Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Revival of Ardbeg Whisky

By Rachel Wilson

The small Scottish island of Islay is home to many whisky distilleries. One of the most famous, throughout the world, is Ardbeg. The first official, commercial distillery on the Ardbeg Farm site was established by the McDougal brothers in 1815. However local folk law tells of illicit and smuggled whisky being distilled at Ardbeg much earlier than this. They still tell of the huge cache of illicit whisky found by the government's excise men at the end of the 18th century. It certainly does seem that local farmer have long secretly distilled whisky as a way of using up their excess grain crop.

The water from Loch Uigidale has always been used in the distilling process and its proximity to Ardbeg is probably the reason for the long tradition of whisky distilling in the area. The water of the loch is very soft and exceptionally peaty and contributed to the characteristic peatyness of Ardbeg, said to be the most peaty of all Scotland's whiskies.

The distillery grew quickly and by the 1880's it employed 60 local people compared to the 10 employed today. It was successfully managed by two McDougal sisters and by the end of the 19th century its annual production exceeded 1 million litres of whisky.

The Ardbeg distillery lies on the sea shore where many years of salty sea breezes have impregnated the buildings and the whisky it produces. This results in the much prized flavours of the sea, greatly appreciated by Ardbeg's many fans. The distillery has two small piers, used in the past by the boats bringing supplies to the distillery. Fisherman and tourists still make good use of them today. For many years the nearby Distillery Farm was run and managed alongside the distillery and many of the workers were needed to cut the peat used in the maltings.

The distillery remained in the hands of the McDougal family until 1959 and eventually passed into the hands of Allied Distillers, along with a number of independent distilleries. The distillery was mothballed in 1981 as Allied believed they had enough whisky in storage and wanted to concentrate production at the nearby Laphroaig Distillery. Allied believed that Laphroaig whisky was sufficiently similar to Ardbeg to satisfy demand, sacrilege to the Ardbeg connoisseur!

At one time Ardbeg produced its own malt. The malting was unusual in that they had no fans in the pagodas on the roof, causing the peat smoke to permeate the malt for longer than at most distilleries. These days the malt comes from the maltings at Port Ellen although the high level of peatiness is still a requirement.

When Allied Distillers decided to put Ardbeg up for sale in 1996 there was considerable interest from many quarters and the distillery was finally bought by Glenmorangie PLC. Glenmorangie have been committed to investing in Ardbeg and have built the business up into the thriving distilling complex on the site today, a fascinating mixture of the traditional and the modern.

550,000 litres of whisky were produced at Ardbeg in 1999. By 2003 this had almost doubled to 1 million litres. Currently Ardbeg produces 160 barrels a week. Each barrel contains 250 bottles. This means that every week the Ardbeg distillery produces an amazing 40,000 bottles.

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