On the tiny, remote Scottish island of Islay sits the Ardbeg Distillery. Opened in 1815, Ardbeg excels in their production of Single Malt Scotch Whisky. A quote on the company’s website describes Islay as “a wild and untamed place, where Celtic monks found refuge from raiding Norsemen and early distillers smuggled their illicit ‘aquavitae’ at Ardbeg’s rugged rocky cove.” The distillery name is a derivative of the Gaelic phrase “Àrd Beag” which means little height.
Hamish Torrie is the head of communications for Ardbeg’s Parent Company Glenmorangie. He says that, like many companies, the history of the distillery is full of ups and downs. “From 1815 right through nearly two centuries Ardbeg has always been there at the end of the long road past other famous distilleries. At one time, two hundred people lived around the distillery. There was a school, a shop, a post office. That community has gone, but is now re-born in its worldwide fan club and now is seen as as one of the brightest stars in the whisky firmament.”
For much of Ardbeg’s history, the whisky was only distilled to use in blended whisky. “Its reputation was always one of the highest quality; not only famous as the peatiest and smokiest of all the Islay whiskies, but as one having the most balance and complexity.”
In the late 1880’s, the distillery was producing slightly less than 500,000 gallons per year and employed almost 100 people. The ownership of the distillery has changed hands over the years. Hiram Walker owned from 1989 until 1996, but was purchased by Glenmorangie in 1997.
Hamish says that even though the distillery has received much acclaim over the years, they still get excited to be recognized. “We have won many awards over the years but we still all get a big thrill when we see that light bulb moment in people when they discover the taste of Ardbeg. These days, they are much younger than when I started. People in their late twenties and early thirties and now a great and rapidly increasing interest in discerning ladies, Ardbeg is no longer a preserve for big boys.”
Islay Malt is specific to the island it’s found on. It’s much like a Lambic that tastes the way it does because it’s fermented by exposing it to the wild yeasts of the SenneValley in Belgium. “Islay whiskies are famous for being big whiskies, peaty smoky and challenging drams, which are uncompromising, not for the faint hearted. Mainland whiskies are generally but not exclusively lighter in character. Each to his own, they are different styles.”
Editor for Chilled Ma