My Islay Trip Part 5 – Ardbeg

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A koo

I left off my last post having just finished the warehouse tasting at Lagavulin. As I stepped out of the cozy little shop, it was absolutely pissing down with rain. Luckily I’d come prepared and slipped on my rain suit and set off towards Ardbeg. The next leg of the distillery path was especially beautiful, even with the downpour. I had my headphones on under my hood and was happily whistling along. I even stopped to say hi to some koos.

 

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The distillery

After a while the rain decided to let up and some blue skies were even visible, and some glorious sunlight. As I got closer to the distillery I passed a flowing stream that comes down from Loch Uigeadail, Ardbeg’s water source. Finally I came to the turn to the distillery. The approach is quite well laid out and the distillery sort of opens out in front of you. The grounds at Ardbeg are quite large, especially considering the small size of the distillery itself, and very beautiful.  I really liked being able to walk around there quite freely.

 

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The old kiln that is now the Cafe and Visitor Centre.

I got a seat at the Old Kiln cafe, so called because it’s located in the distillery’s old Kiln, thank me for that tidbit of wisdom later. I’d heard a lot about this place and deliberately arrived a good while before my tour there (I booked all of my tours in advance if anyone is wondering, July is tourist season and the 3 Southern distilleries can get busy) so I could enjoy a spot of lunch. The food there was all classic Scottish/British cuisine, usually with a twist of some sort (Whisky based sauce and so on). I went for the Steak Pie which was delicious. I still had some spare time so I went for a walk around the grounds, the sun had now come out and it was glorious. I then returned to the shop, which had a good albeit pricey collection of all things Ardbeg, and some very nice whiskies, including some ones that are now difficult to get hold of.I was very seriously considering getting a bottle of the 2015 Supernova and a very friendly chap from Ardbeg offered me a sample and we had a good chat about whisky.

I learned a bit later that this was Ross and he would be our guide for the tour. The tour was called Deconstructing the Dram and was meant for the hardcore whisky geeks. We started off with a tour of the distillery. Ross was very knowledgeable, especially about the technical side of whisky making, and he knew a lot of stuff that was new to me. The tour went into all sorts of crazy levels of whisky geekery such as how the rollers in the milling machine are adjusted and testing the alcohol level of the wash with hydrometers. We also tried some of the Ardbeg wash which was surprisingly sweet. Unfortunately for this leg of the tour photography was not allowed.

We then made our way outside, with the sun shining quite brilliantly now, and had a dram of Ardbeg Very Young on the distillery pier. A few years back Ardbeg released a series of whiskies with names such as Very Young (at 6-years-old), Still Young (at 8-years-old) and Almost there (at 9-years-old), which were meant to show the progression of the spirit up to the classic 10-year-old expression. The last of them was released almost 10 years ago now and these things are all collectors items going for huge sums of money. And we got to open one up and drink it, because that’s what whisky is for!


Ardbeg 1998 Very Young

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Aged 6 years. 58.3%ABV. No colourant added, non-chill filtered and bottled at cask strength.

Nose: Mineral Peat. Light fruit. Lychees. Coconut. Candied oranges. Light floral. Light honey.

Palate: Very salty. Quite creamy, like cream of wheat. Woodspice. Bit of ethanol. Fruit soap. Tingly herbs.

Finish: Long. Smoke. Salt. Light Green herbs. Apples.

Would I buy this: Yes (If it was still available on the retail market)

Would I order this in a bar: Yes

Would I drink this if someone gave me a glass: Yes

VFM: N/A

This was a fantastic wee Ardbeg. It was young, but not very aggressive, with lots of nice, light fruity notes along with the very mineral peat. It was an excellent dram for the sunny weather.


After our dram we made our way to the filling station where new casks are filled and matured casks are dumped to be vatted and taken away for bottling. Again, loads of geeky technical details, and this is something I didn’t get to see on many other distillery tours. We then went to one of the maturation warehouses for the tasting part of the tour.

The whole point of the dissecting the dram tour is to taste the main component whiskies that make up each of the 3 core range expressions of Ardbeg, namely the 10-year-old, the bourbon and sherry cask matured Uigeadail, and the bourbon and French oak matured Corryvreckan.

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Ardbeg Warehouse

So we got to try three different cask samples , drawn from a bourbon cask, a sherry cask and a virgin French oak cask along with the core range. This let us really see where the flavour was coming from. Ross was really good at his job and I was way too engaged in the tasting to take any notes, but it really was apparent after this what made up each expression.  I must say though that the sample from the sherry cask, which was 10 years old, was one of the finest whiskies I’ve ever tasted. The huge peat punch mixed with the rich sherry (you could really taste that this was a quality cask) was just perfect. I was really sad that I’d never get to try this pure sherried Ardbeg again, as (I assume at least) that Ardbeg’s stocks of good sherry casks are quite limited.

As an added bonus at the end of the tasting we could choose a dram from one of four Ardbeg Special releases, the Galileo, Alligator, Auriverdes or Ardbog. I’d tried all of them before at a very special tasting held here in Israel by Gal of Whisky Israel (I’ll get round to posting the notes from that some day), so it didn’t take me long to make up my mind, and I got a lovely big dram of Ardbog.

While I was enjoying my Ardbog, I got talking to the other people in my group. They were all travelling together and I was the odd one out, but a little whisky in the system tends to make me more sociable. It turned out that they were from a whisky club in Montreal, Canada and doing a huge whisky trip around Scotland. They were heading on to Kildalton Cross. I’d been very interested in seeing this landmark, but it was 6 miles from Ardbeg so too far to walk, so I jumped at the chance when they offered me a ride with them to go see it.

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Kildalton Cross

The ride itself was stunning, full of green woods and ocean views, we even had to stop for some peacocks. We shortly got to the cross itself which is located next to a younger medieval parish church on a lovely grassy bit of land surrounded by trees. The cross itself was carved around 800AD, and is one of the best preserved examples of a Celtic Cross and of Celtic artwork. It’s intricately carved with all sorts of biblical imagery and for a history buff is quite a sight. The church was interesting too with all manner of wall carvings, sadly without a nice detailed information plaque as was the case with the cross. There were also some early-mid 19th century graves dotting the grounds. Once we’d all explored the area and bit and taken in the sights, I was very kindly given a ride all the way back to Port Ellen by my new friends who were heading to Bowmore for the night.

In summary, even though the day started off quite gloomy, and was followed by a less than wonderful experience at Lagavulin, the turnaround with the sun coming out, and drinking some amazing whisky and meeting new friends really made for a fantastic day, definitely one I’ll remember for some time.

 

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