Saturday, 13 September 2014

Johnnie Does Ardbeg

Tuesday 19 August 2014 - 2:00pm

Price: £35.00

After Monday afternoon's excitement, and a much needed lie-in, I embarked upon Chapter 3 of my Islay distillery experience. Once more I set out on the road to Port Charlotte, bound for the most easterly of the south coast heavyweights. 

Mrs S kept eerily quiet as we drove past the Laphroaig peat bogs, the scene of yesterday's emasculating failure, only to ridicule me 300 yards down the road - the precise moment I had let my guard down. My protestations around being tipsy at the time and having to use a bent peat cutter was met with howls of laughter and I silently licked my wounds all the way to the distillery.

I can't even take level pictures when I'm sober
Having arrived a little early, we decided to have lunch at Ardbeg's much-lauded Old Kiln Cafe, named so due to the building formerly being used to dry the malted barley. Being around lunchtime the place was packed and I can see why. The food was very good indeed (Mrs S raved about the sticky toffee pudding for a good three days afterwards) and many people were taking the opportunity to sample some of the whisky on offer. A quick nose around the gift shop later, we were ready to begin our tour.

Part 1 - The Distillery

Heaven for photographers, hell for Customs
Neil, our guide, was a born and bred Ileach and a genuinely likeable chap. We began our tour with a dram of the Ardbeg 10 and a potted history of illegal distillers on the island, smuggling and the benefits of Ardbeg's rocky waters as a way of preventing the British government from sneaking up on the farmers and their quickly-dismantled stills. He took us through the history of Ardbeg's ownership, the closure of the maltings in the late '70s, the mothballing in the early '80s, all the way up to the current day under LVMH where Ardbeg finds its place as a luxury brand and one of the most sought after malts in Scotland. We soon drained our glasses and began the tour proper.

Ha ha, he said 'boaby'
Wandering into the heart of the distillery, we were shown the 1921 Robert Boby mill still used today. Whereas the majority of Islay distilleries use the nigh-on indestructible Porteus mills, Ardbeg has stuck to the age-old adage of 'if it ain't broke......'. This sentiment was echoed throughout the buildings as it seemed that, despite the marketing and luxury status, this is a distillery that doesn't want to forget from where it came.

Porridge, anyone?

Old meets new
For instance, rather than fully replacing the old iron mash-tun, they decided to install a new stainless affair within its shell. Additionally, we were told, no modern computers are used in the production of Ardbeg and everything is still ledged by hand. Ardbeg uses a mixture of Optic and Concerto barley and uses the Port Ellen maltings to peat it to 55ppm. 

My wash addiction takes hold
The washbacks were a mix of old and new, some dating back a number of decades. All are made from Oregon pine and only replaced when absolutely necessary. Rather than being a by-product of good old-fashioned Scottish thrift, we were told that when your whisky is so popular, it'd be foolish to change aspects of production unnecessarily. At this point we were encouraged to try a sample from within one of the older washbacks. As I began to sup away, I could see that there was a marked difference between this and what I had tasted the day before at Laphroaig. Maybe there's something to this after all.

Yup, still no idea how it works. Witchcraft.
To my surprise, the still room contained only two stills, one wash and one spirit. From the arm of the spirit still hung an odd-looking drop pipe. Neil informed us that nobody was quite sure who installed it, however, nobody dare remove it, lest it introduce heavier vapours into the spirit and alter the flavour of the end product.

Sleep well, my pretties

No lie, he curled it in the warehouse door from 30 ft

A trip to the warehouse followed and, on the way, we were bombarded with facts about Ardbeg's process. Casks play a huge part in Ardbeg's story and will continue to do so as the prices begin to skyrocket, albeit in a more experimental way (paging Dr Lumsden). We were advised that the casks are never used more than twice and that they always arrive at the distillery ready for their first fill. Like many Islay distilleries, the whisky is bottled on the mainland, Livingston, in this case.

Due to the struggle to keep up with demand, casks are no longer sold to independent bottlers. Feeling a little panicky at this, I asked whether this also applied to SMWS, seeing as it too is a part of the LVMH family. Neil smiled and corrected himself, saying casks are no longer sold outside of the family. Whew, after a scare like that, does anyone else fancy a drink?

Part 2 - The Tasting

If your name's not down......
We were swiftly lead to the Chairman's Study for the tasting part of the experience. According to the blurb on the website we were to get a chance to sample some rare drams from the 70's, 80's, 90's and 00's, all the while listening to some music perfectly tailored to suit our whiskies. I resigned myself to having to put up with the shrieks of Adam Ant and the banal warbling of the Spice Girls. Years of drinking in grotty London pubs in the 90's had meant that I was virtually immune to crap music anyway. If that's the price of trying some rare Ardbeg, bring it on.

I'm not going to lie, I felt a twitch down there
Behind the rather unassuming door was a cosy little room in which was housed a collection of whisky bottles that would make Ardbeg fans shiver and investors drool. Single casks, special releases and a good selection of 70's bottlings had me briefly scanning the room for security cameras. The apparent lack of them made me even more nervous and I sat down on my hands. 

What followed was 45 minutes of jokes, drams, stories and best of all, no music! Cask samples were deployed and enjoyed from 2004, 1994, 1989 (80's Ardbeg is absurdly rare) and 1975 (one year past the jackpot, bugger!). All too quickly, it seemed, it was time to go.

As a result of Mrs S having to drive back, I had effectively consumed double rations and once again found myself all warm and fuzzy, mumbling farewell to my brothers-in-arms as I stumbled towards the gift shop. Three down, five to go.

To be continued.......


The Tour: A
The quality of your guide can make or break a tour and Neil is one of the best I've experienced. Well paced, informative and genuinely fun. True class.

The Drams: A
Ardbeg 10
Ardbeg 2004 Warehouse Cask #1245 58.2%
Ardbeg 1994 Warehouse Cask #781 55%
Ardbeg 1989 Warehouse Cask #18 52.3%
Ardbeg 1975 Warehouse Cask #1379 54.6%
PLUS a free miniature Glencairn glass.

Pure whisky porn.

The Shop: A
Like Laphroaig, the shop is weighted more towards merchandise than whisky, although there were several bottlings on offer including, at the time, one distillery exclusive. The Old Kiln Cafe serves high quality food, although you're taking your chances during peak times as the place packs out. Plenty of gifts for the folks back home, from hip-flasks to clothing. Additionally, the 'Across the Decades' experience gives you £5 off any purchase over £25.

Overall: A
We all know that Ardbeg is massively in demand and now very much aimed at the luxury market. It's getting harder and harder to snag a bottle of their non-core releases without hitting the overpriced secondary market, let alone try some of the older vintages. Therefore, the chance to try some truly incredible Ardbeg is not to be missed. Throw in an excellent tour guide and you've got yourself an absolute bargain at £35. Outstanding.

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