Ardbeg has been called “as close to perfection as makes no difference,” by whisky connoisseurs. In the past ten years, six different Ardbeg expressions have won prestigious titles including World Whisky of the Year, Scotch Whisky of the Year and World’s Best Single Malt.
As early as the end of the 19th century, Ardbeg had become a valued fixture on Islay’s southern coast. Founded in 1815 by the McDougall family, the site had grown into a small community with housing, a hall, greenhouses, a bowling green and a school for 100 pupils. The reason for its success was tied to the growing popularity of blends and the need for most to have some smoke running through them.
When the combination of war and economic depression hit the blended market in the 1920s, however, Ardbeg struggled. The Hay family, which had taken the licence in 1853, steered it back to profitability before its involvement ended in the 1920s, with the Lawson family taking over before DCL and Canada’s Hiram Walker acquired significant minority stakes in 1959.
By the late 1970s blends were once again on the slide. In 1981 the distillery was mothballed, but restarted again in 1989, albeit on an intermittent basis. In 1996, it was silent once more, but saved a year later by Glenmorangie which paid £7m for the distillery and stock. By this time, Ardbeg had built its reputation as one of the cult single malts. Glenmorangie’s task therefore was both to manage expectations, eke out the remaining stock, and start recreating the brand.
The stock profile meant that its first age statement release was a 17-year-old, while it would take until 2008 for its own Ardbeg 10-year-old to appear. From 2004, however, there had been incremental releases: ’Very Young’, ‘Still Young’ and ‘Almost There’ showed the work in progress.
Today the portfolio still concentrates on no-age-statement releases, some exclusively from (now very rare) old stock, others from new, some from a mix. Different oaks have also been used as part of a general improvement in the quality of casks used. The range has been bolstered in recent years by the addition of core expressions Ardbeg An Oa (NAS) in 2017 and Ardbeg Traigh Bhan 19 Year Old two years later.
Heavy peating at Port Ellen maltings gives the smoke, long fermentation helps to increase softness and a clean, acidic fruitiness, while it is the use of a purifier pipe in the lyne arm of the spirit still which adds an oily, textural quality to the final product but also helps to refine the spirit. A new, modern and very Glenmorangie wood policy has also helped to give more roundness to the final mature product.