The Cult of Ardbeg, a Very Misunderstood Whisky
The remote Scottish isle of Islay is a mecca for whisky connoisseurs who have a particular liking for peaty whiskies. Getting there isn’t easy: after arriving in Scotland, it takes another day to get to Islay (pronounced eye-la) as there are only two flights from Glasgow per day. But the pilgrimage is certainly worth it: there are eight active distilleries on the tiny island, including iconic brands like Lagavulin, Laphroaig, and Bruichladdich. Islay is known for producing some of the world’s smokiest whiskies. This is because its distilleries burn peat—which grows in abundance on the island—to dry malted barley.
Named after the small village in which its distillery is located, Ardbeg sits right on the edge of the sea. It’s an iconic location from which tourists love to take pictures, and on a clear day, one can see Ireland in the distance. Ardbeg aims to bottle the “untamed spirit of Islay,” which it describes as “a place of swirling mists, rugged hills, and mysterious Celtic heritage.” Given this, it isn’t surprising they produce some intensely peaty whisky.
The view from Ardbeg Distillery
Nosing a dram can feel very much like taking a drag from a menthol cigarette, which, while delightful for some, might be less so for others. The tasting notes for Ardbeg whiskies include aromas like “tarry rope,” “graphite,” and “smoked fish,” along with more pleasant flavors like chocolate, cappuccino, and cinnamon.
“It’s quite a misunderstood whisky because it’s so smoky, it’s so raw it’s not for everyone,” says Brendan McCarron, head of maturing whisky stocks at Glenmorangie and Ardbeg, and heir apparent to the distilleries’ whisky creator, Bill Lumsden.
In fact, Ardbeg has a rather complicated history. One of the oldest distilleries on the island, it has closed its doors not once, not twice, but seven times. It even ceased operations throughout the 1980s. In the early ’90s, it would produce whisky for just 10 or 12 weeks every year. By 1995, production was reduced to almost nothing.
Ardbeg Distillery in 1997, just after it was purchased by Glenmorangie
“We almost lost this distillery forever,” McCarron recounts. “By 1996, the distillery was a ruin. It was pretty much ready to be demolished. Then Glenmorangie bought the distillery in 1997 and we switched it back on and we’ve been producing ever since with the aim of never letting Ardbeg close its doors ever again.”
Established in 1815, Ardbeg is 203 years old. During its heyday, it provided enough jobs to sustain the entire village. And in the 1880s, it produced just over 1 million liters of alcohol, making it the biggest distillery on Islay. Last year, Ardbeg celebrated its 20th anniversary since reopening, and finally got back to producing over a million liters again.
It’s been lauded by whisky critic Jim Murray as “unquestionably the greatest distillery to be found on earth” in The Complete Book of Whisky. Of Ardbeg 10 Year-Old he said, “If perfection exists on the palate, this is it."
As part of its initiatives to help make sure it would never close again, in 2000 the distillery established the Ardbeg Committee—a group of hardcore fans whose mission is to share their love of this misunderstood whisky. Make no mistake—while Ardbeg may will never be the most popular single malt in the world because of its overwhelming smokiness, it’s developed quite a cult following. The Ardbeg Committee has 120,000 members from all over the world.
“Not every single malt whisky drinker will love Ardbeg, or even like Ardbeg, or even tolerate Ardbeg,” McCarron says. “But people who do like it tend to love it. They tend to get really loyal, really into it, it’s almost like a cult. Fan is short for fanatic, and you remember that when you do an Ardbeg tasting."
We witnessed this fervor firsthand, when McCarron did an Ardbeg whisky tasting masterclass at Discovery Primea last April. Given that Ardbeg has only been open for the past 20 years, the distillery has very little stock. There are only three permanent expressions of Ardbeg that are locally available: 10 Years Old, Uigeadail, and Corryvreckan. The fourth and newest permanent expression, An Oa, was released in 2017, and won’t be available locally until next year (though it looks like the guys at Singlemalt.ph were able to procure a few bottles).
Ardbeg sources the purest, freshest water from Loch Uigeadail, after which its second and most popular permanent expression, Ardbeg Uigeadail, is named
With over 50 gold and double gold medals in key whisky competitions and new special releases every year, Ardbeg shows no signs of slowing down. They even launched a vial of whisky into space and aged it for two and a half years aboard the International Space Station, to study the effects of micro-gravity on taste profiles. Seeing as Ardbeg has already been sent into outer space, we certainly hope more bottles will make their way to our shores.