The World of Single Malt Whisk(e)y
All About Ardbeg
Ah, Ardbeg. That wee beastie of a distillery that couldn’t be kept down, no matter what hardships it saw. A distillery that has a Cult following numbering hundreds of thousands. One of 9 distilleries on the rugged and wild Islay, it has been bestowed dozens of awards and received such accolades as “World Whisky of the Year” and “World’s Best Single Malt”.
Ardbeg, Gaelic for “small headland”, is named for the town where it resides (population 20, although at its peak in the mid/late 1800s it boasted a community of over 200). It’s situated right on the sea, and on a clear day one can even see Ireland from there. If you’ve come across any of their photos, you’ll know how absolutely breathtaking the location can be.
Renowned for its heavily peated whisky at 50ppm (Islay, after all, has over 62,000 hectares of peaty earth, and other famous producers there include Lagavulin, Laphroig, and Caol Ila), Ardbeg was established by one John Macdougall back in 1815 (although illicit distillation of Ardbeg had occurred since the late 1700s), and by the late 1880s it was the largest distillery on the island, producing over 1 million litres of spirit per year.
As with many a distillery history, Ardbeg has had its fair share of closings, reopenings, and change in ownership (one of the most notable being when it was run by Margaret and Flora Macdougall, quite possibly Scotland’s first female distillers). It was closed during the depression years, and then closed again in 1981. When it reopened in 1989 it was for only 2 months each year until 1996 when it shuttered its doors again, this time on the verge of being torn down altogether. Glenmorangie, however, stepped in and brought it back to life.
In 2000, in an effort to “ensure the doors of the Distillery never close again”, clever minds put together the Ardbeg Committee, an organization which now totals over 230,000 members worldwide. Committee members receive samples and provide input on bottlings and new releases and generally celebrate the re-awakening of Ardbeg, helping spread the good news (and drams) far and wide. Along with the Committee and Ardbeg Embassies (typically brick-and-mortars like specialty shops and bars), Ardbeg has amassed a cult following. Literally, their fans call themselves The Cult of Ardbeg. Obviously, they’ve got some great marketing going on and are doing everything in their power to keep their doors open.
Did you know that Ardbeg is the first distillery to put their whisky into outer space? Now how’s THAT for marketing? In 2011, they partnered with Nanoracks and NASA to send up vials of whisky to the International Space Station to explore the impact of normal gravity (ie: Earth) and microgravity (ie: Space) in relation to aging. The vials landed back on earth in 2014 and research was headed by Dr. Bill Lumsden, Whisky Creator at Ardbeg. Here are some of the highlights from the initial Ardbeg release, or you can watch their video here.
In three of the four stages of analysis, major differences were identified between the two sets of samples. Dr Bill said: “The space samples were noticeably different. When I nosed and tasted the space samples, it became clear that much more of Ardbeg’s smoky, phenolic character shone through – to reveal a different set of smoky flavours which I have not encountered here on earth before.”
Dr Bill added: “Ardbeg already has a complex character, but the results of our experiment show that there is potentially even more complexity that we can uncover, to reveal a different side to the whisky.”
Further analysis, looking at ratios of different types of wood extractive compounds, found significant differences between the two sets of samples – demonstrating that gravity has a very real effect on the maturation of spirit. Dr Bill commented “Our findings may also one day have significant implications for the whisky industry as a whole. In the future, the altered range of wood extractions could lead scientists to be able to detail the ratios of compounds expected in whiskies of a certain age.”
Below is a selection of some of their most notable bottlings. While Ardbeg saw many tumultuous decades, they are now back to producing over 1 million litres of spirit per year. While that number once saw them as the top producer on Islay, it’s now about 1/3rd of the production output of Caol Ila.
2000 - Ardbeg 10 is launched
2003 - Ardbeg Uigeadail is launched, named after their water source and meaning “dark and mysterious place”
2005 - Someone accidentally mixed some Ardbeg and Glenmorangie spirit, resulting in the release of a very unique whisky they named “Serendipity”
2006 - 261 bottles of Ardbeg laid down in 1965 are released, the oldest of any Ardbeg and known as “the envy of Islay”. The Beastie is also released, drawn from rare and restricted whisky casks laid down in 1990.
2007 - Ardbeg Mor (Gaelic for “big and magnificent”) becomes the biggest launch to date with 1,000 bottles of 4.5 litres of the Cask Strength 10 Year Old.
2008 - Ardbeg Corryvreckan is released to the Committee. They also launched the lightly peated Ardbeg Blasda (Gaelic for “sweet and delicious”).
2009 - The Committee has spoken, and Corryvreckan joins the core range on a worldwide release.
2010 - Ardbeg Supernova is awarded Scotch Whisky of the Year. Corryvreckan wins World’s Best Single Malt Whisky and Single Malt of the Year.
2019 - Ardbeg Wee Beastie joins their core range.
2020 - Arbeg Blaaack is released to celebrate the Committee’s 20th anniversary. Wanting to honour their global flock, this whisky was aged in ex-Pinot Noir casks sourced from New Zealand, the country that lies farthest from Islay, and where sheep outnumber the locals 7 to 1.
2021 - Arrrrrrrdbeg!, aged wholly in ex-rye casks, was bottled in honour of Mickey Heads manning the Ardbeg distillery for 13 years. Available only to Committee members.
Now, to be completely honest, this author is pretty new to the peat experience. I had a great introduction via the peated Benriach range back in October’s issue. However, that peat is sourced from the highlands and made of organic forest matter. Islay peat is a different beast altogether, composed of seaweed, moss, and shrubs. Below is my first tasting of a highly peated Islay whisky.
The Ultimate - 10 Year Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Nose - 75/100 Intriguing nose with an aroma of smoked fish. Surprisingly light compared to what I thought it would be, based on how heavily peated Ardbeg is. Definitely a touch of that tar and iodine along with a slight rubber quality and hint of vinegar. Once in the glass for a while, that sea tang opens up and then the maltiness comes through. A bare whiff of lemon and orange peels, and some light red fruit such as cranberry.
Palate - 79/100 - Spicy heat, cigar smoke, tar, leather, tobacco, some of that smoked fish flavour, seaweed, and bog roots (not that I’ve tasted bog roots, but makes me think it’s what they would taste like).
Finish - 81/100 The finish is long and lingering, but mild compared to the myriad flavours on the palate. It’s practically gentle, with a smokey honey vibe, and sometimes a burnt pizza crust note which was pretty cool!
Total Score: 78/100 I’d actually been rather trepidatious about trying Ardbeg as people said it was so intense and I’d built it up in my mind, but I’m glad to have the opportunity of expanding my palate. I can see why it might be off-putting to some, but there are a lot of good and tasty notes going on in the glass, and I could see The Ultimate 10 as being a great introduction to Ardbeg and a whisky to pave the way to some of their more intense offerings.
Hey, Ma, I may just join a Cult yet!
Be sure to check out Robert's reviews of the main Ardbeg lineup HERE.