Chapter 6: Part One – Pre 1997; “Heavenly Peated”
Highly valued by blenders, historically Ardbeg has enjoyed a modest but persistent level of support as a single malt, with a steady flow of requests to the distillery for it. Initially these requests were for small, ‘octave’ casks, and latterly for bottles. However, due to the strong demand for Ardbeg as a blending whisky, it was never considered necessary or viable to actively market it asa single malt. Consequently, until recent times, the Ardbeg ‘brand’ has had virtually nothing spent on it in marketing terms, and very little spirit was ever bottled as a malt, resulting in it developing a 'cult' status.
Back in 1921 the idea of introducing a blend "purely made from not more than 25% old grain such as Cambus and 75% Ardbeg about 5yo" was considered. According to Colin E Hay, the distillery manager, "There is no doubt that in the colonies it is blended whisky they look for and their taste for a single pure malt whisky has not had a chance of being cultivated."
Hamish Scott, distillery manager from 1964, says “We filled one cask in 1964 for putting down. It was in poor wood, and the whisky tasted very woody back then. We eventually started filling into decent wood in the '70s.”
Prior to the 1970s, little attention was paid to cask selection, resulting in the spirit being stored in casks of varying quality, often imparting little influence to the maturing whisky. Consequently, much of the whisky that was bottled by the distillery in the 1970s and '80s was relatively dry, light and fruity. With the additional fluctuations associated with floor maltings, there was a relatively wide variation in the style of spirit being produced.
In 1973 Ardbeg first began to supplement its own malt production with an external supply, which means that spirit distilled in 1972 is the last totally Ardbeg-peated whisky. Initially 10 per cent, and then 15 per cent, of externally-malted barley was used, and this is unlikely to have affected the overall character of Ardbeg until 1977 when Hiram Walker experimented with considerably higher levels of externally-produced malt, even up to 100 per cent.
By 1975 bottling Ardbeg as a single malt was being considered more seriously by the company Board. Following a bottling in July of that year "Mr Scott reported that the initial reaction to the Ardbeg bottled in July had been encouraging, but it was very difficult to assess what future demand might be. The board agreed to continue bottling Ardbeg on a small scale." Hamish Scott wrote in a letter dated 19th June 1975 "Our whisky is a very traditional Islay malt having a distinctive peaty bouquet, although not as heavy as some others."
One of the very first retailers of bottled Ardbeg was the Van Wees company in Holland. (See box)
Having sampled some of the very first distillery bottlings, released in the 1970s, it is surprising to note the comparative lightness and ‘approachability’ of some of these expressions, both on the nose and palate. Having gained a reputation as the most heavily-peated single malt whisky in the world, and with the malt used in these bottlings being produced on the distillery's own floor makings, there was an expectation of a much more challenging whisky. Han Van Wees viewed the current Ardbeg as sweeter, preferring the drier style of whisky produced during the 1960s and early '70s.
Interestingly, we evaluated one of the earliest official Ardbeg bottlings side by side with an independent 10-year-old Cadenhead bottling, comprising spirit distilled and bottled in the same year, courtesy of Han Van Wees. Unlike the distillery offerings, the Cadenhead bottling epitomised the anticipated character of ‘old' Ardbeg. It was a robust, salty, peaty, commanding Ardbeg, which offers characteristics far from evident in subsequent distillery bottlings. Former Allied Distillers' blender Robert Hicks described Ardbeg rom the 1970s as being "like tarry rope or creosote," and the Cadenhead bottling most accurately reflects those descriptors.
Overall, both distillery and independent bottlin.gs of Ardbeg display wide variations of style. Despite this, the whisky has been considered one of the most highly prized of all single malts by most, if not all experts. According to the late Michael Jackson... "Every connoisseur regards Ardbeg as one of the greats..."
Whisky writer Jim Murray has long been one of Ardbeg's most vociferous champions, declaring it to be "Unquestionably the greatest distillery to be found on earth," and in his 2008 Whisky Bible awarded Ardbeg 10-year-old the supreme accolade of ‘World Whisky of the Year. Then, in 2009, Uigeadail received the same award.
Current Ardbeg distillery manager Mickey Heads says "I've always liked the spirit itself. It's got lightness and fruit and floral notes, then smoke. Then a big explosion in the mouth. There's a lot going on in the spirit. People are looking for flavour in their whisky, not just knocking it back any more. They now nose and taste their whiskies and know what they're doing. They want flavour."
Jackie Thomson declares "Ardbeg has a wonderful, complex aroma, and the peat doesn't wallop you in the face. There's lots of complexity on the nose to entice you in. There's an incongruity in the huge phenol content but with lots of sweetness. We are known for having the highest regular phenol content in the industry.
“We sometimes get bottles back from consumers saying that it tastes of cleaning fluid! They'll say things like ‘I bought it for my husband as a present, and it's not that he's not a malt drinker, because we've got a bottle of Glenfiddich in the cupboard.’ Often the bottles are almost empty! I try to phone them and talk to them. I think it's important we deal with complaints like that and try to explain to people what Ardbeg is about."
"Peat is obviously a big part of Ardbeg's character acknowledges Mickey Heads, but it's not all about that. It's multi-layered, with salt, sweetness and fruit. The use of a purifier on the spirit still helps bring over sweetness so that the smoke doesn't hit you in the face. You get citrus fruits, initial salty sweetness, then an explosion of phenols; a smoky, oily character, and then a deep, rich finish. It's a peaty paradox. Very balanced. Balance is the key. The sweet, citrus character is noticeable even on the new-make spirit."
"Believe it or not," says Glenmorangie's Bill Lumsden, "I had only tasted Ardbeg once before we bought the distillery! When Jim Murray came to see me at Glenmorangie, he always used to go on about Ardbeg, but I was probably a bit dismissive, thinking it was not really my style of whisky. Jim introduced me to it at the Machrie Hotel on Islay, just after we bought the distillery, and I was absolutely blown away. It was a Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseur's Choice 1978 vintage and I was hooked after that."
Reflecting the wide stylistic diversity apparent within Ardbeg bottlings, Bill notes that "There was a huge variation in the cask styles we bought with the distillery. Each year's distillation seems to be different: 1978 was very elegant and fruity, `77 was my favourite, with a beautiful fudged, toffee character to it, `75 was oily, diesely, gutsy, really full on. A lot of refill casks had been used.
"Even I find the full on, gutsy 1975 challenging, but the `77 was the `bee's knees.' 1977 undoubtedly had the classic Ardbeg notes of tarry rope, like Band Aid, a bit of sherbet lime in the background, but a lovely, round, Pudgy note to it which smoothed the whole lot out. I t was a very complete whisky. `78 also had lots of classic Ardbeg notes, but it was fruitier, with Florida Key lime pie sensation!"
Below is a selection of tasting notes, including some provided by Bill Lumsden, complemented by views from Belgian Ardbeg collector Geert Bero (see final chapter).
Pre-Hiram Walker bottling with white label and illustration of distillery - 80° Proof
"Very clean and sharp, with a slight smell of burnt plastic—but in a good way. A cow byre. Very dirty, but oh so drinkable! For me, this is a fantastic whisky. The ten-year-old is much better than the 12-year-old. You don't need to add water, drink it neat. It's already at 40% abv." Geert Bero
Hiram Walker 10-year-old bottling in clear glass with black label, white and gold. text - 70° Proof (Released 1977/78, whisky from early 1960s)
"I call it whisky for playing cards. You sit down with agroup of friends to play cards, and by the end of the evening the bottle is empty. It's quite light and gently peated—highly drinkable." Gem Bero
Hiram Walker 10-year-old bottling in green glass with black labels, white and gold text - 40% abv
"Mediocre whisky. Disappointing, I really thought it would be better." Geert Bero
Allied 15-year-old bottling in green glass with black labels, white and gold text - 43% abv
"This was sold in a package with an accompanying bottle of Laphroaig, and it's even worse than the ten-year-old!" Geert Bero
Allied 30-year-old bottling in green glass with black labels, white and gold text - 40% abv (Released 1996/7, comprising whisky from the 1960s)
"Dark oloroso Sherry wood. Very much a dessert whisky, ideal with pancakes. A very good whisky." Geert Bero
Sampling the various expressions of Ardbeg that have been bottled over the years provides a marvellous insight into just how much a whisky from one distillery can vary in character. The vast majority of Ardbeg bottlings range from 'great' to ‘stunning' and yet they are so different. Generally, all have the peat, smoke and fruit with floral and briny notes most readily associated with Ardbeg, but these attributes are discerned to varying degrees and are sometimes most evident on the nose in one expression while being more evident in the taste or finish in another.
While the owners of Ardbeg in the 1980s and '90s were not interested in marketing Ardbeg as a single malt, many excellent casks left the distillery and were stowed away by independent bottlers, offering an even wider exposure to aspects of Ardbeg's character.
Bert Vuik of Holland has a particularly fine collection of independent Ardbeg bottlings from pre-1981, when the distillery dosed for eight years and the in-house floor maltings were shut down forever. Interestingly, some of these independent bottlings are highly prized by colectors and enthusiasts, with a Cadenhead brown, dumpy-shaped bottle, distilled in 1959, selling for well over £1,000. According to Bert,"Mostly these bottling are valuable to me personally not in money terms. As far as prices of Ardbeg are concerned, the sums of money that are paid for some Ardbegs are totally crazy, at least to my mind"
Many of Bert's bottles are open and he kindly provided us with ten samples which display the considerable range of styles offered by Ardbeg. As former Allied master blender Robert Hicks sums upArdbeg's character as "tarryrope", we set out to discover which expressions best resembled that 'house' style.
Tasted by Graerne Wallace, the expressions are listed in order of personal preference, with the ultimate expression, and indeed the one with the strongest tarry rope attributes, being listed last.
Kingsbury: Ardbeg distilled 1967, bottled 1996 as 29-year-old at 54.6%. Cask 922
Not being a big Sherry wood fan, I find this expression is simply overpowered by Sherry.
Cadenhead: Ardbeg distilled 1965 as 24-year-old at 54.4% 75cl Dumpy, brown bottle.
A light and pleasant, sweet damp and briny nose, with a nice dry and tarry palate, although a bit wanting. A long-lasting pear finish, but a little bitter.
Samaroli: Ardbeg distilled 1973, bottled 1988 at 57%.
Fragments of Scotland. A promising, strong, sweet and briny start to the nose. Spicy and soft, slightly sweet and rather salty on the palate, with a soft, briny finish.
Signatory: Ardbeg distilled 1967, bottled 1997 at 52%. Cask 578, one of 540 bottles.
Although still dark in colour, the Sherry is more subdued in this expression than in the Kingsbury, but is still clearly evident. A sweet Sherry palate which masks the peat. Eventually, the peat becomes more evident at the end, despite the very pleasant and long lingering Sherry notes.
Cadenhead: Ardbeg 17-year-old at 46% 75c1. Dumpy, brown bottle.
Archetypal Ardbeg nose—sweet peat, slightly tarry, fragrant and inviting. The palate is lighter that the nose suggests, with a strong wave of peat coming through at the end. A long woody, briny finish. Very nice, but still not the best Cadenhead bottling we have tasted
Douglas Laing: Ardbeg distilled 1973, bottled 2003 at 51.9%. Platinum. One of 94 bottles.
Damp sawdust first comes to the fore, followed by sweet pears. The palate is sweet and very fruity, although it lacks much peat. A smokiness develops right at the end, then just lingers on and on!
Cadenhead: Ardbeg distilled 1974, bottled 1992 at 54.9% Authentic Collection.
Rich, sweet wood, with briny and fishy attributes, introduce this expression. The palate is dominated by salt, although there is also a clear, briny, smoky taste clawing the inside of your mouth. The salt-sweet cocktail lingers and lingers.
Kingsbury: Ardbeg distilled. 1974, bottled 2000 at 50%. One of 278 bottles.
Wet sawdust and sweet peat please the nose, while a creamy fruitiness dominates the palate. A salty, smooth finish goes up in a puff of smoke at the end. Great balance. So different to the previous expression yet equally pleasing and distilled in the same year!
Samaroli: Ardbeg distilled 1974, bottled 1983 at 59%. Sherry wood. One of 2,400 bottles.
Strong, burnt wood dominates the nose like a warming bonfire. A richness carries through to the palate; clean, sweet, fruity and delicious. A sweet spicy and delicate finish. Full and rich, here the Sherry has supported the maturation rather than dominated it.
Dun Eideann: Ardbeg distilled 1972, bottled 1991 at 58.9%. Cask 3,114. One of 320 bottles.
A very rich and thick treacle sweetness together with damp sawdust is clearly evident to the nose. On the palate, this becomes a real powerhouse of flavours. It is thick, cloying and has everything in huge quantities —lots of peat, briny yet sweet, lovely fruit and, yes, tarry rope! The finish is equally satisfying—sweet, tarry, briny and oh so long.
Ardbeg Old Islay Malt – Special Liqeuer, bottled at 75° proof
Ardbeg Old Islay Malt, bottled at 80° proof
Ardbeg 10-year-old at 70° proof (Mat label)
Four slightly different bottles of Ardbeg 10-year-old, one at 70 proof and 75.7cl, the other three at 40% ABV and 75cl
Four slightly different bottles of Ardbeg 10-year-old, one at 75cl, two at 70cl and one with no stated capacity at all
Ardbeg 15-year old, 50cl at 43% ABV and Very Old Ardbeg 30-year-old at 40% ABV
HAN VAN WEES
Along with his son, Maurice, Han Van Wees operates the Van Wees company from a shop on the outskirts of the Dutch city of Amersfoort, where some 1,200 whiskies are on sale. The origins of the family firm date back to 1921, when Han's father established a wholesale tobacco business, and from 1963 onwards Van Wees developed a secondary role distributing and retailing spirits. Since 1975 the concentration has been solely on spirits, with Van Wees acting as a whisky wholesaler to shops throughout Europe, and also bottling single casks under the 'Ultimate Single Malt Scotch Whisky Selection' label.
"Our clients started to ask us for malt whisky," recalls Han, "but you couldn't even buy it in London. So we began to specialise in importing malt whisky, and once we started doing this, customers from France and Germany as well as Holland came to buy malt from us. We were the first to import single malt Scotch whisky into mainland western Europe.
"In 1965 we bought casks of Ardbeg, Bowmore and Laphroaig from the Dutch Distillers company. They had been blending these with their own spirit, but by this time the market for the Dutch whisky they made was over—it was too expensive compared to blended Scotch. At that time you couldn't buy malt whisky from the Scottish distilleries, so this was how we got hold of some. We bought a hogshead of Ardbeg initially, and bottled it.
"Dutch Distillers only had Islays because they needed something with character to blend with their own spirit. Our bottling of the Islay malts was a great success. Subsequently, we imported virtually all the Scotch malt whiskies, except Glenfiddich and Balvenie, into Hollland.
"In 1976 we bought 50 cases of Ardbeg, and it sold so well that less than a year later we tried to get another 50 cases. We were told that the distillery didn't have any stock and we would have to wait until they got more orders, so we asked Cadenhead in Aberdeen to bottle two casks of Ardbeg for us instead. Two days later the distillery told us they now had orders from Japan and elsewhere so they were able to go ahead and bottle our 50 cases. We ended up with 50 cases of each!
"The two batches turned up within a week of each other, and I preferred the Cadenhead to the distillery bottling. We sold the distillery bottling and then the Cadenhead, and today I just have one open bottle of each left!
"We also bought lots of Connoisseur's Choice Ardbeg from Gordon & MacPhail in Elgin, and they bottled between 10 and 20 casks for us under their 'Spirit of Scotland' label. In my opinion, the 1993 Connoisseur's Choice bottling of Ardbeg, bottled in 2005, is one of the best of all time. It is drier than many bottlings, and has the typical smells and tastes that I associated with Ardbeg."
Written by Gavin D Smith & Graevie Wallace
The text is an excerpt from "Ardbeg: Heavenly Peated" (pp. 145 - 156), written by Gavin D Smith & Graevie Wallace, published 2018 by Hogback Publishing.
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