Ardbeg

Few distilleries have a story like that of Ardbeg (pronounced: ard-BEG). Over the past few decades the Ardbeg distillery 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. In that...

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Few distilleries have a story like that of Ardbeg (pronounced: ard-BEG). Over the past few decades the Ardbeg distillery 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. In that time it has also occasionally been a source of controversy and frustration in the whisky world. However, there can be no denying that behind all the fuss and blether lies a relatively small distillery that has been responsible for some of the most glorious whiskies ever bottled.

Founded: 1815
Capacity: 2.4 million litres
Stills: 2 wash stills, 2 spirit stills
Washbacks: 11 made from Oregon Pine
Mill: 19th century Boby Mill
Mash Tun: Modern Semi Lauter
Peated? Yes. Pre 1989: generally 40-50ppm but variable. 1989-1996: 50ppm approx. 1997-Present: generally around 56ppm but up to 100ppm (Supernova)
Variants: Kildalton lightly peated produced 1980-1981. Lightly peated batches produced infrequently from 1998 onwards, eg: Blasda.
Water: Soft. From Loch Uigeadail.
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 era are, by and large, all independents with a few notable official exceptions. In the past some examples of Ardbeg from many decades ago appeared at auctions, however as with all these 'historic' examples, there are known fakes out there and for that reason their authenticity will always sadly be suspect.

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

This is the classic era of Ardbeg that made the distillery's name amongst aficionados the world over. The spirit was produced in a very old school fashion, basically unchanged 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.

Another crucial factor of almost universal significance to all distilleries during this period was much longer, gentler fermentation. 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 now very expensive due to their often exceptionally high quality. There are also younger official distillery bottlings from this period 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, often with a less distinctive peat character and an overall lighter profile. This is largely due to the effects of the 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. The distillery began to buy in malt from Port Ellen maltings as early as 1975 and this was different from Ardbeg's own malt, being dried with much younger peat that left a drier, less intense peat character with more emphasis on smokiness. The quality was good and the product was 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, but there are still many worthwhile bottlings from this era, the official 17-year-olds and the OB 1978 are good examples of this. The almost unpeated Kildaltons produced at the turn of the 1980s are interesting curiosities also.

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

This was the period when Ardbeg was run by Allied Distillers, who also owned Laphroaig. Initially this was regarded as a negative chapter in Ardbeg's history, but as the spirits from these years matured they revealed an excellent and fascinating era of production.

Allied ran Ardbeg sporadically - often only in Laphroaig's silent seasons - with little or no thought to its quality or consistency. The whisky made at this time was intended only as extra peated blending spirit to free up more Laphroaig for release as a single malt. However, the whisky produced during this period was an interesting variant on the Ardbeg style: not as heavy as the seventies distillates, 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 and 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 ageing potential of fresh bourbon casks and their 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, but their potential for creating beautiful, dry, aromatic and expressive whiskies at older ages was great. The official 1990 vintages, the early 2000s editions of Ardbeg 10-year-old, and many independent bottlings display this wonderful refill character very beautifully.

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

In modern times under Glenmorangie's stewardship Ardbeg has garnered worldwide praise and, it must be said, occasional scorn. Glenmorangie have shortened the fermentation time at the distillery, implemented the use of much more powerful distillers' yeast strains, dramatically increased the use of fresh bourbon casks and raised the peating levels slightly. This has led to the most consistent era of production at Ardbeg for decades.

However, these measures have also made Ardbeg's single malt a much more modern, sweeter style whisky. The bottlings in the last decade or so, most of which are now 100% Glenmorangie-era distillate, are starting to display this shift in character.

There is less oiliness in Ardbeg's spirit these days, and more grassy, smoky and coastal characteristics. The use of fresh bourbon wood 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 around 10ppm - so far these examples have only been used for the discontinued, unlamented Blasda bottling, but perhaps they will reappear in a different form down the line.

In early 2018, Ardbeg announced a major expansion to the distillery - the biggest change to production since the 1970s. The completed expansion was unveiled in May 2021, and included a new still house with two new stills matching the existing pair, while the former still house and tun room were converted to accommodate five extra new washbacks. These upgrades will boost the distillery's production capacity to around 2.4 million litres per annum.

Ardbeg's whisky remains very high quality but the distillery no longer makes spirit of the same type that forged its reputation a few decades ago. Whatever the future may hold, with an army of fans around the globe, the important fact is that the Ardbeg distillery's future is now more secure than at any time in recent memory.

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