, either. But not all distilleries are like that. In some cases, what the marketing personnel tell consumers about personal input is entirely true. And nowhere is this more evident than at Ardbeg.

Certainly, there is a degree of useful automation, and the raw material of malt is no longer made on site, but walk into the stillhouse and there is not a computer console in sight. At quiet times the duty stillman may be found sitting in an ancient, wooden, kitchen chair, perusing a copy of Boat Fishing. This magazine is a favourite read in a distillery where most of the operators either own fishing boats, were previously fishermen, or served at sea in the Royal or Merchant Navy in the great tradition of island-dwellers the world over. Even distillery manager Mickey Heads owns a boat.

Unlike Many distilleries today, a large proportion of the spirit produced at Ardbeg is filled into casks and matured on site. There are no ‘flying warehouse squads’ here, moving from distillery to distillery, filling casks destined for maturation in large warehouse complexes far from the spirit's place of creation. At Ardbeg a dedicated warehouse team which knows the nuances and niceties of maturation can point out the choicest casks maturing in the finest locations. Of course, in these days when few people live all their lives in the place where they were born, not everyone who works at Ardbeg is an Ileach, as native islanders are known in Gaelic. But, as is so often the case, incomers enrich the community, and soon come to share the same passion and commitment to Ardbeg as those who are able to trace their roots on the island back through several generations and can boast impressive distilling pedigrees. However, islanders still make up the bulk o f the Ardbeg workforce, and as the village of Port Ellen is noted for its prolific use of nicknames, staff members are rarely known by their Christian names, as will become obvious in the following pages!

Ardbeg is in production 24 hours a day, seven days per week, and operates three eight hour shifts each day, with two members of production staff on duty at any one time. All members of the production team are dual-trained to control either the mashing or distilling sides of the operation, and are paired up to work together on a long-term basis, frequently swapping between distilling and mashing week by week.

As Ruaraidh Macintyre (‘Mackie’) recalls, " I started work in the stillhouse in 1989, you just did the one job at that time. If you were a mashman you were a mashman, and that was it." The warehouse squad usually comprises three or four members, at least two of whom have been trained for mashing and/or distilling duties, and can provide holiday and sickness cover as required. There are currently five warehouses at Ardbeg, and due to the demolition of several in the past there is now an idiosyncratic numbering system, hence the current warehouses are numbered 3, 9, 10, lox & 11.

Spending any significant length of time in the company of the Ardbeg staff it soon becomes apparent that there is an extremely strong sense of community and mutual respect among them, despite the many jokes and humorous put- downs that characterise any group conversation. As Head Warehouseman Douglas Bowman (`Dugga') says, "You hear people talking about Ardbeg and you know you're part of it all. It's a good feeling. Other guys would leave their distilleries to be part of Ardbeg. We're close and we get on well. We have fun. There's lots of banter between the production staff and us. We say they get paid more than us just for flicking a switch!"

According to Archie McKechnie (‘Yogi’) “I definitely enjoy the job. Everybody gets on well, and there's a great atmosphere. Everybody jokes and slags each other off—but in a good way. Nothing's taken to heart, and there's always a good answer fired back." ‘Mackie’ declares "Everyone will say to a man that they enjoy working here. There's lots of talk among the various guys who work in distilleries on the island about who's got the best stillhouse and who makes the best whisky and so on—but it's all abit of nonsense! At the end of the day, if we had a major problem we could go to Laphroaig or Lagavulin and they'd help out straight away."

Ed Dodson says of his arrival at Ardbeg to re-commission the distillery for new owners Glenmorangie in 1997, "I was very impressed by the guys. They loved Ardbeg and were so pleased i t was being revived. They knew they had a good product and took a lot of pride in the place. They were great workers."

One of those ‘guys’ was the late Alexander Woodrow, or 'Wardie,' Until his retirement in 2007, Wardie was the longest-serving member of the Ardbeg team, having worked at the distillery for 47 years. Interviewed soon after his retirement he recalled "I was born in Duich, between Port Ellen and Bowmore, in a wee tin house at the side o f the road 62 years ago. M y father was a shepherd at the farm there. He got a job at Ardbeg distillery when I was two and we moved there. He was a maltman. At first I was living in another tin house again! There were five or six of those at the distillery but they were knocked down later. After that, we lived in the Big House, which used to belong to the Hays and had recently been divided up into six flats when we went there.

"The house was right onto the sea: and the waves would crash up against the bedroom windows when the weather was really rough. Sometimes it was just like being at sea. Seaweed would pile up against the still house door in bad weather. There would be about a dozen families living at Ardbeg when I was growing up, and there were ruins of other cottages round about; there was a good wee shop, too.

"I left school at 14 and went to work on Ardbeg Farm, which was a dairy farm. I was there for four years and then the distillery manager, Dougie Maclntyre took me on. My first job was in the malt barns, turning the malt, and I enjoyed that. It was hard work, but good fun. We got two wee drams for helping the warehousemen fill lorries with casks once or twice a week, and the work was always more fun after those! My father liked a dram, and he liked to drink the wash in particular. A lot of the men did in those days."

Until the 1980s, distillery workers received several, semi-official measures o f whisky per day, usually of high-strength, 'new-make' spirit straight from the stills, and if a particularly dirty or unpleasant task had to be undertaken, they would be rewarded with a ‘dirty dram,’ as it was known. Inevitably, this led to some rather intoxicated employees from time to time. 'Wardie' recalls "One day, I had a bottle of whisky in the house, and when we had a break at lunchtime me and this other chap went to the house and we had a few drams. Well, we ended up lying down by the roadside and had a sleep. We were supposed to be back at work at 2pm, but, of course, we weren't. I was suspended for a week that time by Hamish [Scott.] We used to work Christmas and New Year in those days, and I remember one New Year's Day when nobody at work was sober!

"Only myself and Ruaraidh stayed on with Allied when they closed the distillery down. We were sent to work at Laphroaig a lot of the time. When the distillery reopened I was quite surprised to get my job back! When Allied started it up again it was me and Duncan Logan, the brewer, and pretty well the same number of staffasthere is now. Lots of buildings had been knocked down after the place closed, including some of the warehouses. I thought it was such a waste. Number 1 was a very good warehouse — that's where the oil tank is now."

After the retirement of Wardie', stillman and mashman James Gillespie became the most senior Ardbeg operative, though he is universally known as ‘The Gow.’ "I got my nickname from my father," he explains. "He was ‘The Gow’ too. He was an accordion player who played tunes composed by Niel Gow. I was born on 'the island at Bridgend, and worked in farming and the building trade before starting here at Ardbeg in 1989. We were only mashing and distilling half the week then. We distilled Monday to Wednesday and then Thursday and Friday; we put what we had filled into the warehouse. Iain Henderson was running Ardbeg then, as well as Laphroaig. The place was much more run down then than it is now. There was no shop or proper visitor centre. "There was no production from 1981 to 1989, and when Allied closed it again in July 1996 I was made redundant and I thought that was it, Ardbeg would never open again. But we were lucky, and when Glenmorangie came along and bought the place six months later I was taken back on." Until his retirement in January 2016, The Gow's regular shift colleague was Alastair Johnston, or ‘Asha,’ who says "Every one of my friends has got a nickname, every one. Some are Gaelic. I got mine when I was a boy. There's another guy who works in the maltings at Port Ellen, and he's also Asha. He's known as Big Asha. Well I'm not small, so you can guess what size he is!

"I was born in Port Ellen, and was a fisherman for 25 years, fishing out of Port Ellen for scallops and lobsters, but I've been here the last five years. A lot of the boys have got boats, although the fishing's got depleted now and there are too many rules and regulations. The boys are doing it as a hobby, just for the pot, because you're not allowed to sell what you catch. Neil and Ruaraidh were also fishing, and we have two boys working here who are ex-Navy. I got to know Stuart and Jackie Thomson and then a job here came along. Stuart and Jackie put Ardbeg back on the map. Their contribution has been massive. Jackie's one of the hardest workers I've ever seen. She's got so much passion and enthusiasm.

"This job is much easier than fishing! I started in the warehouse and then moved into the still house and mash house. I learnt how to do it all from ‘The Gow,’ and I was doing it by myself sooner than I expected. The first day was a bit nerve-racking, but there's always somebody next door in the mash house if you're not sure." Islay remains a place of distilling dynasties, and `Asha' explains that "My younger brother, Neil, works here too, and another brother works at Laphroaig. My father was also at Laphroaig, but he's retired now. ‘The Gow’ is my brother-in-law. That's how it is on. Islay!" Neil Johnston is rather
 obscurely known as 'Philco,'
 a nickname which definitely 
requires explanation. "There 
was a talent contest in the
 Ramsay Hall in Port Ellen
back in the 1950s," he says, 
"and my father won it for his singing. He was a pub singer. He was offered the chance to go and record a song for Philco, who made radios at that time, though he never took them up on it. And I got the nickname Philco. There were two boys before me in the family, including ‘Asha,’ so why I got that nickname I really don't know!

"I'm another ex-fisherman. Most of us here have been at sea—in fact all of us except Drew. Mainly for scallops, prawns, lobsters and crabs. At one time, you'd never leave the fishing to go and work in a distillery. But now distilling is the best job you can get into on Islay. I was eleven years at the fishing, and then I got married. With a wife and a child on the way, the idea of a salary and a steady job became attractive. I loved fishing, but by the time I was doing it there wasn't the same sort of money to be made as when my brother, ‘Asha,’ was doing it.

"So I came up to Ardbeg to see Ed Dodson who was the manager when it first started up again, and he said the jobs would be advertised. I got an interview, and I was the only one without distillery experience who was taken on. I started in May 1997 and was sent to Laphroaig for three weeks to learn the rudiments of distilling. When Allied had Ardbeg it was always second fiddle to Laphroaig, so when Glenmorangie got the place it was the first time it had really had its own identity for years and years.

 

“I'm another ex fisherman. Most of us here have been at sea — in fact all of us except Drew. Mainly for scallops, prawns, lobsters and crabs. At one time, you'd never leave the fishing to go and work in a distillery. But now distilling is the best job you can get into on Islay."

  

"When we started up I was put on with Ruaraidh, who knew what he was doing, and I've been here ever since with him. I've tried to get another partner, but I can't seem to get away from him!" Ruaraidh Macintyre, or ‘Mackie’ as he is usually known, says "My mother was English but my father was local. His grandfather worked in the same room where I work now. Then it was the dryer room, with a big drum filled with steam, drying the draff for farmers to use as cattle feed. He worked on the job for 20 years.

"I've always lived in Port Ellen, and I was fishing from when I left school. When the distillery was due to reopen in 1989 I applied for a job and got it. At the time I was fishing
I remember the old shop and post office at Ardbeg was still working. It was owned by the Cunningham family. When I was about ten years old I used to help a guy who was fishing for lobsters. He'd anchor at the pier at Ardbeg and I'd run up to the shop for crisps and sweets. When the shop closed it was a huge loss. The place was a proper village, but lots of the houses were knocked down.

"Ardbeg as a community pretty much died when they closed the place for ten years. At one time the distillery employed more than 30 people, many in the old malt barns. There were eight to ten on the production side. Once Ardbeg closed people went to other distilleries to work or left altogether."

Another member of the production team with a fine, Islay distilling pedigree is Archie McKechnie, known as ‘Yogi.’ "I got my nickname because I had a jacket with a furry hood when I was at school, and a boy said one day that I looked like Yogi Bear!" he recalls. "I was born in Bowmore, and my father worked in the warehouses at Laphroaig for many years, after being in the Navy. My great-grandfather was manager at Caol Ila. His name was Gordon, and I didn't know about the Caol Ila connection until it was pointed out to me when Caol Ila produced abook about the place and its history.

"My first job was as a labourer on the old Manpower Services scheme, then I went to Machrie golf course where I trained as a green keeper, doing college courses and so forth. After awhile I went back to labouring again, and was working on the buildings at Ardbeg with Woodrow when a job came up in the warehouses. I applied and I got it. I started work at Ardbeg in February 1998, and there were three of us in the warehouses at that time. I also learnt the mashing so that I could cover that when necessary, and then in 2005 I got the chance to work full time in the mash house. I got the job when Malcolm Rennie left to become manager at Kilchoman. I just do the mashing, I don't do distilling as well, like some of the boys."

Although no longer on the Ardbeg payroll, Malcolm Rennie is keen to discuss his time at the distillery, noting that "Getting a job at Ardbeg in May 1997 was a great thing for me as I'd been made redundant from Bruichladdich in 1994 when it closed. I was unemployed for a while, and was just doing bits and pieces after that. So it was a great chance to get back into distilling. When I was ten years old my father, John, came over to Islay as a cooper at Bunnahabhain. That was 1980. He ended up as head warehouseman there, and is now retired. I worked in the warehouses at Bunnahabhain for six months after I left school, then joined the Merchant Navy for two and a half years, before going to Bruichladdich to work.

"I remember while Ardbeg was closed I'd go up to see Don Raitt sometimes as I was into motorbikes. He was the caretaker manager, in effect. There was scaffolding on the pagodas at the time. Don had old Nortons and he did repairs on bikes for people. He had his bikes in the old tin shed, the peat shed that was in what is now the car park area. There was a lot of old peat lying around, and we put it into number 3 and number 9 warehouses. We cleared the casks out, put the peat in, then put the casks back. It was really just the `caff,' the dry bits of peat. The distillery was in a pretty bad state at that time. They had replaced the heating tanks when I started work there in 1997—that was about all Allied had done.

"The re-opening of Ardbeg was exciting for me. I was there when the first spirit came through. Ed Dodson played a big part in the first six months. When I got the job at Ardbeg I told Stuart [Thomson] I wanted to be more than just stillman/mashman, and Stuart started getting me on management courses. I ended up going over to Glen Moray in March 2003 and was there for six months as assistant manager. I learnt a lot from Ed. It was really due to Stuart that I got the Glen Moray job, he got me into management. All the guys at Ardbeg owe Stuart a lot. It was a great team there. A good bunch of guys. I was sad to leave, but it was onwards and upwards, as I was appointed distillery manager at Kilchoman."

The departure of Malcolm Rennie to Kilchoman allowed Alec Livingstone (‘Aza’) the opportunity to move from working with the warehouse squad into a shift job, undertaking mashing and distilling duties. Regarding his nickname, Aza says "I got my nickname because at one time I worked for a plumber and he said I had a habit of going "...Aza was saying!" I was born and bred in Port Ellen, and my father worked at Lagavulin and then was a warehouseman at Port Ellen distillery. Of course, Port Ellen whisky is very sought after now, since the distillery closed in 1983.

"I was at Laphroaig in the early 1970s, working the draff dryer, then I spent nine years in the Royal Navy, getting paid to see the world! When I was back home I was drinking in the White Hart in Port Ellen one night and there were some Devon fishermen in the bar. They were fishing for crab and lobster and were looking for a crew member. So, I did that for a couple of years, but although it was good money there was no security. I came back to Islay around 1986 and worked for the Manpower Services people, rebuilding walls and working on the visitor centre over at Loch Finlaggan.

"There were rumours that Ardbeg was maybe reopening. The manager at that time, Don Raitt, was an ex-Royal Naval Reserve man, and he knew I'd done all the fire-fighting courses and so forth. I got the job, in 1989, and started by emptying and tidying all the warehouses. I even cleaned the pair of stills with rags and white sand. I was one of five or six guys doing that for a few weeks, and it was hard work. This was before the distillery, started up again, of course, but when it did, I began to do the mashing. The place is beyond recognition now compared to what it was like before it reopened. Doors were hanging off and everything was dirty and untidy, with weeds everywhere. Now it's all white and clean and tidy."

Another beneficiary of Malcolm Rennie's move to Kilchoman was Andrew Mullen (‘Drew’), the only English member of the Ardbeg team. Born and brought up in north-east England Drew says "I started on a government-funded scheme for nine months, replacing a guy who had moved across to work at Glenmorangie's Glen Moray distillery near Elgin. But then he changed his mind about being there and moved back. After that, I was here temporarily for nine weeks, and then Aza got the mashman/stillman job when Malcolm Rennie left to run Kilchoman, so they needed a replacement warehouseman, and I was taken on for that. My girlfriend had moved here from Durham in 1999, and I loved Scotland and I loved whisky. I visited her for two years and then moved up. Girl, whisky, Scotland — fantastic!

"I then moved to processing five years ago. Previously, they had six process operators, then they needed 10 for new shift patterns when the distillery switched to 24/7 working. I was one of the warehousemen who went over to the processing side, but I loved working in the warehouses.

"Learning processing takes three months, and the mashing side is more complicated than distilling. I enjoyed learning how to make whisky, but there are only ever two guys on at one time, so you don't get the same banter as you did in the warehouses. I always say that it's the warehouse guys who make the whisky. We give it them as new-make, they put it to sleep, and when it wakes up, it's whisky!"

Drew's former colleague in the warehouse squad is Douglas Bowman, or ‘Dugga.’ "I was ten years in the Navy before I came here in 1997," he says. "I got into the distillery by chance. I met Ed Dodson at Sports Day in Port Ellen just as they were starting up again. I put my ‘CV’ in and got the job. My gran and grandpa were both at Laphroaig, as was my great-uncle Ian. I also had an uncle worked at Lagavulin, so there's been a long distilling connection. It's really ‘dead men's shoes’ to get into it, so I was very lucky to get a start. When I go into the warehouses I know I've had a major hand in building those stows. And I love the smell!"

2010 saw a significant change to the workload for the Ardbeg warehouse team, as in that year the task of disgorging casks and preparing batches of whisky for bottling was transferred back to the distillery when Glenmorangie moved from its base at Broxburn, in West Lothian, to the Alba Campus at Livingston.

Distillery planner Janey Torrance receives lists of which casks are required for various expressions, and each cask is sampled at the distillery before being disgorged into vats. A sample of the finished version, once all the various casks have been disgorged, is sent to head office in Edinburgh for final evaluation, then the batch is shipped out by road tanker for bottling at the Alba Campus facility.

As a result of this development, the team was expanded to six full-time warehousemen, who work one shift per day, Monday to Friday. The disgorging and preparation work involves many cask movements, and additionally, new-make is now filled to cask three times a week, rather than two, as the distillery is operating on a 24/7 basis. With the change to seven-day working in 2013, the number of mashing/distilling shift process operators also increased, rising to ten.

Dugga explains that "I was appointed head warehouseman in 2008, and there's lots more warehousing work than there used to be. There are four new palletised warehouses to come this year, as we're getting pretty full.

"Until my appointment, there had never been a head warehouseman at Ardbeg. The company appointed one at Glenmorangie and decided we really ought to have one here, too. There used to be three of us in the warehouses, but now I have a team of five working for me, and I'm kept very busy organising and planning the work. "I work closely with Janey, arranging it so that spirit is ready in batches for tankering out as required. I'm not one for sitting in the office, I'd rather be out at the ‘coal face,’ and I really enjoyed the days when it was hands on, just filling and stowing casks.

"I was in on the interviews for the new warehouse jobs, and I knew all of the guys we appointed. They're all in their twenties, all local, and most play for Port Ellen football club. They all know each other outside work and all get on, so there has been plenty of banter and camaraderie from the start. They're all I could ask for—very hard-working."

The warehouse team under Dugga now comprises Colin Campbell, Neil Campbell, Benjamin Ayres and Arthur Wilson, along with Kevin Johnston. Kevin explains that "I started working in the café kitchen ten years ago, ending up as sous chef. When the distillery went on to seven-day working two guys went from the warehouse onto shift work on the process side. I'd previously applied for a warehouse job, and I applied again, and this time I got it. I started on. 1st October 2012, and my twin brother got my job in the kitchen.

"Everybody in the warehouse knew each other from Port Ellen and we're all of a similar age. It can be hard work, especially handing sherry butts, which weigh over half a tonne. Monday, Wednesday and Friday we do fillings — usually 96-100 casks on Monday and Wednesday, then 60-70 on Friday. We finish Monday's filling by the afternoon and then start taking casks from the warehouses and disgorging them on Tuesday. I trained as a process worker last year to cover holidays and sick leave. It took me five weeks in the mashhouse to get used to it, as it's not mechanised, and there's lots to remember.

When 'm not working I like to play golf and watch football and rugby, and though I never used to drink Ardbeg, now Uigeadail is my favourite."

A more recent recruit is Alex Gillespie, son of The Gow, and a man who is certainly keeping the Ardbeg tradition of family alliances alive. "Dad was still here when I started, so I was known as Wee Gow," he says. "As well as my dad, mum's father worked at Ardbeg, too. He's Philco's dad, and Kevin is my cousin! Before starting here, I worked as an electrical contractor, and was away from the island a lot. In fact, I was living in Glasgow when dad said there was a job going, and I'd been wanting to get back to Islay.

"I started out h e warehouses for three months, then was called on to do shift cover on the processing side. I learnt that, and did it for two years. I'm now Distillery Technician, and the two years actually making whisky really helped me to understand what can go wrong and how everything works. I'm responsible for all plant maintenance, and I help deal with contractors when they're on site. There's lots of variety, and it's never the same two days running.

"Away from work I play golf and follow football and rugby. I tend to drink beer, but I do drink Ardbeg, and in particular Uigeadail. However, my all-time favourite is Rollercoaster."

In addition to the five new warehouse staff recruited between 2013 and 2017, there have also been three new production staff members, including Graeme Campbell in. 2010, then George Main and Gordon MacAffer in 2013. Gordon, whose father previously worked at Ardbeg and whose brother works at Laphroaig as a brewer, started out in the warehouse. Just as with many of the other production staff, his time as a warehouseman is fondly remembered, particularly for the special occasions when casks were selected for bottling.

One of the most unusual ‘back stories’ of any Ardbeg whisky maker must surely be that of Alistair Blair, who started out with the warehouse squad, but now acts as a process operator, undertaking mashing and distilling duties.

"For 20 years I taught in a university in Glasgow," he says. "I taught the technical side of how to manufacture artificial limbs to undergraduates and postgraduates. Then I worked at the State Hospital at Carstairs in Lanarkshire [a high-security psychiatric hospital], on the security side of things.

"I came to the island in 2004, working as a haulage driver. My wife is an. Ileach. We decided to come over and settle and have a family. I tried to get a distillery job but there were none going, so I took the transport job. For me it was like an emigration, coming to the island. My ultimate goal was to get into the distillery environment. I joined Ardbeg in July 2007 and it's absolutely fantastic. It's a small, tight-knit workforce, all brilliant guys.

"I found it very easy to fit in on the island. Every day I went to work when I was driving was like a holiday. Everything seemed spectacular. We've got a child now, and he's being brought up on the island. "I've known Mickey [Heads] since his time at Jura distillery. He stuck out for his professionalism and for being such a knowledgeable and nice guy, so the fact he was manager here was a real pull for me when the job was advertised. He has the reputation of being the doyen of distillery managers."

That ‘doyen’ of managers has been at the Ardbeg helm since 2007, and as an Ileach, his knowledge of Ardbeg and the island's other distilleries goes back much further. "I was born in Port Ellen, but as boys we used to come up to Mrs Cunningham's shop at Ardbeg to buy our sweeties," he remembers. "We'd cycle up on our bikes. It was the only shop at this end of the island. Grandfather was head maltman at Port Ellen distillery, and father was at sea, then he worked in Port Ellen as a stillman. There would be 20-odd people working there at the time. I'd go in to Port Ellen and stack peat when I was a boy, and grandfather even made me a little shiel - the wooden shovels used by maltmen! It was a great place for a boy, but I didn't want to work in a distillery— I either wanted to be a policeman or go to sea.

lain Henderson referred to Ardbeg as a ‘sleeping giant.’ He had a soft spot for the place, and he knew it made good quality spirit.

 

"After school I worked at Bridgend timber mill and at the peat cutting. Then the assistant brewer at Laphroaig said they were looking for someone, and I started work there on 1st October 1979. I doubled my money. £50.50 was my first Laphroaig wage! I cut peat, cleaned out the lade, which carries water to the distillery, and was part of the squad doing all those sort of jobs, including painting and maintaining the grounds. I did that with ‘Asha's father, and I did it for three or four years. There was a lot of peat cutting each spring, and I also did making and warehousing work. Then I worked with the engineers and I took a shift job when it came up. I was given two weeks' training on the stills and then I was left to it. I was also trained in mashing, and eventually I got the assistant brewer's job.

"In the early 1990s I was assistant brewer on shift, under lain Henderson. When Alan McConnachie left—he's now managing Benriach on Speyside — I trained in the mash house and then was asked to be brewer. We were running both Laphroaig and Ardbeg at the time. Iain Henderson referred to Ardbeg as a `sleeping giant.' He had a soft spot for the place, and he knew it made good quality spirit.

"Not that many manager's jobs come along, and so when Jura came up in 1999 I went for it. I threw my hat into the ring and I got it. I loved Jura, and when the Ardbeg manager's vacancy arose I took a lot of weeks mulling it over before I put my ‘CV’ in. I like Ardbeg, the distillery and the place, and it was good to come back `home,' as it were, to get back to Islay. Although Port Ellen is just three miles away you feel totally separate from it at Ardbeg, totally isolated. My house is in the perfect setting, with views to die for. You don't even hear the distillery. I make a point of enjoying my free time. At Jura the distillery was at the bottom of my garden and it was too handy to just keep going in. I liked life on Jura and it wasn't as if I wanted to get away. I knew Ardbeg previously when I was assistant Brewer at Laphroaig and used to help here at Ardbeg during that time. So I knew and liked the place well.

"My father used to go fishing with the guys from Port Ellen distillery. As a boy I played football and golf, and on Jura I did some loch fishing and clay pigeon shooting. When I came back to Islay, to Ardbeg, I decided to get a boat and go line fishing. The boys have been great at helping me—five of them have got boats of their own. The whisky we distill here is very good—so you don't need to change the place. I'm really just carrying it all forward. I see myself as a caretaker. Somebody will always come along after you, and maybe do it differently. So, you just do it as well as you can, and with as much passion as you can.

 

THE WHISKY-MAKERS ON ISLAY

 


Neil Johnston (Philco) - Process Operator

 

Philco—Neil Johnston

All the distilleries are working far harder now than they were twenty years ago. You used to get tourists on Islay, but mainly ‘ex-pats,’ back to see family at Glasgow Fair holidays and the like. There were never any foreign visitors, but there are lots now with the interest in the whisky. However, the school numbers are way down. Port Ellen primary school has 53 pupils now. There were 180 to 200 when I was there. There are lots of holiday homes on the island, for one thing, and families were a lot bigger. You'd maybe have six to 10 kids, whereas now a big family is three kids.

 

The Gow—James Gillespie

Islay has changed in that there are fewer residents here now than 40 years ago.Young people have to leave to get jobs. One of my sons and one daughter live and work in London. A few of the young people come back after a while, but not many. However, the whisky industry on Islay is going pretty well at present. There's more money spent promoting Islay whiskies these days, and the tourist season is getting longer all the time, which is good for local businesses.

 

Mackie - Ruaraidh Macintyre

Islay goes up and down. When I left school there were loads of jobs. If you wanted a job in a distillery you went and ‘put your name in’ and you got a job. Wages were very poor then. You only went into distilling if you couldn't get anything else. So I went into the fishing where there was far more money. It's all gone full circle now—a distillery job is very desirable. There are lots o f ‘white settlers’ and house prices have gone up, but lots of people have left the island, so they are replacing them in effect. The children get their degrees on the mainland and will only come back for holidays.

 

Aza—Alec Livingstone


The number of cars on the island now is crazy. Lots of incomers appear, looking for houses and for jobs. Retired people from the south of England, too, and they want to make the place like where they came from. They all open craft shops! And there are a lot of holiday homes on the island now. A lot of characters on the island have gone. When I started at Laphroaig there were only dungarees. We wore tartan shirts and flat caps to work.

 

Asha—Alistair Johnston

There have been big changes on Islay in the last 30 years or so. There's ever more tourism, and foreign `whisky tourists' are a massive thing now. Cheap flights from Scandinavia bring people in. They enjoy their malts, and they are very expensive over there.

 


Archie McKechnie (Yogi) - Process Operator 

 

 
Malcom Livingstone (Aza)

 


Andrew Mullen (Drew) - Process Operator 

 
Douglas Bowman (Dugga) - Warehouse Manager

 

 
Kevin Johnston (Kev) - Warehouseman

 

 
Colin Campbell (Col) - Warehouseman

 

Neil Campbell (Butcher) - Warehouseman

 

Arthur Wilson - Warehouseman 

 

 James Gillespie (Wee Gow) - Distillery Technician

 

 


Written by Gavin D Smith & Graevie Wallace

 

The text is an excerpt from "Ardbeg: Heavenly Peated" (pp. 89 - 108), written by Gavin D Smith & Graevie Wallace, published 2018 by Hogback Publishing.



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