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Ardbeg

Ardbeg

Few distilleries or distillery have a story like that of Ardbeg (pronounced: ard-BEG) over the past fifteen years. It has transformed from a forgotten Kildalton relic, loved secretly by a few but largely unknown, into one of the biggest whisky cults in the world.

It has also become one of the most controversial and frustrating brands in the whisky world. However there can be no denying that behind all the frustration and blether lies a relatively small scale distillery that has been responsible for some of the most glorious whiskies ever bottled.

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Ardbeg Distillery

Founded: 1815
Capacity: 1 million litres
Stills: 2. 1 wash still and 1 spirit still
Washbacks: 6 made from Oregon Pine
Mill: 19th century Boby Mill
Mash Tun: Modern Semi Lauter
Peated? Yes. Pre 1989 40-50ppm generally but variable. 1989-1996 50ppm approx. 1997-now 56.4 ppm.
Variants: Kildalton lightly peated produced 1980-1981. Lightly peated batches produce infrequently from 1998 onwards, eg: Blasda.
Water: soft from Loch Uigedail.
Casks: Predominantly fresh bourbon, with some refill wood and fresh sherry casks. There are also many experimental batches of casks filled.

Bottlings available from Ardbeg start realistically in the mid sixties, although there are some very rare examples from the late fifties if you have the money. Bottlings from this time are by and large all independents with a few notable official exceptions. There have been historic examples from many decades ago appear at auctions in recent years however I have never tried them and as with all these 'historic' examples, their authenticity will always sadly be suspect.

1960s-1976: Oily, phenolic, tarry, green fruits and intense.

This is classic era Ardbeg, this is the era of Ardbeg that made the distillery's name amongst aficionados the world over. The spirit was produced in a very old school fashion as it would have been since the second world war. Floor maltings play a crucial part in Ardbeg's character from this era. Very deep local peat was cut and burned in varying quantities in Ardbeg's kilns. Peat from this depth gives off much heavier, oilier phenolic compounds which contributed intense simmering espresso tarry qualities to the spirit. The fact that the kilns had no extraction fans meant the malt took a much longer time to dry and therefore absorbed more phenols, thus intensifying this character even further. Other crucial factors that were of almost universal significance to all distilleries during these times were much longer, less intense fermentations. This gives a much fruitier, estery character to the spirit. The use of direct fired stills and worm tub condensers instead of the modern shell condensers also helped create a much oilier style of spirit as this encouraged a different style of copper contact. There are many bottlings of Ardbeg from these years but they are also very expensive due to their often exceptionally high quality. There are also younger official distillery bottlings available that show the spirit's character at younger ages, these are often stunning as well.

1977-1983: Still phenolic and oily but lighter with less obvious fruit character. Kildalton experiments also produced.

This was a transitional era at Ardbeg. Bottlings from this time can be more variable in style and quality with often a less distinctive peat character and an overall lighter profile. This is largely due to the effects of modernisation that was happening throughout the whisky industry at this time and affected many distilleries. For Ardbeg the slow deactivation of its own maltings was a crucial element. It began to buy in malt from Port Ellen maltings as early as 1975 and it was different from Ardbeg's own in that it was dried with much younger peat that left a dryer, less intense peat character with more emphasis on smokiness. The quality was good and the product far more consistent than that of Ardbeg's own however many Ardbeg lovers feel it lacked the magic of Ardbeg's own malted barley. Ardbeg's maltings operated for the last time in 1980. However there are still many worthwhile bottlings from this era, the OB 17yo's and the OB 1978 are good examples. The Kildalton's produced in 1980-81 are interesting curiosities also.

1989-1996: Oily, resinous, fruity and coastal.

These are the Allied years at Ardbeg when it was run by Allied Distillers who also owned Laphroaig. They were seen for a long time as a negative chapter in Ardbeg's history, however as the spirit from these years ages they are increasingly being seen as an excellent and fascinating era of production. Allied ran Ardbeg sporadically with little or no thought to its quality or consistency, it was to be extra peated blending spirit to free more Laphroaig up for release as a single malt. However the spirit produced was an interesting variant on the Ardbeg style, not as heavy as the seventies but with a new oily fruity angle to its character. One explanation may be in the distillation process. Ardbeg famously has a purifier fitted to its spirit still to increase reflux (copper contact). Due to lack of maintenance by Allied this was often not working properly (frequent leaks were reported) this would certainly have affected the character of the distillate. However one of the most important factors during this era was the wood filled by Allied. This was a time when distillers were starting to really understand the rapid aging potential of fresh bourbon and its use at Laphroaig increased markedly. As a result Ardbeg was sent many old refill casks, often up to fourth and fifth fill barrels. These were seen as disastrous at the time however their potential for creating beautiful, dry, aromatic and expressive whiskies at older ages was great. The official 1990 vintages, early 2000s bottlings of Ardbeg 10yo and many independent bottlings display this wonderful refill character very beautifully.

1997-present: Sweeter, honied, intense peat, spicy, richly phenolic. Modern Ardbeg.

These are years under Glenmorangie's stewardship during which Ardbeg has garnered worldwide praise and scorn in equal measures. Glenmorangie have shortened the fermentation and implemented much more powerful distiller's yeast strains. Increased dramatically the use of fresh bourbon casks and increased the peating levels slightly. This has led to the most consistent era of production at Ardbeg for decades. However it has also made it a much more modern, sweeter style whisky. The bottlings in the last couple of years, which are now almost 100% Glenmorangie distilled stock, are starting to display this shift in character. There is less oiliness in the spirit these days and more grassy, smoky and coastal characteristics. The presence of fresh bourbon has made many bottlings more easy and approachable although the intensity of the peat remains very high. There have also been some low peated runs done as low as 10ppm, so far these examples have only been used for the Blasda bottling. The whisky is still undoubtedly of a high quality but it is certainly a new era for Ardbeg, who knows what the future may hold?

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