A few months ago, we were talking to our friends in the whisky business about-what else- whisky. It was going swimmingly until one of them, a bar owner, dropped a bombshell- Singaporeans are overwhelmingly peat-whisky drinkers..
When it comes to peat, there can only be one place that people think of- Islay. Perhaps one should also think about something else- drama. One of its most iconic distilleries has a history worthy of Korean soaps- Ardbeg.
#1: Ardbeg is part of the Kildalton trio
Islay, for all its importance in today’s Scotch whisky industry, is but an island in the Hebrides. For Singaporeans, this is particularly interesting- for where else does a lone island loom so large in people’s imaginations?
The two islands are even comparable in size- 620 km² for Islay and 719 km² for our sunny island. Despite the large size (by Singapore standards), there are but eight distilleries currently operating on the entire island; Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Bruichladdich, Kilchoman, Bowmore, Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Ardbeg. It is the last that we are concerned with.
Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Lagavulin are part of the Kildalton trio of distilleries on the south coast of Islay. All three are well-known for their heavily peated whiskies. Their individual characters are however, distinct- which we’ll talk about in a while.
#2: Ardbeg returned from the dead – more than once!
Ardbeg has quite the long history as far as distilleries go. The distillery has plainly survived to see its bicentenary, which should say something about its whisky, but the going has not always been good.
It was officially founded in 1815 by John McDougall, who named it after the Scots Gaelic words for “small hill”- “ad bheag”. As with many of these old distilleries, rumours abound of illicit production long before then.
The first few years were splendid for the McDougalls, with high demand for the malts. Yet, in 1838, it went bankrupt and was sold to Thomas Buchanan. In 1853, it went to Colin Hay, and in 1922, nearly a century later, it returned to the hands of the McDougalls.
Calamity struck again (we see a pattern emerging here), and Ardbeg went bankrupt again in 1932, and was closed during the depression. The distillery changed hands again in the 1970s, ending up with Hiram Walker, but the whisky crash of the late 1970s nearly ruined the distillery.
It was closed from 1981 until 1989, when new owners Allied Lyons resuscitated Ardbeg. This was far from a return to the glory days, however. It only distilled whisky for two months a year until 1997, when the Glenmorangie bought Ardbeg. In 2004, LVMH bought Glenmorangie and became the (current) owners of Ardbeg. All seems well so far.
#3: Ardbeg will not let tragedy strike again
Being brought back from the brink of death has made the people at Ardbeg skittish. In 2000, the distillery created the Ardbeg Committee to “ensure the doors of the Distillery never close again”.
Committee members would test the distillery’s new products- before their actual release- to ensure that their product would always be top-notch, and therefore, worthy of release. In practical terms, the committee folks would be sent the special releases sometimes in advance- sometimes by a year or more. They would give their feedback, and these would be taken very seriously.
We know this last part thanks to our friends at The Writing Club. On the occasion of their Ardbeg masterclass, they invited Malt Maniac Benjamin Chen, who was able to confirm this. For those not in the know, Malt Maniacs is an international group (cabal?) of whisky aficionados- considered to be the most knowledgeable independents out there. Ben is the only Singaporean member.
It’s possible to tell a committee release from a standard release- simply look at the label. The white (as opposed to black) labelled one is usually the committee release. They’ve become something of collectors’ items these days.
#4: Ardbeg is so much more than its 10 year old expression
Fans of Ardbeg will no doubt be familiar with its standard Ardbeg Ten expression. The light golden whisky is paradoxical. It is characterised by light brine, vanilla and lemon notes on both nose and palate- but then sets both on fire with its heavy peat.
Compared to a Laphroaig 10, it is less medicinal, and in our opinion, a little more elegant. Compared to a Lagavulin 16, it is drier and sharper- tasting more of lemon than orange, but the peated notes are heavier. All in all, the Ardbeg 10 is a quality malt. If that was all to Ardbeg, it would be a fine, if limited, distillery. Not many distilleries even produce a malt with that much range and depth at the ten year mark.
However, the committee mentioned earlier also tries special releases over the years, some quite different from the “standard” bottling. We got to try a few, courtesy of our The Writing Club friends.
We particularly liked the Ardbeg Renaissance, which is about as un-Ardbeg as you could get (we’re Lagavulin fans, actually). The lemon has been supplemented by pineapple, peaches, and apples, and the peat feels more mellow – subtle. It’s, surprisingly, only ten years old.
The Perpetuum, released for Ardbeg’s 200th anniversary, cleaved closer to classic Ardbeg (as well it should). This time, the peat was even stronger though not as much as in the ultra peaty Supernova. There’s also some eucalyptus and spice, and a distinctive briny finish.
#5: Ardbeg reached for the stars
In 2011, Ardbeg sent some of their whisky into space, ostensibly to study the effects of zero gravity (and presumably cosmic rays) on maturation. While the whole affair seems like more of a PR stunt, given the inherent problems of replicating the process, it did give us the Ardbeg Galileo, a single malt celebrating the space launch, in 2012.
The Galileo was matured in ex-Marsala casks. Marsala is a Sicilian wine, but comes in red or white, dry or sweet, varieties, so we don’t actually know which one was used, and it’s effects on the product. Quite unlike the sharp Ardbegs, this one is rounded, replete with oak, plums and dark grapes (which leads us to believe it’s the red Marsala). It’s rather sweet for an Ardbeg.
If you’re interested to try any of the whiskies we described above, or want to attend the next masterclass (we hear it’s Clynelish), feel free to visit our friends at The Writing Club.
The Writing Club