Chapter 7: The Experience; “Heavenly Peated”
For many visitors, arriving at Ardbeg distillery and being immediately struck by the sight of the imposing twin pagoda-roofed kilns, now home to the Old Kiln Cafe, is a momentous occasion. It may even be likened to arriving at some sacred, spiritual place; perhaps a cathedral to the whisky angels?
For some, just meeting Mickey or Jackie, or sighting Shortie is the highlight of their visit, while others come to stock up on their supplies of Ardbeg. While a number of visitors arrive by scheduled air service from Glasgow, or even by helicopter, most get to Islay via the two-hour CalMac ferry crossing from Kennacraig on the Argyll mainland. This provides plenty of time for eager whisky fans to revel in the anticipation of their fellow travellers, for whom a trip to the island may be a dream come true, perhaps many years in the planning. After spending time on Islay, no one leaves disappointed.
Asking Jackie Thomson the near impossible question of naming a particular stand-out moment during the last ten years, she recalled an event which encapsulates the enthusiasm and fondness that so many feel for Ardbeg, even if this particular experience is unattainable to most.
'We had a wonderful weekend during July 2014 when a German whisky lover and banker called Heiko celebrated his 50th birthday and `hired' the whole distillery for Sunday July 13th. He flew his nearest and dearest from all over the world to Islay and they embarked on a weekend of activities including cycling round Islay, horse riding and distillery visits. It was a beautiful day on the Sunday and the day incorporated a pleasant walk, a barbecue on the shore with pipers, a vintage Ardbeg tasting and tour, and canapes at dusk on the pier with pink Champagne. The evening culminated in a seafood buffet in the Old Kiln with a jazz band and drams. Heiko had evenbrought with him a bottle of vintage 1964 Ardbeg to celebrate his big day. As this was also the evening of the football world cup final, we rigged up a screen for the guests. Germany won that year and my abiding memory is Heiko standing on a chair holding a small replica World Cup with a dram of 1965 in his hand looking elated and surrounded by his friends and family. A lovely whisky moment!"
For most, taking part in an Ardbeg Day event is just as special. During the annual spring festival—Feis Ile - each of the distilleries has a dedicated day, and Ardbeg themes its events around a special whisky release.
According to Jackie, "Some of the best times we have had have been during festival weeks, and we always do things pretty well here on Ardbeg Day.
"Highlights for me include 150 people salsa dancing in the Ardbeg courtyard with their Ardbeg berets on in our ‘military coup' year; having wonderful drams on the island of Texa with a couple of geography professors (dressed as dinosaurs) who taught people about how the world was formed from rock formations in the 2013 Ardbog Year; a turbulent peat football match during Auriverdes Year in 2014, and midnight tours with hidden drams in Dark Cove Year - 2016. Most of all, I treasure the amazing team spirit that prevails during every festival and the memories of how much fun we all have. It makes them all so special."
Emma McGeachy, who works alongside Jackie in the visitor centre and undertakes guided tours of the distillery, also has a story relating to the enthusiasm and good fellowship inspired by Ardbeg. "During the Gulf War one of our Ardbeg Committee members said a friend of his was an officer in the Navy and couldn't get his favourite Ardbeg, so we sent him a complementary bottle, with a card wishing him and the crew well. He was on board Ark Royal so we didn't know if he'd get it. His name was Lieutenant Commander Paul. Russell. Months later, he got in touch and said he'd received the bottle, that Ark Royal was sailing into Greenock on the Clyde and that he had arranged for the ship to anchor just off Ardbeg. Once anchored out there 60 officers and men came ashore for distillery tours and just about bought up the shop!
"Then nine of us were taken out for a tour of Ark Royal and had dinner on board. We all had our survival suits on and we had to jump off the wee boat onto a ladder and climb up onto the deck. By mistake, Jackie gave the captain my body warmer as one of the gifts we took. A few days later I got a parcel back containing my eyeliner, lipstick, and all sorts of bits and pieces out of the pockets of the body warmer, including a credit agreement for my car. With it was a letter from the captain saying he would have kept the lipstick, but it wasn't his colour!"
Away from such highlights, there is a steady flow of expectant visitors for Emma and the team to accommodate. "Ardbeg runs five to six grades of tour every day so its full-on and there is never a dull moment. We have to plan our tour around having staff in the café so it takes a bit more organising. We see ourselves as Brand Ambassadors as we are the front line, talking Ardbeg every day and doing a lot of brand work. It's a special place for many and a busy place during the day.
But when the café is locked up and the forklift truck stop moving barrels around and the boys have stopped for the day, everything falls silent. Some people then just like to sit on the pier or on the hill and take it all in. More and more people are enjoying staying at Seaview Cottage, and they appreciate the feeling of having the place all to themselves."
As well as working in the visitor centre, Emma is manager of Seaview Cottage, which is rented out as a holiday home. (see photo on last page) "It was previously the distillery manager's house, but after he and his family moved out, it remained empty for a while and was getting into a poor state. Glenmorangie wanted somewhere for people to be able to come and stay at the distillery, so about five years ago it was fully restored and refurbished, with a designer giving nice quirky touches like bed headboards that look like peat stacks and an old signalling lamp set up in the lounge area. The uptake has grown really well, and we get lots of repeat business.
As with Jackie, the Ardbeg festival days provide some of the most memorable highlights of Emma's year. 'We put on so much here at Ardbeg during the festival week, it's not just for our day. We put on night events through the week too. Each year, we link our event to the theme of the festival bottling, and that theme comes from the profile of the whisky in the bottle. The character of the whisky comes first, then the theme.
"Our day is usually the last Saturday of the week and we see it as the finale, so really push the boat out. It's often the same people coming back time and time again, although the locals from the whole island like coming to our day, too. More and more people are changing their travel arrangements to make sure they can catch our day, with some of the real keen fans booking their B&B for the next year as soon as this year's event is over.
About 1,000 people turn up to our day, and we are bursting at the seams. Some people are now coming for two weeks, some even for three. They just love the theatre of it all. We always have a brain- storming session for ideas, which includes the boys from production, but Jackie is the creative one. If we want something built, Yogi will build it, even if we think it can't be done. They all pitch in on the day, but we do have an after-party in the evening. It's fun, but also hard work.
'When it was our Dark Cove release in 2016 our theme was smuggling, and to make it more authentic, we decided to hold tours every night, just about midnight. We did it with visitor staff members paired with a member of production staff, and we made each tour different and special.
"Each of us had to come up with our own ideas to fit with the smuggling theme, so it was just such a fun thing to organise with everyone trying to better the other groups. For my day, I had built the story up at the beginning and warned everyone that we were not really allowed to be where we were going and that there was a risk that customs might catch us. We started out in the mill room with wee paraffin lanterns. We had sample tastings hidden around the room including in a guy's wellies, which is exactly what they would have done in the past.
"We went way along the beach and faked it that a barrel had been washed up on the shore. We even put a valance in and drew out whisky but it was really just an empty barrel with a bottle hidden inside. This was in the pitch dark, so when Mickey appeared as a customs officer, holding keys and a big lantern and chased after them, it was very realistic.
'We eventually ended up at a wee bothy with a lit fire and lanterns hanging from the roof. There was whisky hidden in a watering can and I was pouring out samples straight from the can. While we were dramming, Mickey finally came in and caught us in there, but this time he stayed and joined us. It was a right old laugh and went on till about two in the morning.
"There were a lot of Germans and Swedes in our group as well as a couple of Americans who did not really come dressed for the occasion. The girl had high heels and her partner had really slippery shoes, so they both struggled to scramble over the rocks in the dark. But they all got into the spirit of it."
Emma also recalls the 2017 event fondly. "Ardbeg always goes full-on for anything we do but our Kelpie theme was under water so was harder. We were doing lots of boat trips through the week but on our day, we had seaweed soup, foot massages, tastings along the coast, and games - always trying to do things a little different. I had an awful day when it was my turn; the rain was hammering down and I was soaked to the skin before the boat even left the pier.
"There were mythical creatures and the girls were all lovely, dressed as mermaids. We also had a storyteller who told sea-related tales, passed down through family.
"I had a group of boys from south-east Asia in my group for the Kelpie tour. They had already been at Caol Ila, so they had a good drink in them. They came along in the open rib boat with me, but the sea was really stormy so we had to change the plans and not go too far out. We lowered the anchor then suddenly Gus, the skipper, just threw himself over the side. He was away for about 20 minutes, down under the water collecting stuff.
In the meantime, up above, I had to entertain them while the sea swelled and the rain hammered down. Folk were just sitting there, shivering in their oilskins, so I opened a bottle of Kelpie and suggested we sing. We sang You Are My Sunshine' until Gus popped back up with a bag of goodies that he had scavenged from the seabed. Scallops, starfish, sea urchins, everything. We were going to cook the scallops when we got back, but Gus started opening them up on the boat to show everyone.
"The guys from Asia started eating the scallops raw, then the sea urchins, they just scooping them out and asking for more and more. They ate everything. It was grey skies and grey seas, you just could not tell the difference, but it was also bright waterproofs and even brighter smiles. They were so smiley."
Relatively new to the visitor centre team is Emma McFarlane, bringing with her, tremendous enthusiasm for all things Ardbeg. "I'm from Glasgow and moved here on my 16th birthday. I couldn't live anywhere else now. My husband is from Islay and works as Laphroaig Distillery, my sister-in-law works at Bruichladdich Distillery and my best friend works at Port Ellen Malting, so we were able to pay for our wedding in bottles of whisky that we bought with staff discount!
"I'd been helping out on the Ardbeg Day for years before I started working as a regular tour guide here last year. I stay at the top of the hill, so I have great views down to the distillery from my house. I really enjoy working here, as everyday is different. You meet so many people, its like the Holy Grail for them. They are so happy to visit, which makes me so happy to see them happy. I also love whisky and have a saying that anything under 40%abv is a waste of time. Corryvreckan and Supernova are my favourites depending on my mood. I do like other whiskies, but I just really like Ardbeg.
"Shortie was my husband's dog. He was a free dog and came down here to get fed by the tourists. He was a real diva and had a mind of his own so was not the easiest dog to work with in the adverts. His son Ozzy is now the mascot."
One particularly memorable event for her was when a group of seven Chinese visitors arrived. "I think they only asked three questions the whole way around the tour. One of them was where's Shortie, and another was where's Mickey. I was on the till that day and they wanted six bottles of the Ardbeg 1815, but we only had three left. They said they needed at least four and would take the display bottle, so Jackie had to sort that out. On top of that they wanted 26 cases of everything and the bill came to about £30,000. Then they asked if we would ship it for them and when we said we would, they brought in their purchases from all the other distilleries they had visited. It nearly filled the whole floor area of our shop."
Equally memorable for Emma was a visit by another fan from China "I had one woman on a tour who I thought was taking lots of notes, but she was actually drawing the tour instantly as we went around and was making a montage of each of the highlights. She even recorded the quantities and temperatures and included Shortie. Then over lunch she coloured it in. She was just so quick and talented and her name was Peggy Chein."
Aptly summing up the whole spirit of a visit to Ardbeg, Emma says "People love the Ardbeg story, it's a hero story, a rise from the ashes. And I just love the history. Jackie is so passionate about Ardbeg and makes everybody else passionate. She is always on the front line and often the first person to great visitors at the door, not locked away in an office. She is like a celebrity to many people."
For those who cannot work or live at Ardbeg the Ardbeg Committee is the next best thing to experience the community spirit. The Committee was launched in 2002, and an explanatory leaflet was placed in the packaging of each bottle, and an online presence was subsequently established. Five thousand people signed up in the first six months, and now the membership is well in excess of 100,000.
Perhaps the greatest benefit to being part of the Committee is gettingaccess to special limited releases, which are often forerunners to wider releases. According to Hamish Torrie, former Brand Director "The Committee is certainly not a gimmick. It's there to spread the word. We try to give members the ‘inside track' wherever possible. We give them the first ‘in' on new expressions we release."
Jackie adds, "The special Committee bottlings have created loyalty and have continued to tantalise people. The Committee members are very much part of the fabric of the place. They're the cornerstones of the brand."
Communications and Committee bottlings used to be sent out direct from the distillery but that simply became an impractical exercise, as Emma McGeachy explains. "Due to people moving home and not changing their address, there was an increasing, amount o f return post coming back to Islay, so the Committee is now an online community."
Unsurprisingly to any Ardbeg fan, in the past ten years, six different Ardbeg expressions have won prestigious titles including World Whisky of the Year, Scotch Whisky of the Year and World's Best Single Malt. Demand continues to outstrip supply and there appears no let-up for the Ardbeg phenomena. Perhaps greater than any award or titles is the enjoyment and satisfaction that seems to radiate from all who come into contact with the brand and its team.
Summarising, Jackie explains, "Overall, visitor expectations are higher than they've ever been. People keep coming back to Islay, and they want different experiences. So, every year or couple of years we do something different, such as warehouse tastings and Ardbeg Across the Decades,' where people get to compare whisky from the 1970s, 80s, 90s and 00s. At the moment, we're running The Peaty Path Tasting, which takes in Ardbeg Very Young up to Renaissance. We're talking about small tastings for those who have done regular tours and tastings. We host them in The Chairman's Study, next to the cafe, and for larger numbers we also have a bespoke outdoor tasting pod!
"March/April and September/October are when we get the ‘hardcore' people, and we need to think outside the box for things for them to do. It's about making memories, and a lot of people who have been coming to the island for a decade or more are now friends. There's more competition now, with other distilleries offering a lot. We get around 15,000 paying visitors per year, and 40,000 covers in the restaurant, which is pretty impressive.
"The village of Port Ellen is doing better than it has for a long time, with the new Islay Hotel, which opened in 2011, the revamped White Hart—now called Number One Charlotte Street—and Sea Salt bistro and takeaway. They've increased the pontoon capacity for visiting boats by 20 percent, and a local community group has taken over the petrol station, which had closed down. There's also a new pathway from Port Ellen all the way to Ardbeg, taking in Laphroaig and Lagavulin, which means people don't have to walk along the narrow road, which was always potentially quite dangerous—especially after a few drams!
Some notes of appreciation
"I visited Islay last summer with seven Finnish gentlemen and spent a week there in the good care of Christine Logan [who trades as ‘The Lady of the Isles' and offers personalised visitor experience packages.] We went through all the operational distilleries and, of course, our first visit was to Ardbeg. We met Michael Heads and had a long chat and tour with him. For me it was a visit to the Holy Land. To see the people, places and machinery which manufacture my favourite whisky. Mickey had heard from Christine that I'm writing a whisky book so we might have received special treatment from him. At the end of our tour we ended up in one of the warehouses and we tasted straight from the cask 1990 Bourbon and 1999 Madeira Ardbegs. Immaculate! And as we were led to the Old Kiln Café for lunch, Mickey brought a bottle of 1975 cask 1375 and we had a wee dram of it, too. Islay hospitality at its best! If the other members of my entourage weren't Ardbeg believers before, they surely are now.
I corresponded with Jackie and talked with her over the phone before our journey and she has always been helpful and easy to talk to. She takes superb care of the Old Kiln and still during the busiest lunch she has time for our never-ending questions. Her warm smile and even warmer hug are amongst my best memories of Islay.
As our stay at Islay was ending, we visited Ardbeg once more, just to do some shopping and see the site one more time. We didn't know that Christine and Mickey had arranged something special for us. Mickey greeted us in the yard and presented us with a bottle of Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist and told us to go to the pier, have a dram and reflect the feelings and experiences we'd had during our stay on Islay. One could almost see the haziness in the eyes of big, bold men as we had our drams at the beautiful pier looking at the sea and the white warehouse with black block letters, ARDBEG."
Jarkko Nikkanen, Finland.
"I organise a trip to Islay for my club UBEL every spring during the Feis Ile. We are always very welcomed by dear Jackie. Last year we went up to Loch Uigeadail first, and then down into the Old Kiln Café went nine guys covered with dirt up to the knees and very thirsty, just before closing time. Nine Uigeadail's on the house (what else?), a couple of beers (per guy) and some lovely thick soup and fresh bread. The guys praised me as an excellent organiser, but it was all due to Jackie and her lovely staff We love to come back every year.
Ingvar Andersson, Sweden
As Jackie Thomson says,"Coming to Islay is a grown-up holiday. You've got to organise flights and ferries and so on. It says a lot about how intrepid people can be. It's not a casual thing you do on a day off." Upon arrival at Ardbeg distillery visitors are usually greeted in the visitor centre by Jackie or Emma McGeachy, and offered a tour of the distillery. The degree of formality depends on how many people are visiting at the time, with Emma noting "Yesterday I took a tour round with just six people, and we took an hour and a half, because they were all so interested. Obviously, you can't do that in summer when it's very busy."
Both Emma and Jackie weave their individual magic, and Frank Vernicuwe of Belgium was prompted to write in the visitors' book "The tour was led by a spirit fairy named Jackie. After a few sentences it was not an organised tour anymore, but someone sharing their passion with a few visitors." An anonymous and discerning member of the public also noted in the visitors' book "Excellent tour! Mrs Thomson is a babe!"
Ardbeg Embassies are to be found throughout Europe, as well as in China, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand. South Africa and Canada (see www.ardbeg.com for details).
According to the Ardbeg team, "Ardbeg Embassies are Ardbeg's spiritual outposts —sovereign Islay territory — all across the world. They are located in single malt whisky specialist liquor stores, high image on-trade accounts or selected high image travel retail accounts. Embassies host Ardbeg Day events, and the people who run them will be extremely passionate about Ardbeg.
The first ‘on-trade' Ardbeg embassy was Edinburgh's The Whiski Rooms (www.whiskiroooms.co.uk), which gained the accolade in March 2012. At the time, the venue's owner Anne Still, declared that "We are proud to be named the first ever on-trade Ardbeg Embassy in the UK. We promise Ardbeg whisky fans a fabulous range of Ardbeg whiskies in our gantry and our adjoining shop. A s well as private dining in our Ardbeg room, we have an amazing Ardbeg inspired menu available."
We understand that not everyone can get to Islay, so the idea is to have Ardbeg outposts all across the globe so that the majority of committee members will have an Embassy in their country.
In some foreign corner of a foreign field...there will always be a little piece of Ardbeg."
Ardbeg fans taking in the atmosphere at the Ardbeg Festival
Written by Gavin D Smith & Graevie Wallace
The text is an excerpt from "Ardbeg: Heavenly Peated" (pp. 187 - 198), written by Gavin D Smith & Graevie Wallace, published 2018 by Hogback Publishing.
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