October 29, 2012

Ardbeg - from mothballs to medals

It's really quite remarkable what the folks at Ardbeg distillery have accomplished in the last 15 years. Back in 1887, Ardbeg produced over 1 million litres of whisky and was the biggest producer on Islay, as well as one of the biggest in Scotland. But, about a hundred years later, changing fortunes and times saw production dwindle to virtually nothing and, in 1991, the distillery closed. Six years later, it was purchased by the Glenmorangie company, currently owned by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy. Since then, Ardbeg, its people and its whiskies have won countless awards.
I'm a big fan of the whiskies, but I'm certainly not alone. Ardbeg has a passionate following that broaches on the fanatical. The Ardbeg committee (one of over a hundred that exist on Islay) has reported over 50,000 members for a few years now. In addition to spreading the Ardbeg message (which I am doing, as a good committee member), members have early access to special bottlings and other rewards of membership. If you live in an accommodating part of the world, these special bottlings can be shipped to you. 
With so many committee members having Elite access (to use an Air Canada analogy), some bottlings sell out very quickly, which generates even more demand for limited bottlings, and Ardbeg in general. All very clever.
Still on the subject of serious Ardbeg fans, Tim Puett from California has to be one of the most serious of all. If you love Ardbeg whisky, check out his unbelievably detailed website - The Ardbeg Project
There are many expressions to choose from. In addition to producing a core range that currently includes the very lightly peated Blasda, the "blow your socks off" peated Supernova, the consistently super 10 year old, the big and powerful Corryvreckan and my favourite, Uigeadail, Ardbeg distillery has produced over 100 whiskies, including committee bottlings and single cask bottlings, since being acquired by Glemorangie in 1997.
Jim Murray, who updates his annual Whisky Bible each year, named different Ardbeg whiskies as World Whisky of the Year in each of 2008, 2009 and 2010 - big accolades for a distillery which had its renaissance a mere 15 years ago.
The southern Islay distillery will be celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2015. It's reasonable to expect all kinds of parties and surprises during that year. I recently spent some time with Jackie Thomson at Ardbeg, Whisky Magazine's 2013 Visitor Centre Manager of the Year, and she's the instigator of many celebratory events at the distillery. With a  focus on good fun and a passion for Ardbeg, it's clear that the thinking cap is already on for some 2015 events. Jackie, (who won the same award on 2002),  flits around the visitor centre, wearing many hats in a very capable fashion. When she isn't talking about whisky, showing folks around or leading tastings, she might be tending cash at the enormously popular shop or working in the terrific restaurant, where hungry tasters can sample some great Islay food.
I sampled some whiskies with Jackie and it became clear to me that the clever handling of older stock, as well as very new, post 1997, stock was a huge factor in regenerating demand for Ardbeg.
In 2000, Ardbeg 10 was launched, but with older stock. From about 2008, the 10 year old character started to become more consistent, from the newer stock - all pointing to some interesting vertical tastings that can be held with Ardbeg 10, from 2000 to 2008. In 2003, the enormously popular Uigeadail was launched but, do the math, and it's clear that this is another whisky that changed with time before becoming Jim Murray's world whisky of the year in 2009. Between 2004 and 2008, various committee bottlings appeared, with names like Very Young, Still Young, Almost There and Renaissance, all selling out and continuing the buzz. Corryvreckan and Blasda were launched in 2008, Supernova in 2010 and, in other years, limited edition products like Alligator (re-charred casks), Rollercoaster, Serendipity ( a blended malt), and many others have continued to  fuel interest and demand. Just this year, a quirky, limited edition product called Galileo was launched, in celebration of the fact that some Ardbeg was sent to the international space station in 2011 for maturation experiments. Some of the whisky was matured in ex-Marsala casks and it's bottled at 49%. With a fruity nose and a peaty aftertaste, it's a different Ardbeg but, as always, has sold out. I managed to pick one up before it was gone.
Among the other whiskies I tasted was a 17 year old from older stock, which reminded me of Lagavulin 16 year old. The peat was more subdued, and it was fruity and elegant. The Blasda was light, as would be expected; the Supernova, big, bold, cask strength, enormously peaty and really tasty; and the Serendipity - a blend of Glen Moray and Ardbeg - had layers of aromas and flavours and was quite delicious. This whisky was apparently produced "by mistake", when some Glen Moray stock found its way to the distillery. It was then released as a committee, blended malt bottling and, to my mind, is proof positive that there should be much more blended malt production to explore new flavour combinations.
It could be argued that there are so many Ardbeg expressions out there, that it's all a  bit confusing for the consumer. (Back in Ontario, we only see one or two, most specifically the 10 year old, so we're not confused at all - sad, but not confused!). However, the fans seem to have no problem whatsoever with the wide range, and demand for Ardbeg, of any kind, keeps growing.
I haven't said much about the distillery itself, but it's quite charming and has some unique characteristics, such as one of the oldest working Boby mills in the world, a purifier on the lyne arm, and another of these long fermentation times to accommodate the high phenolic content, which requires more time for the yeast to break down the sugar.
After looking around with Jackie, and tasting a wide collection of Ardbeg whisky, I spent some time with Michael Heads. Mickey, as he is known, is the 17th Distillery Manager, a position he's held since 2007. Mickey's also a big fan of Uigeadail (it's much beloved by many!) and you can see him chat about this brilliant dram on you tube.
Ardbeg recently lost Master Blender extraordinaire, Rachel Barrie, to Bowmore distillery. Rachel was responsible for the creation of some very fine expressions for Ardbeg and Glenmorangie, so we will stay tuned to see what the next game plan is to be at Ardbeg. Meanwhile, if the distillery keeps producing whiskies in the same class as the 10 year old and Uigeadail, there will be many happy campers for a long time to come.
Next up Laphroaig.