Ardnahoe – which means “Height of the Hollow” in Scottish Gaelic and gives Ardnahoe Distillery its name, is situated on the North-East coast of Islay, equidistant between Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain Distilleries. Ardnahoe Distillery is the ninth malt whisky distillery on the world-renowned whisky island of Islay. This family-owned distillery was purpose-built over a period of two years in an idyllic greenfield location on the island, to produce fine Single Malt Scotch Whisky in the classic Islay style.
The distillery is built into the side of a gentle slope on a four-acre site, with vistas over the Sound of Islay, the majestic Paps of Jura and out towards the isles of Colonsay and Mull beyond. A truly inspirational setting in which to distill an extraordinary whisky.
They draw the water to produce Ardnahoe spirit from the eponymous Loch Ardnahoe, which lies a duck’s flap from the distillery. Loch Ardnahoe offers extremely soft water that has been filtered through peat and rock for thousands of years. The result is an exceptional water source to use in all aspects of the whisky making process.
Mysteries surround Loch Ardnahoe: no one is quite sure how deep it is, while others say there’s a ghost of a charging white steed that rises out of the Loch on a full moon. They’re stories for another time…
One could be forgiven for thinking they’re in paradise – a natural, stunning and magical environment to create an exceptional spirit with a heart and soul of its very own.
BARLEY AND THE BOBY MILL
The whole process of making whisky is a remarkable chemistry that is orchestrated by the most skilled masters of their art. Firstly, the barley is malted on Islay, a process where the malt is steeped in water in order to allow the seeds to germinate; that unlocks the sugar potential to be turned into alcohol later in the process. Once the barley has been soaked, it is then dried over peat smoke for around 20 hours, to reach ~40 ppm. This is the foundation of the distinctive peaty Islay flavour in the ultimate spirit. The barley is then ground into ‘grist’ in their 100 year old Vickers Boby mill – the only piece of equipment in the distillery which is not new. A little bit of the past, brought to the present as the world flits by into the future.
THE MASH TUN
The wort is separated from the barley husks and taken to the next stage of the process, whilst the husks, known as “draff” are taken away by local farmers to be used as cattle feed.
The sugary liquid, or wort, from the mash tun is collected in the underback. From there it passes through a cooler to ensure it doesn't kill the yeast that is soon to be added and is pumped into the washback at a temperature of about 23°C. The next part of the alchemic transformation takes place in the four traditional Oregon Pine washbacks. Specially designed and constructed using the long, straight variety of timber which has minimal sap and knots and offers the optimum habitat for yeast development, these were constructed by JB Vats in Dufftown. Chilled yeast is added to the sweet, clear wort and the reaction begins. The yeast feeds on the sugar to produce alcohol and froths violently before subsiding after 50 hours into a ‘wash’, a liquid not unlike weak beer. The total fermentation time at Ardnahoe is approximately 65 – 70 hours which gives the desired result of a wonderfully fruity wash.
The brewing process differs from beer production in one important respect. At no point is the wort boiled (as in the production of beer) so, as the yeast is busily converting sugars into alcohol in the washback, a range of other complex reactions are also going on, carried over from earlier stages in the process: in particular any remaining starch in the wort is still being converted to sugar during the process.
Little seems to happen at first, but then the yeast really kicks into action and the effect can be tumultuous, rattling and shaking the washback and its surrounds and threatening to overspill the washback with active froth. This is countered by the switcher, a rotating arm designed to skim the froth before it reaches the top of the washback.
Taking too close a look inside the washback at this point in the process can be a literally breathtaking experience. The action takes place below a blanket of carbon dioxide that has displaced all the oxygen in the washback, producing a sensation in the top of the nose like every fizzy drink you've ever consumed, all at once. Carbon dioxide extractors are used to prevent too much escaping into the distillery itself. After fermentation is complete the vaguely beer-like wash, which has an alcohol content of about 7-8% by volume, is pumped from the washback and into the wash still for its first distillation.
The process continues until almost all of the alcohol has been given off, and what is emerging from the still is water vapour. The remnants of the wash still are pumped out and reduced to a solid, providing a high protein cattle feed, and the wash still is ready for its next batch of wash from the washback.
Just as today, in the days of Illicit distillation “the worm” was a highly valued and expensive to manufacture piece of equipment, indeed those illicit distillers would, during a raid, ensure that they retained their “worms”, even if meant losing their stills to the excisemen. It is an interesting piece of local folklore that Ardnahoe was the site of last illicit still on the island as recently as 50 years ago.
The condensers sit at a height, outside the distillery, as seen in the pic above. The vapours enter at the top of the coil and the condensed liquid emerges at the bottom.
To be called scotch whisky, the spirit must be produced and warehoused in Scotland for a minimum of 3 years. As the spirit rests in the casks, over time the effects of the maturation soften and flavour its spirited character. Approximately 2% of the casks’ volume (fluid / alcohol) evaporates every year, this is what’s known as The Angels’ Share – how much they steal away depends on the warehouse type and location. A proportion of the Ardnahoe spirit is matured at the distillery on Islay, absorbing the particularly maritime atmosphere and adding an extra element of “terroir”.
The aim is to produce a classically peated style of Islay single malt whisky; smoky, dynamic and full bodied. When will anyone know it’s ready? The whisky will whisper those soft words to the Master Blender. Never rush a good thing…