FROM MOTHBALLS TO MONSTERS OF PEAT
Almost everybody I told that Ardbeg was a twice mothballed distillery that was finally bought in 1997 by Glenmorangie (read LVMH, of which Diageo owns 30%) didn't believe me. History doesn't lie. Scotch simply meant blended Scotch, nothing else, though Blended Malts were much the rage in the 1880s, right up to 1915. Ardbeg just did not mix, such was its taste. Production, when attempted, would be for a couple of months a year, just to keep the distillery alive. It was a losing proposition, which is why it was mothballed twice. The good thing though, was that there was a plenitude of old Ardbeg barrels.
There have been many ups and downs on the long road to Ardbeg throughout the years. Ardbeg’s story is one of irrepressible spirit surviving against the odds, finally emerging as “unquestionably, one of the greatest distilleries in Scotland.” Some call it the greatest distillery on Earth, but then these blokes have no idea that Japan, India and Taiwan make amazing smoked and peated single malts.
Let's take it one step at a time:
THE RISE, FALL AND RESURGENCE OF ARDBEG
Ardbeg’s story is one of irrepressible spirit surviving against the odds, to emerge from the ashes as“the greatest distillery on Earth.”(sic)
1815 – Ardbeg Distillery is founded. John Macdougall takes out a licence, establishing Ardbeg Distillery as a legitimate commercial concern.
1838 – A new owner. Thomas Buchanan, a Glasgow spirit merchant, buys the Distillery for £1,800. John Macdougall’s son Alexander continues to manage operations.
1853 – Alexander Macdougall dies. After his death, Ardbeg is co-run by Colin Hay and Macdougall’s sisters, Margaret and Flora, who may rightfully be Scotland’s first female distillers.
1887 –Ardbeg starts producing 250,000 gallons (1.1 million litres) of whisky a year, making it the most productive distillery on Islay.
1911 – The name ‘Ardbeg’ is registered as a trademark. The distinctive letter ‘A’ is also registered to protect Ardbeg’s brand and reputation.
1922 – Alexander MacDougall & Co Ltd buys Ardbeg for £19,000.
1977 – Hiram Walker acquires Ardbeg.
1981 – Production dwindles to zero. The distillery closes.
1987 – Allied Lyons acquires Hiram Walker and therefore Ardbeg. Two years later, small-scale distilling resumes to satisfy demand for Ardbeg from blenders.
1991 – The distillery closes down again.
1997 – The Glenmorangie Company purchases the distillery and the Distillery reopens in 1997. Full-time production commences, with the first bottlings comprising 17 YO, 1978 Vintage and Ardbeg Provenance.
1998 – Ardbeg is voted Distillery of the Year. In a remarkable turnaround in only 12 short months the 17 Years Old plus Ardbeg 1975 20 Years Old launches prove Ardbeg’s mettle.
1999 – Production reaches 600,000 litres a year. Investment in new people and new equipment is already beginning to pay off. PLUS Ardbeg single casks are hand selected and released in very limited, exclusive bottlings.
2000 – Ardbeg Ten Years Old and Ardbeg Committee launched. The extraordinary balance of peaty power and floral sweetness makes it a big hit and the core expression in the Ardbeg range. PLUS the worldwide Ardbeg Committee is formed to ensure ‘the doors of the Distillery never close again’.
2003 – Ardbeg Uigeadail is released. It is named after the Distillery’s water source, meaning ‘dark and mysterious place’. PLUS the first Glenmorangie Company distillate is released to The Committee ‘for discussion’, a limited bottling of Very Young Ardbeg.
2004 – Very Young Ardbeg is born. The Committee overwhelmingly approves the distillate, leading to the launch of Very Young Ardbeg. A 6 YO distilled in 1998 and bottled in 2004, it turned whisky thinking on its head.
2005 – A Serendipitous year. Ardbeg is established as part of the House of Glenmorangie within Moet Hennessy/LVMH. Production reaches 1 million litres. PLUS someone pulls the wrong lever and mixes Ardbeg with a small quantity of Glen Moray. Disaster is averted with the unbranded release of Serendipity.
2006 – Young, old and rare. Ardbeg Still Young is launched, the next step on ''the peaty path to maturity''. Ardbeg 1965, an extremely limited release of only 261 bottles is the oldest Ardbeg ever to be released: 'the envy of Islay'. Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist ("the Beastie") is released, drawn from rare and restricted whisky stocks, laid down in 1990.
2007 – Michael Heads becomes Ardbeg’s 20th Manager and Chairman of the Ardbeg Committee. PLUS: Ardbeg Almost There is bottled – the third limited release of the 1998 distillate. Ardbeg Mor becomes the biggest launch to date. Mor (Gaelic for 'big and magnificent') is 1,000 sought-after 4.5 litre bottles of cask strength Ten Years Old. Ardbeg Double Barrel unveiled – 250 pairs of the acclaimed Ardbeg 1974 vintage single cask bottlings presented in luxury shotgun cases.
2008 – World Whisky of the Year. Ardbeg Ten Years Old wins World Whisky of the Year. PLUS: Ardbeg Renaissance completes the peaty path to maturity. Ardbeg Corryvreckan is released to the Committee. Lightly peated Ardbeg Blasda – Gaelic for 'sweet and delicious' – is launched.
2009 – World Whisky of the Year again. Ardbeg Uigeadail scoops the World Whisky of the Year honour in the 2009 – the second time for Ardbeg. PLUS: 3,000 bottles of Ardbeg Supernova, the peatiest Ardbeg ever, are snapped up in record time. Ardbeg Corryvreckan joins the core range on worldwide release.
2010 – Three times a winner. Ardbeg Supernova is awarded Scotch Whisky of the Year. Ardbeg Corryvreckan wins World's Best Single Malt Whisky and Single Malt of the Year. PLUS Ardbeg Rollercoaster is released to celebrate the Committee’s 10th anniversary.
2011 – The tale of the ‘Islay-gator. ‘Alligator char’ American Oak casks and a smoky, spicy flavour ensure Ardbeg Alligator is snapped up by the Committee.
2012 – Ardbeg Galileo launched. 60,000 bottles sell out within 48 hours. PLUS we celebrated the first ever Ardbeg Day by holding not the Olympics, but the ‘Islay-limpics’.
2013 – Ardbeg Ardbog launched. Sold out as of today.
2014 – Ardbeg Auriverdes launched.
2015 – 200 years of Ardbeg. Instead of looking backwards for Ardbeg’s bicentenary, they looked 200 years into the future. Ardbeg Perpetuum launched.
Ardbeg Uigeadail vs. Corryvreckan
Uigeadail: single malt Scotch, Islay, 54.2%, $85
Corryvreckan: single malt Scotch, Islay, 57.1%, $95
When the mothballed Ardbeg distillery was bought and restarted by Glenmorangie in 1997, there were stocks of whisky from two distinct periods in the warehouses; the early 1970’s through March of 1981 and mid-1989 through mid-1996. The latter period was limited to two months of production per year. The new owners would also have the whisky they began producing themselves from mid 1997 onward as that spirit came of age. Production methods differed for each of these three periods giving three distinct styles of Ardbeg that would shape the evolution of the brand’s offerings for years to come.
The only bottlings put out by Ardbeg in 1997, 1998 and 1999 were their 17 year old and a series of vintage releases dated to the mid 1970’s. The 17 year is often said to be made up solely of distillate from 1980 and 1981, but a quote is attributed to Glenmoranie’s Dr. Bill Lumsden stating that the 17 year also contained distillate laid down between 1975 and 1977.
The 17 year old and the 1970’s vintage bottlings continued on until 2004, but they were joined by a new 10 year old offering in 2000. This bottling was the first use of whisky from the period of limited production between 1989 and 1996.
Another annual release was started in 2001; Lord of the Isles was a vatting of whiskies from 1976 and 1977. It was part of the lineup until 2007 and much like the 17 year, its label stayed the same but the whisky grew older with each subsequent bottling. It was deliberately kept in short supply, driving prices through the roof.
The next significant addition to Ardbeg’s lineup was Uigeadail, which first appeared in 2003. It was described at younger bourbon barrel aged whisky vatted with much older sherry cask matured whisky.
Then there was a series of bottlings which tracked the progress of the whisky that the new owners began distilling in 1997. First was Very Young in 2004 which was followed by Still Young in 2006, Almost There in 2007 and finally Renaissance in 2008.
There were two very limited releases of lightly peated, cask strength Ardbeg Kildalton. The one in 2004 was distilled in 1980 and put into 700 ml bottles. The 2005 release was distilled in 1981 and only bottled in miniatures.
At some point in 2008 the flagship 10 year old was transitioned from distillate produced between 1989 and 1996 to distillate produced from 1997 onward. There was a change in the label design mid way through 2008 that is generally considered to indicate when the transition took place, but some people claim to have tasted the change in the flavor profile several months before the labels were modified.
Another lightly peated release called Blasda was bottled in 2008, 2009 and 2010. It was non-age stated, but said to be about 7 years old.
Corryvreckan was the next addition to the lineup, arriving in 2009. Upon its introduction it was touted as the replacement for Airigh Nam Beist. This bottling is aged in a combination of French oak and American oak ex-bourbon barrels. It is non-age stated but said to be in the 10 to 12 year range (making it all from post-1997 distillate).
There is some conflicting information about the French oak aged portion of Corryvreckan. It was actually first seen as an Ardbeg Committee bottling in 2008 using first-fill French oak casks (either Burgundy or Bordeaux casks, both have been mentioned). Most reputable sources now state that Corryvreckan uses new French oak rather than first-fill French oak (along with the bourbon aged component). Was this was a gradual transition over a few years or a sudden change when it became part of the regular lineup? The bottle of Corryvreckan 2009 seems to show little if any wine cask influence. The distillery stated that Corryvreckan was aged in toasted new French oak.
The limited releases have continued from Ardbeg as well. There was the more heavily peated (100+ ppm) Supernova in 2009 and 2010. Also released in 2010 was Rollercoaster; a vatting of the first ten years (1997-2006) of the new owners’ production. Next, in 2011, was Alligator; a vatting of ex-bourbon barrels and heavily charred, new American oak barrels. 2012 saw the release of Galileo, which was distilled in 1999 and aged in a combination of bourbon and Marsala casks.
Recent years have also seen wider releases of the annual festival bottlings from Ardbeg; Ardbeg Day (2012), Ardbog (2013), Auriverdes (2014) and Perpetuum (2015).
With all of these limited releases and changes to the core lineup, it can be pretty tough to keep track of what was bottled when at Ardbeg. And that has led to The Ardbeg Project. This privately run website attempts to catalog all official Ardbeg releases by their corresponding bottle codes and provide additional information when possible.
In the case of Uigeadail, the Ardbeg Project is particularly helpful. When it was first bottled in 2003, the sherry cask component of Uigeadail was distilled in the 1970’s and aged to about 25 years. There is no information about the age of the bourbon barrel component of the early bottlings of Uigeadail, other than the generalisation of it as being “young”. At that time though, most of the limited production from the 1989-1996 period was probably being used for the 10 year old, so it stands to reason that the bourbon barrel aged whisky in Uigeadail would have been distilled after the facility was restarted in mid 1997 and at about 6 years old.
Of course, with limited stocks of whisky from the 1970’s which were becoming increasingly more valuable as time marched on, it was inevitable that the recipe for Uigeadail would change. The change in recipe was confirmed by an employee at the distillery in 2012.
More detail of Uigeadail’s changing formula can be found in this 2013 interview with Dr. Bill Lumsden (at the 23 minute mark), where he states “I’ve tried to gradually drift the recipe to a more appropriate age profile”. Other blogs state that the most highly regarded bottlings came from 2003 through 2009, and the most noticeable change happened across 2010, 2011 and 2012.
It’s said that the sherry cask component accounts for 35% to 45% of Uigeadail, and that the percentage hasn’t really changed over the years. Having youthful, bourbon barrel aged whisky in the mix is part of what makes this bottling what it is, so that component has remained around the 6 year mark. Remember though, during the 1989-1996 period production was limited and intended for blending, so there was probably little if any sherry cask whisky from that time available for Uigeadail. The biggest shift of the sherry cask component to 1997 and newer distillate likely took place across 2010, 2011 and 2012.
Over the course of 10 years, the sherry matured component of Uigeadail has drifted down in age from roughly 25 years to around 15 years. Not only that, but it has also transitioned across three distinct periods of Ardbeg’s history, each with its own style of distillate.
The Uigeadail Today:
The nose is sharp and biting. It almost seems astringent at first but shows its true nature upon more cautious inspection; dense, chewy peat smoke aromas are intertwined with dry, nutty, oxidised sherry notes. The palate shows incredible depth and complexity. While the peat smoke is the most obvious element, there’s so much more going on along with it. There’s a gingerbread-like maltiness, mint and wide range of spice notes. The sherry fruit character is dark and moderately dry, with a hint of nuttiness. A touch of brine rounds out the flavor profile. The lengthy finish evolves without losing balance and maintains a good level of grip even as it fades.
There are some nice aromas on the nose, but a healthy dose of alcohol riding along with them. The peat smoke is somewhat light and floral in character and is accompanied by some subtle tree fruit and tropical fruit notes. There is less heat and aggressiveness on the palate than expected considering its nature on the nose. Notes of dry spice and leather come to the fore and add complexity to the smoke of driftwood burning on a beach. A bit of earthiness and a subtle stone fruit element come into play as well. The finish is long and warming, with a building spice element and lingering peat notes.
Comparing Uigeadail and Corryvreckan to the 10 YO, the last-named's peat smoke stands out more on the palate. But then, the other two have wider ranges of accompanying flavour elements. True, the Corryvreckan stands nicely on its own, but it simply pales in comparison to the Uigeadail.
The pecking order then:
Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist
Ardbeg 10 YO
Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist
Ardbeg 10 YO