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Ardbeg: Cold Smoke on the Rocks

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The Ardbeg distillery complex and the south shore of Islay.

The Ardbeg whisky distillery sits on the south shore of Islay, along a stretch of coastline named the Kildalton coast. The name Kildalton is a tribute to the island's 1200-year-old Kildalton Cross. The distillery's name is derived from Scotch Gaelic, Ard Beag, for "small headland." Along with its neighbors, Lagavulin and Laphroaig, it produces a range of intensely peated Scotch whiskies that are for many the quintessential expression of the Islay whisky style.

Officially the Ardbeg distillery started in 1815. Like most of its Islay brethren, however, it's likely that whisky distillation had been occurring on that site for some time. For the Ardbeg site, whisky production goes back to at least 1798, and perhaps even earlier.

Its location was ideal to produce whisky, both illegal and legal. It was perched on a sheltered and isolated cove, which offered good protection from both the weather and prying taxmen. The hills above the cove offered an ample supply of pure, soft water, and the cove offered an opportunity to ship, or smuggle, the whisky out by sea.

The distillery has had a checkered history, closed repeatedly over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, on several occasions due to bankruptcy. John McDougall founded the original distillery, although it's likely that he simply bought an existing illicit distillery and obtained a license to operate it legally.

The distillery would slip in and out of the McDougall family's hands over the following two centuries. It went into bankruptcy in 1838, and was bought by a spirits wholesaler from Glasgow named Thomas Buchanan. He leased it back to the McDougalls, however, and they continued to operate it.

During the 1850s, Alexander's two sisters, Margaret and Flora, ran the distillery--the first women to run a Scotch whisky distillery. From 1853 through 1922, the distillery was owned by the Ramsay family and leased out to the McDougalls and various other operators. During this period the Ramsays also owned Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Ardenistiel distilleries, and their associated farms.

The distillery was repurchased by the McDougall family in 1922, but went bankrupt in 1929, and was closed from 1932 through 1935. Ardbeg reopened again in 1935, and was again run by the McDougall family until the distillery was liquidated and the assets purchased by a newly organized company, Ardbeg Distillery Ltd., in 1959.

During this period, like most distillers, the bulk of the production was sold to blenders. In 1959, John Dewar and Sons, then owned by DCL, and Hiram Walker both acquired an interest in the distillery's parent company.

Hiram Walker, the Canadians spirits giant, purchased Ardbeg outright in 1979, and operated it until 1981. It was closed from 1981 through 1989. In the interim, Hiram Walker had been acquired by Allied Lyon and became part of Allied Distillers Ltd. From 1989 through 1996, Ardbeg operated for roughly two months out of each year producing whisky, until its parent, now Allied Domecq, following the merger of Allied Lyon and Domecq, shut it down again.

The next year, the distillery was purchased by Glenmorangie PLC, which already owned the Glenmorangie and Glen Moray distilleries, beginning the modern period of Ardbeg's renaissance. An extensive renovation of the distillery was immediately launched with new equipment, including a new still being ordered. Glenmorangie was in turn acquired by the French fashion conglomerate LVMH, through its wine and spirits subsidiary Moët Hennessey. The Glen Moray distillery was subsequently sold.

Currently the distillery has a production capacity of 1.1 million liters of pure alcohol, about 12,000 gallons of whisky a week. That's a far cry from its 500-gallon a week output in 1835, or even the 5,000-gallon a week output of whisky it produced at the beginning of the 20th century.

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The Kildalton Cross on Islay's South Shore

Historically, the distillery operated its own floor maltings. Since 1974, it has purchased its malt from the Port Ellen Maltings, conveniently just a few miles away. Typically, the malt is peated to a range of 50-65 parts per million (ppm) phenol using peat that is obtained from a marsh just above the distillery.

This is the peating level used for the distillery's three core offerings: Ardbeg 10 YO, Ardbeg Uigedail and Ardbeg Corryvreckan. Other expressions, like the Ardbeg Super Nova, are peated to 100 ppm phenol, while the Kildalton expression, now discontinued, was only lightly peated.

There are four particular features of whisky production at Ardbeg that are responsible for its signature style: the peating level, the milling of the barley, the fermentation length and the distillation itself. Typically, peated whiskies are classified by the level of phenol in parts per million. The measure is based on the amount of phenol that is absorbed by the malt while it is being dried.

Per the distillery, the average peating level of the malt is around 55 ppm, while the peating level of the new make whisky is around 25 ppm. The ppm concentration will decline, however, as the new make spirit ages. An initial concentration of 25 ppm will decline to about 10 ppm in a 15-year-old Scotch and to 6 ppm in a 30 year old. Hence listing the ppm phenol of the malt, the practice of most Scottish distillers, is not particularly instructive.

There are additional shortcomings with this approach. First of all, there are over 100 different identifiable chemical compounds in peat smoke. Peat from different parts of Scotland, and from different depths, will exhibit different concentrations of these chemicals. The temperature at which peat is combusted also affects the chemical composition of the smoke.

Islay peat, for example, tends to be rich in lignin derivatives compared to peats from eastern Scotland. Moreover, Islay peats are rich in nitrogen compounds and aromatic hydrocarbons. When burned they tend to produce more plastic-like aromas. Hence a general measure of ppm phenol at malting tells us little about the type of peat or the chemical composition of its smoke.

Secondly, roughly half of the peat reek absorbed by the malt is in the husk. The distilleries treatment of the husks, therefore, has a significant impact on the amount of peat infused barley that ends up in the wort. Typically, the grain is ground to 70 to 78 percent fine grits or "middles," husks or course material at 14 to 20 percent and flour or fines is eight to ten percent by weight.

The more husks are included in the mash the better the drainage, but the lower the conversion of alcohol. Moreover, because the husks are a lot lighter than the grist, the process of grinding the grain often results in a significant number of the husk fragments being vacuumed up by dust suppression filters. Ardbeg grist is 70 percent middles, 20 percent husks and 10 percent flour. That's at the high end for the proportion of husks in the grist.

The fermentation process at Ardbeg averages about 60 to 65 hours versus a more typical 45-hour ferment in Speyside distilleries. Phenolic malts need longer to ferment because the phenol suppresses the fermentation. That's why phenol, in the form of carbolic acid, was used as a disinfectant in the 19th century. A benefit of longer fermentations is that more fruity and floral esters are produced.

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Islay's major whisky distilleries

The distilling process itself also has a significant impact, both on the overall level of chemicals in the peat smoke that make it into the final whisky, as well as their individual concentrations. As a general rule, approximately one-third of the overall phenol concentration will be lost in the distillation process.

Distillation temperatures, the amount of wash that the still is charged with, the cut points at which the new make spirit is collected, are all among the factors that determine the amount of phenol in new make whisky. Of particular import, however, is the amount of reflux produced during the distillation. Reflux refers to the vapor that condenses before it can reach the condensers and therefore falls back into the pot to be redistilled.

Reflux affects the wash in several ways. First, it prolongs the contact with the copper in the still giving it more time to absorb the harsher and heavier compounds in the spirit. Secondly, the repeated distillations of the spirit breakdown some of the chemically larger aromatic compounds and alcohols into lighter compounds. The higher the reflux the lower the concentration of phenol in the resulting spirit. Finally, depending on how the reflux is achieved, some of the heavier weight compounds will simply not be able to escape from the pot into the new make spirit.

The length of the neck of the still has a major bearing on the amount of reflux produced. Tall necks, like the ones at Glenmorangie, at 16 feet 10.25 inches, the tallest in Scotland, will produce a lot of reflux and create a lighter style of whisky, with pronounced floral and fruity aromas. The esters that produce these aromas have a low molecular weight--hence will be disproportionally selected in the distillation process. Ardbeg's still necks are about 10 feet in height compared to the short, squat necks of Lagavulin, which produce very little reflux.

The angle of the lyne arm also has a bearing. An upward pointing lyne arm functions as an extension of the neck and produces more reflux than a downward pointing one. At Ardbeg, the lyne arms point upward, as they also do at Laphroaig and at Bowmore (spirit still only), while Lagavulin's lyne arm points sharply down.

The use of a condenser, or purifier, in the neck has a similar effect as a tall neck, but has the advantage of allowing the distiller more flexibility. By cooling the vapor before it travels into the lyne arm, purifiers will increase the amount of reflux that falls back into the pot. Ardbeg's stills both have purifiers.

Additionally, the necks also have a constriction, lamp glass style, where they join the pot, which also creates more reflux. The net effect of all this reflux is that the wash at Ardbeg gets a particularly long and repeated distillation. At the distillery, this is referred to as a two-and-a-half-time distillation. The retention of a large proportion of husks, an extended fermentation, heavy peating and an extended distillation cycle from a lot of reflux, produces a distinctive and signature Ardbeg style.

One of the more interesting experiments conducted at the Ardbeg distillery was on the impact of weightlessness on whisky maturation. The distillery sent a sample of whisky, consisting of several vials of new make spirit with oak chips in them, to the International Space Station in October 2011. The experiment was to see how weightlessness affected terpenes, organic molecules that are the building blocks of aromas and flavors in wines and spirits. An identical set of vials was kept at the distillery to act as a control sample.

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The Ardbeg Distillery

According to Dr. Bill Lumsden, Ardbeg's Director of distilling and whisky creation, the samples that had undergone maturation in space were "noticeably different" from the control samples retained by the distillery. The space samples exhibited a greater degree of complexity than the earth bound sample. Lumsden found that "when I tasted the space samples ... Ardbeg's smoky, phenolic character shone through-to reveal a different set of smoky flavours which I had not encountered here on earth before."

Lumsden went on to add, "The taste was very focused, with smoked fruits such as prunes, raisins, sugared plums and cherries, earthy peat smoke, peppermint, aniseed, cinnamon and smoked bacon or hickory-smoked ham. The aftertaste is intense and long, with hints of wood, antiseptic lozenges and rubbery smoke."

Of course, maturing new make spirit in a plastic vial with oak ships is not quit the same as traditional barrel maturation. The whisky spent three years in space, meeting the minimum maturation requirement required by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA). It could not, however, be called Scotch since it did not age exclusively in Scotland. If space maturation catches on, the SWA may need to make an exception to its "maturation in Scotland rule." It has plenty of time to decide. There are little prospects of barrels of whisky being rocketed into space for aging anytime soon.

The core Ardbeg expressions are the TEN, Uigedail and Corryvreckan. The TEN is named after its age. Uigeadail was named after the Loch Uigeadail, a freshwater lake not far from the distillery. The Corryvreckan is named for a famous vortex produced by tidal action in the seas between the Isle of Jura and the Isle of Scarba. While all three expressions are different from one another, they share a common foundational character. These whiskies tend initially to be light and crisp and exhibit a lot of dry smoke with a bit of char in the background, like whiffs of smoke from a cold campfire.

There is a very slight sweetish note, typical of whiskies with a lot of reflux, although Uigedail's 10 percent sherry cask finished component adds more noticeable sweetness. There is the expected pronounced note of phenol, which at times seems to be plastic-like, but while distinctive, it is drier, lighter, almost like the residue of an old medicine bottle. As the whisky opens up, the char gives way to more of an asphalt/tar like aroma, while pronounced cereal notes also emerge. A curious combination of hot tar and cold oatmeal.

The plastic-like aromas are not surprising. Phenol is still widely used in the production of phenol-methanal plastics. These plastics have high heat and electrical resistance, and are used for everything from electrical insulators to printed circuit boards to plastic veneers to plywood adhesives. If that phenolic-plastic-like smell seems vaguely familiar, it is because you are probably surrounded by products that contain it.

There is some creaminess, the heavy mouth weight, the oily, vaguely fishy aromas that are reminiscent of cold-smoked mussels or kippers that you sometimes find in Ardbeg's neighbor, Lagavulin, but they are less pronounced. There is a bit of iodine, maybe even a bit of seaweed at low tide, but it stops short of the pronounced marine and seaweed/kelp notes sometimes found in Laphroaig.

There is the characteristic pepperiness associated with heavy peating (think Octomore), an almost tingling-like sensation at the back of the mouth after you swallow the whisky that gradually gives way to a slight bitter note; similar also to Talisker, but more pronounced.

Ardbeg is the most extreme expression of the current trend toward producing a heavily peated whisky that is very smoky. but is otherwise light and dry. It's a style Ardbeg shares with its Hebridian neighbors, Laphroaig and Talisker, although it lacks their pronounced marine character. It's a feature that is found in many of the Octomore expressions. Caol Ila has a similar, although sweeter, style. Campbeltown's newest distillery, Kilkerran, also has a bit of this character, although it stops well short of Ardbeg's intensity.

Feel like some cold smoke on the rocks with a distinctive medicinal chaser--then Ardbeg is the malt for you.

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Ardbeg Ten, Ardbeg Uigeadail and Ardbeg Corryvreckan


Tasting Notes

Ardbeg, Islay Single Malt Scotch whisky, 10 YO, 46% ABV, 750 ml

The whisky is a pale gold color. On the nose, there are pronounced phenolic aromas framed by peat smoke, with hints of cooked cereal and slight floral elements. The cooked cereal notes get progressively stronger as the whisky opens up.

On the palate, the whisky is dry, with a pronounced pepperiness that steadily builds to produce a distinctive tingling on the tongue. There are elements of smoke and char balanced by a slightly oily sweetness, followed by aromas of smoked kippers, some spices, especially cinnamon, with notes of espresso in the background.

The finish is long, dry with a distinctive smoky and cooked cereal character. This is an excellent entry-level Islay whisky, with the characteristic aroma and taste of its island brethren.

Appearance 7/10, Nose 25/30, Palate 26/30, Finish 27/30. Final Score: 85/100

Ardbeg, Uigeadail, no age statement, 54.2% ABV, 750 ml

The whisky is a medium gold color. On the nose there are distinctive phenolic notes, but they are less pronounced than in the 10 YO, and more plastic than disinfectant-like. There are the cereal and floral notes typical of Ardbeg, followed by hints of dried fruit with elements of raisin and candied citrus.

On the palate, the whisky is initially dry but gets progressively sweeter. The raisin and dried fruit sweetness is distinctive and is framed by cooked cereal and digestive biscuit notes and a hint of caramel. There is smoke in the background, but it is less pronounced than in the 10 YO, more like a cold campfire than a smoldering one. There is a notable creamy sweetness that is typical of sherry butt aged whiskies. The bottling is at cask strength, and consists of a mix of bourbon barrel and sherry butt matured whiskies.

The finish is long with a creamy, sweet note and elements of cooked cereal, and a hint of iodine on the end.

Appearance 8/10, Nose 26/30, Palate 27/30, Finish 28/30 Final Score: 89/100

Ardbeg, Corryvreckan, no age statement, 57.1% ABV, 750 ml

This whisky has a medium gold color. On the nose, there are the predictable phenolic aromas, but these are lighter than in the 10 Y0 and are framed against noticeable marine elements. There are hints of sea spray, some iodine and a briny/savory character. There are the usual floral aromas and cooked cereal notes, with hints of dried fruit sweetness and furniture wax along with vanilla notes. The background features a noticeable cold smoke aroma.

On the palate, the whisky has a pronounced viscous, almost chewy, character. There is the distinctive pepperiness. Like Uigeadail, the whisky starts on a dry note, but develops a sweetish note that steadily builds and frames the pepperiness nicely. There is a savory character, like the dried residue of a dirty martini, followed by cooked cereal notes with hints of caramel sweetness and licorice, smoke and just a bit of char and smoked fish elements. This bottling is also at cask strength and shows a pronounced spirit note.

The finish is very log with a distinctive sweetish note, pronounced cooked cereal notes, and a slight burnt, bitter espresso coffee element.

This is a powerful, complex whisky that combines a range of tastes and aroma with a powerful backbone of smoke, char, sweetness and cooked cereal notes.

Appearance 8/10, Nose 27/30, Palate 28/30, Finish 29/30 Final Score: 92/100

A shorter version of this article appeared in The Whisky Wash in September 2016.