‘Some Thoughts About Ardbeg’ is the sixth and final part of my Ardbeg Assay.
Though I’m loathe to kick off an article by invoking the 19th century, nonetheless, observe a few things that Alfred Barnard took occasion to mention during his visit to Ardbeg in the 1880s.
The old Distillery of Ardbeg well deserves to be noticed, as it is one of the most interesting in the island; the buildings have no pretensions to taste and elegance, nevertheless they look picturesque and are substantially built… The make is Pure Islay Malt, and the annual output is 250,000 gallons…
It’s unclear whether Barnard’s figure for annual output refers to pure alcohol production or, more likely, the total volume of spirit leaving the stills. Either way, his observations hew closely to today’s figures. As of 2016, Ardbeg’s annual production capacity is only rated at 330,000 gallons, not much higher than historical levels, and quite low for a Scottish malt distillery. Some reports have suggested that the distillery actually produces below this figure. Consider that Caol Ila, in the same 130 years more than tripled their annual production volume, and Macallan, after their expansion is complete next year, will be producing a hundred times the spirit it did at the time of Barnard’s visit.
So, for 130 years, in broad strokes, Ardbeg has been aesthetically, and productively, well, plugging along, more or less unaltered from the operation that Barnard saw and wrote about in 1886. It’s an impressive mark of longevity for a single-use factory, during a century of immense flux.
Enough dinosaur stuff. What about the modern era?
You may know that Ardbeg produced low to nil amounts between 1981 and 1996. That’s one of the reasons whisky geeks have been collectively shitting their pants since Ardbeg label leaks earlier this year spilled the beans on a 21 year old release, drawn from a couple dozen ex-bourbon casks filled back in 1993 and 1994. Casks that the distillery actually had to buy back from blenders in order to bottle. Peaty unicorn tears, distilled before Ardbeg was officially ‘rescued’ (I’m told, amongst other bidders) by Glenmorangie PLC, part of the luxury giant Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy.
I never get tired of considering what it must have been like for the spirit brass at Hennessy, a company that sells over 50 million bottles of liquor across the globe each year, and for the higher ups at Glenmorangie, with stills 6 times more productive than those at Ardbeg, to purchase a distillery such as Ardbeg, who releases only a small fraction of its below-average production to the market annually. How could that acquisition have been justified to the corporate bean counters? What was the meeting like where that idea got pitched?
And yet. 20 years after the acquisition, Ardbeg keeps plugging along, as it has always been. In contrast though, nowadays, instead of ending up in the hands of blenders and brokers, most Ardbeg whisky is filled into Ardbeg bottles, as distillery packaged single malt. Those bottles are widely distributed, and consistently available, at reasonable market prices — though, forget for the moment that Ardbeg 21 had a sticker price of $400 USD, and about ten seconds after it was released, sick bastards took the opportunity to re-sell it for more than double on eBay.de.
OK, well, it’s worth considering what Ardbeg is doing, or not doing, compared to its Islay cohorts.
Ardbeg is not chill filtered, and not coloured whatsoever. It takes a few minutes of pointed research to figure that out.
Ardbeg uses 100% Scottish barley, and is 100% matured on Islay. It takes a couple hours of pointed research, and a few industry contacts to figure that out.
For an Islay distillery, that’s interesting. Because, on Islay, it seems that things go one of two ways. You’ve got distilleries like Bruichladdich who happily and openly give extremely fine grained production information to consumers, to the point of the speed that the tractor was driving that harvested the barley for use in the whisky. And distilleries like Kilchoman, who let visitors to the distillery throw a lump of peat into the furnace for their malting floor as birds chirp above.
On the other hand, there are distilleries like Bowmore and Laphroig, who keep silly little “facts” concealed. And on the extreme end, Caol Ila, whose policies on photography in the distillery are positively North Korean.
So what does it mean that Ardbeg proceeds with proper, traditional processes, but doesn’t get on the megaphone about it?
Humility. That’s a reasonable conclusion. Doing the right thing for the right reason’s sake. And I believe that’s why Ardbeg has become such a coveted cult icon. Not necessarily because it has a very specific flavour profile, which it does, or a reliable lineup, which it has lately established. Not merely because it’s one of Islay’s handful of distillers, all of which enjoy an automatic commercial privilege, conferred by the smallness of the handful. Not because of any of that, but because Ardbeg clips along, doing the right things, without making a big fuss about doing the right things. Owns a horn, with a meticulous mirror polish, & it gets played well. But does it get tooted?
Big thanks are due to those who made this whole assay possible – first, to Elise and Devon of Charton-Hobbs, for providing evaluation samples of the Ardbeg distillery bottlings, to Theo out East for generously sending me a sample of the Ardbeg Dark Cove Committee Release, and to Ruaraidh MacIntyre, for his deep and intimate knowledge of Ardbeg that he shared with pride, and without hesitation. And for chucking a sleeve of peat bricks onto the bonfire in the middle of nowhere Banff, AB. Slainte!