As we are still blissing out over the Ardbeg Traigh Bhan 19 Year Old which was released last week we thought it might be a good time to look a bit closer at Ardbeg, the Islay distillery that has produced some fantastic whisky in recent times and garnered a devoted cult following.
Whisky has been made at Ardbeg since the late 1700's with commercial (and legal) production officially commencing in 1815 under John McDougall. Located on the east coast of Islay a short car/bike/walking trip North East of Port Ellen, the distillery is striking with its tall white buildings and slate grey roof somehow contrasting and complementing the maritime environment at the same time.
The distillery like most in Scotland has changed hands many times over the years, with the McDougall family featuring heavily in the early years. During the first change of ownership away from the McDougall family, under the ownership of Thomas Buchanan the distillery was managed by two sisters, Margaret and Flora (daughters of John McDougall - and purportedly the first female distillery managers on record) alongside Colin Hay.
Colin would go on to become the owner in 1853. Production hit its stride in the late 1800's hitting over 1.2 million litres a year, with over 60 people working at the distillery.
In 1922 the McDougall family took control once more before it closed in 1932 due in no small part to the depression. After the depression, operations continued once more under the McDougall family, with the company changing its name to Ardbeg Distillery Ltd in 1959 and continuing until a takeover by Allied Distillers in the 1970's before Allied Distillers mothballed the distillery in 1981.
1989 saw the distillery reopen at limited capacity, distilling for only two months of each yeah under Hiram Walker. This state of affairs continued until the purchase of Ardbeg in 1997 by Glenmorangie (who were subsequently bought by current owners Moet Hennessy in 2004) where full production was resumed and Ardbeg's focus was to produce whisky for release as a Single Malt almost exclusively.
Now a major tourist destination, world famous Whisky distillery and brand, it can be difficult to find a car park, space to sit and eat at the famous cafe, or even book a tour during peak season (and especially during Feis Ile). We definitely recommend going just before or after peak season (which is typically May-June) if you don't love crowds.
Operating year round using a single 18,000 litre wash still and single 17,000 litre spirit still, production is (barely) keeping pace with demand. Expansion is underway already so hopefully this means a decent amount of supply and no empty glasses or shelves for the foreseeable future.
The part we love the most - the whisky! Below is a roundup of our reviews of most of the current core releases and some of the limited expressions that are still available if you do a little bit of digging.
Nose: Soggy Peat smoke and band-aids, peanut oil, mouldy hay, fresh salted butter and some menthol cigarette and eucalyptus cough drop.
Palate: Smoke from a dying campfire by the beach (remember when we were allowed to have those?), briny olive water, creamed honey and soft vanilla marshmallow followed by more smoke and some dried tropical fruits (mango, pineapple) and a smidgen of melted dark chocolate covered coffee bean.
Nose: Brined, smoked ham hocks, brown sugar, vanilla
Palate: Dried seaweed, peppered BBQ flavoured beef jerky, rich dark tea brewed with blueberries and cranberries sweetened with agave syrup. Has a slight lemon sherbet tang on the finish.
Nose: Linseed oil, old dusty/damp book, dark cocoa nibs, Mildura sultanas and freshly ground dark Kenyan coffee beans with dark demerara sugar and creosote soaked rags.
Palate: One of the more malt forward Ardbegs (a key in the flavour balancing act), beautifully complimented by dark rich sherry soaked fruit cake, honey, jersey caramels and slightly charred honey glazed ham. One of the best mouth feels, period.
Nose: Pineapple glazed charcoal roasted pig, butter menthol, caramel popcorn, lemon zest, some cracked pepper and fennel.
Palate: Feels a bit lighter than most Ardbeg expressions. Main flavours showing through are the usual smoked ham/bacon found in Ardbeg, with the smoke offering a cigar leafiness. Maple syrup and buttered crumpet, chocolate dipped dried oranges.
Nose: Beautiful balance of sweet charred BBQ meat, salt and smoke. Charred pineapple. Wood shavings that have just caught fire (pine and cedar). Lemon granita.
Palate: Vanilla cupcake (icing and cake both), pine needles on a campfire, crusted salted pork, waxy pineapple, Chinese five spices. Warm damp cedar logs on a campfire.
Nose: Like a tropical cookout - pineapple, mango and papaya mixed with beach bonfire and sticky sweet smoke from roast meats roasting on a spit.
Palate: White pepper, cloves, pine needle / damp sod smoke (like from a buried camp oven fire). Some black strap licorice notes, milk chocolate and some candied ginger pieces.
Nose: A lot of molasses, and freshly expressed coffee grounds, dark chocolate smothered orange peel and burnt to a cinder maple bacon.
Palate: A bit drier than your typical sherried Ardbeg, with a good dose of your typical dried pudding ingredients like sultanas, currants, crystallised ginger and candied orange peel. This gives way after initial tasting to heavier smoke elements reminiscent of a burned out beach bonfire and rich bacon bones covered in meaty/fatty goodness after being in a peppery stew all day.
Nose: 80%+ Cocoa Dark Chocolate, dried smoked cod seasoned with black pepper, seaweed found on the tide line and oily peat reek.
Palate: A lot going on here and in a relatively balanced manner, surprising considering the gamut of flavours we picked up. Tar, super strong coffee, dark chocolate, hickory smoked bacon, burning golden syrup with hints of clove oil and the faintest hint of apricots, all delivered in a rich, oily, pepper spiced mouthfeel.
Nose: The signature Ardbeg brine, dark chocolate and burnt out bonfire are present along with old motorcycle seat leather, lolly gobble bliss bomb, Betty Crocker vanilla butter cream frosting, freshly pressed lavenders in an old book and BBQ spice rub.
Palate: A bit saltier than the other Ardbeg’s with apples and pears presenting alongside the usual tar, vanilla and chocolate flavours. Things change gears now with Ethiopian dry rubbed pork and barley sugar.
How do I get it?
The easiest way is to click the names of each whisky reviewed above for a direct link to the bottles being tracked online via The Whisky List or visit our site and search for Ardbeg.
For limited releases or early access be sure to join the Ardbeg Committee mailing list via their website
We hope this article has whet your appetite for some whisky from Ardbeg!