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Spotlights and Deep-Dives

The Islay Malt with a Worldwide Secret Society: Ardbeg Distillery

Distillery Spotlight: Ardbeg Distillery

 

Region: Islay, Scotland

Note: Our Distillery Spotlight articles discuss how each distillery's unique process results in the distinctive flavour profiles of their whisky. To find out more about each step of the whisky-making process, check out our Basics Series article on how to distil the elixir of life.

 

“It didn’t nose as phenolic as I’d expected. It’s the secret to the success of Ardbeg. It’s got this very big fruitiness that helps to mask the phenolics – but they’re still there.”

- Edwin Dodson, on why Ardbeg’s signature style makes it loved around the world. 

 

 

Whisky aficionados speak longly about ghost distilleries with “cult followings” that have apparently produced fine malt whisky in their hallowed halls. A few distilleries with cult followings that come to mind are Springbank, Chichibu, Port Ellen, Brora, Rosebank and Karuizawa. But as far as we know, Ardbeg was the first distillery described to have a true cult following as early as 1997, the same time it was resurrected from neglect by The Glenmorangie Company. 

Ardbeg was established in 1815 and is the second the oldest Islay distillery (behind Bowmore which was officially licensed in 1779). Its brand does not act its age. Vibrant, cheeky bottle labels (see below) and an official fan club with hilariously unrealistic membership rules (more on this later) tell us that the Ardbeg of today has come a long way since its early days. 

 

Labels for the Ardbeg Fermutation, Arrrrrrrdbeg! and Ardbeg Blaaaack expressions.

 

With its big, bold flavours, sootiness and intense sweetness, love it or fear it, every Scotch drinker has their own (rarely negative) opinion of Ardbeg. Read on to learn all you need to know about the Scotch distillery that created its own cult following.

 

 

A spotty Ardbeggian history

 

 

Official documents indicate that Ardbeg first began operating in 1815 under the John McDougall’s name. In truth, by the early1800s, illicit distillation had been ongoing in the Islay region for decades. It was speculated that the McDougalls did not build the distillery themselves, but bought it from another owner.

Back then, the distillery focused on providing a source of sooty, peaty whisky for blended Scotch brands. As the distillery gradually expanded production, a tiny community grew around the distillery, complete with housing, a village hall, vegetable farms, a lawn bowling green (lawn bowling is an old, extremely British sport) and a school. By 1900, the town of Ardbeg was home to about 50 distillery workers, while the village school had about 110 pupils. 

 

A sketch of the village of Ardbeg in the late 1800s from “The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom” by Alfred Barnard.

 

Popularity of Scotch blended whisky waxed and waned, so did the fortune of Ardbeg. The business went bankrupt at several points through the 1800s and early 1900s. Ownership of the distillery switched hands from family to family, and amongst spirits companies such as Distillers Company Limited (the precursor to Diageo) and Hiram Walker & Sons (of Canadian Club Whisky fame).

The 1980’s “whisky loch” crisis that forced closures of distilleries like Port Ellen and Brora also affected Ardbeg. An oversupply of Scotch made it uneconomical for Ardbeg to continue, and the distillery was mothballed in 1981.

 

 

Reversal of fortunes under Glenmorangie

The distillery was pretty much out of commission most of the time through 1996, except for occasional operation for 2 months at a time. But despite spotty business performance by its former owners, Ardbeg’s single malt had firmly established a cult following amongst whisky devotees who were in the know.

There was a growing anxiety that the then-owners, Allied Distillers, would demolish Ardbeg and simply salvage its spare parts for the neighbouring Laphroaig (which Allied Distillers also owned). This would consign Ardbeg to history for good. Fortunately, 1997 marked a dramatic change of its fortunes forever. The Glenmorangie Company purchased Ardbeg for £7.7m with the intention of taking Ardbeg in fresh and new directions.

 

 (Image Source: Glenmorangie)

 

In several inspired strokes, Glenmorangie Plc set to work rebuilding the Ardbeg brand and following over the next two decades. 

 

 

Revival of Ardbeg Distillery

 

Ardbeg was in a sorry state when it was handed over to Glenmorangie Plc. (Image Source: Ardbeg)

 

When Glenmorangie Plc took over Ardbeg Distillery, Ardbeg was left in a “horrendous” condition by the previous owners. Walls were covered in dark oil and grime. Equipment was too old or broken. There was also no complete recipe for distilling the classic flavour of Ardbeg.  

 

The rebuilding of Ardbeg in 1997 (Image Source: Ardbeg)

 

Edwin “Ed” Dodson, then distillery manager of Glen Moray, was appointed to resurrect Ardbeg within 6 months. He set to work 14 hours a day, 6 days a week. Grimy walls were whitewashed. Missing equipment were replaced. Samples of old Ardbeg and the advice of whisky critics were used to help tweak the recipe to create the old style of Ardbeg from the 60-70s with its sootiness and rich sweetness.

Dodson succeeded in making his first batch of good Ardbeg new make on the night of 20 June 1997.

 

The Ardbeg Visitor Centre was a nice touch added by Dodson’s team. (Image Source: Islay Pictures Photoblog)

 

Apart from reviving the distillery, the new management made a few artful changes. It built an Ardbeg Visitor Centre and an eatery - Old Kiln Café - that became the only place for tourists to eat in the south of Islay. The new Ardbeg was imbued good humour and fun. Jackie Thomson, the manager of the visitor centre, said “Ardbeg isn’t crusty, it has a sense of humour, and that keeps things very fresh for the people working here.

This was just a beginning of initiatives to make Ardbeg appeal to the wider public. In a remarkable turnaround, Ardbeg was voted as the Distillery of the Year the following year in 1998 by the panel at the Scottish Whisky Awards.

 

 

Founding the Ardbeg Committee

 

(Image Source: Axis of Whisky)

 

Casual Scotch drinkers may notice that some Ardbeg bottlings come with a red seal on the label, “Special Committee Only Edition 2016”, and wonder enviously about this mysterious Committee that has access to certain special bottlings.

The Committee is an official fan club established in 2000 to “promote the advancement of general knowledge and enjoyment of Ardbeg.” After experiencing closure for the better part of two decades, the goal was also to build up a loyal following to ensure that its stills would never fall silent again. 

  

The main perk of being a Committee member is access to members-only limited edition Committee Releases.

 

There are members-only privileges. Each year, the distillery would announce its members-only limited edition Committee Release bottling which are swooped up by members. These Committee Releases tend to be higher proof versions (above 50% ABV) of limited edition releases available to the general public (usually 46% ABV).

 

Members must abide by the Committee Rules and Regulations. Some of which appear quite hilariously unrealistic.

 

Interested in becoming a Committee member? Membership is free! But like every other very serious society, there are regulations that Committee members must abide by. One would very quickly realise that the Rules are merely a list of tongue-in-cheek exhortations for members to shamelessly promote Ardbeg and profess their love for the whisky.

 

 

Whacky Experimentations

Under stewardship of Glenmorangie Plc and Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH purchased Glenmorangie Plc in 2004), Ardbeg came to be very well received by consumers and critics. Its bottles consistently snagged awards- such as “World Whisky of the Year” for multiple years from the Whisky Bible guide book and medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition for consecutive years.

The focus of Ardbeg in the 2010s went from purely survival to evolution and experimentation. And unlike Glenmorangie Distillery, which has a much lighter spirit that cannot withstand unusual maturation styles, Ardbeg’s more robust spirit lends it to much more unusual and outlandish experimentations in maturation. 

 

 

The first whisky matured in space

 

 

The most groundbreaking of experiments conducted by Ardbeg might not have yielded any practical applications yet. However, the widely-publicised experiment has certainly turned heads and made folks around the world aware of its brand. 

Ardbeg’s publicity reached stratospheric heights in 2011 when Ardbeg collaborated with Houston-based research company, NanoRacks, to send a vial of Ardbeg new make on a Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station to find out how whisky matures in a micro-gravity environment.

On the ISS, it was aged for nearly 3 years before it was returned to Earth for testing by Dr Lumsden.

 

(Image Source: Ardbeg)

 

While this appears more a huge publicity stunt than an experiment (Dr Lumsden is still struggling to find practical applications for the study's findings on Earth), it is an undeniably impressive project that has secured Ardbeg a spot in the history of space exploration. 

 

 

Cask experimentations

 

(Image Source: Ardbeg) 

 

The past couple of years saw Ardbeg getting increasingly experimental with different casks styles. 

This began with the first edition of the Ardbeg Corryvreckan which was aged for only 3 years in oak treated with infrared radiation to help the wood open to the spirit faster. According to Dr Lumsden, the result was a 3-year-old whisky that tasted like it was 10 years old. Unfortunately, this could not be replicated for future versions of the Corryvreckan because the Scotch Whisky Association is unlikely to tolerate such avant garde methods, considering a similar controversy involving Compass Box whisky.

 

Read about the Scotch Whisky Association’s battle with Compass Box on cask styles.

 

One of the more exotic expressions is the Ardbeg Kelpie which was aged in virgin oak casks from the Adyghe Republic in Russia, leading into the Black Sea. (Image Source: Ardbeg)

 

Subsequent special releases include usage of rye casks (Arrrrrrrdbeg!), charred ex-wine casks (Ardbeg Grooves), ex-rum casks (Ardbeg Drum), Black Sea oak (Ardbeg Kelpie), New Zealand Pinot Noir casks (Ardbeg Blaaack) and Alligator char’ American Oak casks (Ardbeg Alligator).

 

 

Fermentation and “FerMutation”


 

Most recently, Ardbeg announced the most unusual Committee Release yet - the Ardbeg Fermutation  “Invasion of the Washbacks” expression which was subject to an unprecedented degree of alcoholic and lactic fermentation.

 

The back label of the Fermutation explains how this strange expression came about.

 

This bottle represents another outlandish experiment from the laboratory of Dr Lumsden. The story goes that in 2007, the distillery’s equipment went out of commission for over a month. This apparently spelt disaster for a batch of fermented beer (Ardbeg pre-distillate) because the distillery had no choice but to allow them to ferment in their washbacks pass the point of no return. 

 

Fermentation taking place in a washback (Image Source: Undiscovered Scotland)

 

Ever the cheery optimist, Dr Lumsden thought this was an opportunity to conduct a full-on fermentation experiment, rather than letting the entire batch go to waste.

Ardbeg’s original recipe only calls for 72 hours of fermentation. This batch was allowed to ferment for over a staggering 3 weeks. This creates a greater concentration of esters with much richer, frutier flavours.

Typically, only alcoholic fermentation takes place in Ardbeg’s washbacks. Instead, Lumsden opened the lids of these washbacks to allow lacto-bacteria from the air to enter the mixture, introducing the dimension of lactic fermentation (which produces yogurt and sour cream, among other products). The byproduct of lactic fermentation includes lactic acid, which makes the mixture much more sour in taste.

This bottle expected to be Ardbeg’s sharpest and zingiest whisky ever. And with this release, it appears that Ardbeg has come a full circle in its mission to rebuild its brand, establish a loyal following and now have the confidence to engage in bolder experimentation.

 

Read all about the Ardbeg Fermutation bottling here.

 

 

Ardbeg’s iconic flavour profile - Lush fruits moderating heavy smoke

 

(Image Source: LVMH) 

 

The iconic Ardbeg that its fans have grown to love is a Scotch that is heavily peaty, smoky and briny, yet balanced by an intensely rich and sweet citric core. 

Several Ardbeg bottlings laid claim as the peatiest Scotch to have ever been produced at their time of release. These titles are now constantly subject to challenge by Bruichladdich’s Octomore bottlings. 

These contests are arbitrary and miss the point. Ardbeg’s real appeal lies in its ability to find a balance despite very heavy peatiness. In the midst of its heavy peatiness, Ardbeg still delivers a multidimensional character with its mild seaweed brininess and intense sweetness of citrus, crisp apples and vanilla. 

This balance of big fruitiness that keep peatiness in check was precisely the secret to Ardbeg’s success for Ed Dodson. Dodson recalled his Eureka moment on the night of 20 June 1997: “It was late at night – it was a beautiful, beautiful Islay night – and we didn’t get the spirit off until about 10pm… What I had was two nosing glasses and that was basically it… The thing that amazed me about it was the fact that it didn’t nose as phenolic as I’d expected. It’s the secret to the success of Ardbeg. It’s got this very big fruitiness that helps to mask the phenolics – but they’re still there.

The signature flavour profile is a product of (1) fairly long fermentation periods (2) high reflux during distillation and (3) use of ex-bourbon casks.

 

 

Long fermentation periods

 

Washbacks in Ardbeg (Image Source: Australian Bartender)

 

The length of the fermentation process has a direct impact on the amount of esters and the fruitiness in resulting spirit. Ardbeg has one of the longest fermentation periods amongst Islay distilleries. While Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Caol Ila’s fermentation periods are about 55 hours, Ardbeg comes in at 72 hours. 

This is one reason Ardbeg is said to be one of the sweetest malts in the region.

 

 

High-reflux distillation

The lushness and freshness found in an Ardbeg is also due to the fact that the distillery’s pot stills are designed to produce a large amount of reflux during the distillation process. Two features of Ardbeg’s pot stills are responsible- the angle of their “lyne arm” and the presence of “purifier pipes”.   

 

Pot stills in Glen Grant Distillery. The lyne arm refers to the portion of the pot still that connects the head to the condenser. (Image Source: Scotch Whisky . com)

 

Pot stills in Ardbeg Distillery. The purifier pipes refer to small tubes that channel contents in the lyne arm back into the pot still for re-distillation. (Image Source: Dave’s Whisky Reviews)

 

The lyne arms in Ardbeg have a slightly upward-sloping angle that causes some rising vapours to condense and fall back into the pot stills. This is paired with the  purifier pipes that causes even more heavy compounds to trickle back into the pot stills for re-distillation.

Due to the higher amount or reflux, the resulting spirit is stripped of heavier compounds, allowing lighter and fresher notes of fruitiness and sweetness to emerge.

 

 

Ex-Bourbon casks

 

(Image Source: MaltyScot - Deviant Art)

 

Just like its sister distillery, Glenmorangie, the vast majority of Ardbeg whisky is matured in ex-bourbon American white oak. This imparts very light honeyed notes without overwhelming cask influence, allowing more bright, fruity notes from the spirit to emerge. 

It is also no secret that the Ardbeg of today is influenced by Glenmorangie Distillery to have a policy of selecting the best quality American oak and maturation environment (also known as Glenmorangie’s “wood policy”). The primary casks must be made from air-dried wood of an appropriate age from specific sections of the Ozark mountains of Missouri. After casks have been filed, they must also be stored in warehouses with the most appropriate microclimate for the maturing casks.

Whisky commentators have credited Ardbeg’s use of Glenmorangie’s wood policy for the lovely roundness of the final product that emerges from Ardbeg barrels.

 

 

Our Take

 

Publicity poster for the return of an Ardbeg sample after 2.5 years of maturation aboard the International Space Station. 
We have to admit that Glenmorangie Plc and LVMH have been great marketers. They were the first to send Scotch to space after all! (Image Source: Ardbeg)

 

As much as good whisky has a part to play, Ardbeg’s story is equally a story of successful innovation, reinvention and marketing by Glenmorangie Plc and LVMH. These new owners have done right by Ardbeg. Since the turn of the 2000s, Ardbeg has been releasing a series of interesting and high-quality bottlings that have won international awards and that fans would not stop talking about. 

It is undeniably an industry trend-setter with a series of brilliant, inspired moves. From little things like building the only cafe on the south of Islay, to organising its loyal fans into a Committee which now boasts a worldwide membership of over 120,000 people, Ardbeg demonstrates very skilful customer relationship management. The Ardbeg brand now has a fun and irreverent persona that speaks to both the young and the old. It also has a global reputation much bigger than the modestly populated town of Ardbeg could have imagined.

Interestingly, Ardbeg’s runaway commercial success might have resulted in rapidly dwindling stocks for the relatively small Islay distillery. While most Scotch distilleries tend to release age-statement bottles at 12, 15, 18 and 21 years old, Ardbeg has always been hesitant to release age-statement bottles in its distillery-bottled (OB) bottles- especially around the ages of 17 to 18 years old. This made observers speculate that the distillery did not have enough supply for a consistent production of 17 to 18-year-old OB bottles.

 

(Image Source: Ardbeg)

 

Three things constantly draw us back to Ardbeg. (1) Its full-flavoured expressions and well-balanced notes of lush fruits moderating heavy smoke set it apart from the typical Islay malt and, despite its heavy peatiness, make it a little more accessible to newcomers. (2) We appreciate Ardbeg’s faithfulness towards its fans in producing a consistent line of high-quality Committee Releases that are never priced astronomically. (3) The modern energy and liveliness injected by Ardbeg into the usually stiff-necked Scotch industry is a breath of fresh air. Here is a distillery that does not act its age- in a very good way. 

 

Our favourites are:-

Entry Level: Ardbeg Uigeadail, Ardbeg Alligator, Ardbeg Dark Cove, Ardbeg 8 Years Old - For Discussion.

Moderate: Ardbeg Blaaack 2020, Ardbeg Dark Cove, Ardbeg Traigh Bhan 19 Years Old, Ardbeg Corryvreckan - Committee Reserve. 

(Read our review of the Ardbeg Blaaack 2020 here.)

Top Shelf: Ardbeg 1980 Kildalton, Ardbeg Twenty One.

 

Also be sure to check out these upcoming releases:- 

Ardbeg Fermutation “Invasion of the Washbacks” 13 Years Old 

Ardbeg Hypernova 

Ardbeg Ardcore

 

@charsiucharlie