July 15, 2014

Islay Whisky Festival 2014 - Ardbeg

Let's start with Ardbeg! In this series I'm writing about visits to each of the Islay distilleries during Feis Ile 2014.
At the annual festival of music and whisky, each Islay distillery hosts a day filled with whisky tastings and events, food, music, special Festival bottlings and loads of excitement and anticipation. Some events are free, some are ticketed and, as I mentioned in my previous post, the ticketed events sell like hotcakes! Take a look at the Ardbeg festivities to whet your appetite for a  future Feis Ile.
The official Ardbeg Day was on the final Saturday when, sadly,  we had to be out of our rental house and on the Calmac ferry from Port Askaig back to the mainland. Luckily, many of the events were duplicated on other days throughout the week and so, thanks to Mickey Heads, Ardbeg's Distillery Manager, and probably too much pleading and cajoling on my part, I secured a place at a midweek Heads Up tasting - a much sought after warehouse experience, and rightly so.
Salty character?
Like many of the folks in the Islay distillery world, Mickey's an Ileach (an Islay native). After previous experience at Laphroaig, and as Distillery Manager at Jura, he's been the Distillery Manager at Ardbeg for seven years, so he's had time to nose and sample a good number of the carefully coded thousands of casks maturing in the Ardbeg warehouses. For the heads up tasting, about fourteen of us headed down to the dunnage warehouse, where a number of Mickey's favourite casks had been rolled out for us to select and taste. Crystal tasting glasses and plates of nibbles waited invitingly on upright barrels, which are just the right size for a stand up tasting.
Let the tasting begin

The first barrel selected for tasting was a 1994 2nd fill bourbon barrel. There is no finer way to taste a dram than straight from the barrel where the whisky has been resting all its life, maturing through cool winters and warm summers, slowly building its character year after year. This 20 year old was a real beauty. At 55% alcohol by volume, and with aromas of apple and smoke and elegance (yes, that is an aroma, in my opinion), it tasted beautifully balanced, fruity and creamy, with some ginger, then a long spicy finish. Yum!
Mickey Heads
Mickey has a great style - easy going, gentle spoken, warm and friendly. His knowledge and experience comes through in his quiet and confident manner. It's easy to tell that he loves his work, and his whiskies, but he doesn't get worked up with differing opinions. Pleased as punch if people in the group liked a particular barrel, he was equally interested in listening to preferences, comments and tasting perspectives, as well as answering any and all questions that came his way.
Ardbeg whiskies are in high demand. Back in the 60's and 70's, one cask from each distillation was filled for single malt and the rest went for blends. Today, it's a completely different story, with an enviable global demand and everything going to single malt. About 36,000 tons of barley comes annually from Port Ellen maltings, but that's not enough to meet demand, so some is sourced from other malting works on the mainland.
The second barrel selected was a first fill oloroso sherry barrel from  1998. The oloroso barrels are mainly used in the brilliant Uigeadail, one of my all time favourite whiskies. This one, at 56.9% ABV, had a wonderful and typically rich sherry cask nose, with dried fruits and a big, juicy, spicy palate.
Next up was a first fill bourbon barrel - cask 2053 to be precise -  from 1999 at 51% ABV. Perhaps the angels took a slightly bigger share of this particular barrel! Or more likely it was its particular higher level position in the warehouse. Incredibly light in colour, with a perfumed, creamy vanilla nose, this one was elegant, balanced, lengthy and simply excellent.
Roll out the barrel
Around this point in the proceedings, we wandered deeper into the warehouse, where a few strong souls tried their hands at rolling barrels along the tracks to their maturation resting place. The barrels weigh about 260kgs and have to end up with the bung holes on top. This is not a lightweight or trivial exercise but it's one of the things to be mastered by a warehouseman. Ardbeg currently has about 3.3M litres of whisky maturing in bond, with about 70% of that at the distillery. There are lots of barrels to be moved around!
Back in our tasting area, one of Mickey's favourites from the selection was poured - cask #2437, refill sherry from 1998. This one displayed orange citrus and spice with sweet smoke. It was very nice. They were all very nice! I kept revisiting the whiskies during the session and my personal favourite was the 1994 second fill bourbon barrel.
So with all that whisky maturing, how does Mickey and his team keep a handle on how the barrels are tasting and which ones are ready for marrying or bottling? This is where experience comes into play. The whisky is all individually labelled and positioned, and the team simply knows when the barrels need sampling. The final call on barrel selection lies with Dr Bill Lumsden, head of Whisky Creation and Distilling at Glenmorangie and Ardbeg, but the job of regularly testing and selecting the main contenders lies with Mickey's team - the proverbial "tough job but someone has to do it".
Another refill sherry cask from 1998 displayed a menthol, herbal nose, a sweet palate, followed by smoke, then a salty, chewy finish - so different from the previous one. Magic!
Tasting from the last barrel was a poignant experience. The 33 year old, third fill oloroso sherry cask was filled on March 11th, 1981, just before production at the distillery dwindled to nothing. The distillery was closed in 1991 until its purchase, in 1997, by the Glenmorangie company, and the subsequent phenomenal revival and success. What a joy to taste something so old and delicious that's been lying around through the historic turmoil of over three decades.
A fine collection
And what does one do after such a brilliant tasting? In my case, I headed to the Old Kiln Cafe, Ardbeg's well-loved cafe, for a haggis stuffed baked potato. Of course!
Yummy haggis stuffed baked potato
A visit to Ardbeg, with a special tasting and lunch at The Old Kiln will be a popular item with my Islay 2015 Tour group. The small group tour will be happening near the end of August 2015. Drop me a line and I'll send you all the details. No obligation, just some great information on what will be a fabulous week. If you'd like to read more about Ardbeg distillery, you can check out the story from my previous visit.
My next post will be about Bunnahabhain. Check back soon or, better still, sign up above for email updates and you'll only get an email when a new story is posted.