Ardbeg is among the most storied single malts in all of Scotland. But it is much more than mere whisky. It is a distinct sense of place: a soul that sings the song of its mystical island home. Ardbeg is an aura. It is a tale over 200 years in the making.
At the heart of this story is a set of copper pot stills that have sat alongside the craggy shores of Islay since 1815. The liquid laid into barrel hums with a sweet, smoky style of peat. It reflects the traditional fuel source used to malt the barley in this corner of the world. After years in the cask a mature spirit emerges—wondrously rich and undeniably complex; a scotch like no other and the principal reason why Islay has come to be known as “Whisky Island.”
The distillery looms over the southeastern shoreline largely as it would have two centuries ago; a wild and untamed place, where Celtic monks found refuge from raiding Norsemen and early distillers smuggled their illicit “aqua vitae” at Ardbeg’s rugged rocky cove. Approaching the rocky cove from the sea, one could spot the bright white dunnage warehouse that bears Ardbeg’s name – even through the densest layers of Hebridean fog.
Presiding over this maritime largess is Dr. Bill Lumsden, Head of Distilling and Whisky Creation at Ardbeg. Lumsden collected his PhD in microbial physiology and fermentation science; few others on Earth understand flavor creation as intricately as he. Some regard Lumsden as the “Willy Wonka” of Whisky, and why many connoisseurs hold Ardbeg in such high esteem today.
Lumsden, for his part, deflects much of the praise to the liquid itself. “It has this stunningly complex quality,” he observes. “If you line up all the Islay single malts, I think Ardbeg stands out because it has everything: power, intensity, smokiness, complexity.”
Ardbeg now offers something else to its impressive arsenal: a new purpose-built stillhouse. Nearly a decade in the making, Lumsden and his team took a dizzying degree of care to make sure that the new equipment exceeded exacting specifications. They matched the dimensions of the older stills down to the precise millimeter, mimicking the placement of bolts and rivets. To do anything less would risk altering the character of this classic distillate—an unacceptable proposition for anyone involved.
Despite the daunting challenges involved, this project was inevitable. More than ever, scotch lovers are demanding bigger, bolder, smokier flavors from their whiskies. For millennia, this cozy little stillhouse has pushed its two cooper workhorses to the limit to keep up. Every step in the process, malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation, maturation and delectation – involves a special chemistry between the product and the people that make it. Soft, pure water from Loch Uigeadail blends with the smokiest malt in the business. From there, a delicately choreographed dance delivers one of life’s rarest delights.
For those seeking to live the Ardbeg way, the island of Islay brims with opportunity for whisky lovers, as there are zero traffic lights and eight distilleries. The fastest way to take yourself to Islay is to uncork a bottle of Ardbeg. However, you can’t beat actually being at the Distillery, staying at Seaview Cottage and standing on Ardbeg’s pier, enveloped in fresh sea breeze and Ardbeg’s peaty aroma.
Ardbeg maintains an operation prioritizing exceptionality over output, and a stunning testament to that ethos just arrived in the form of the Ardbeg 25 Years Old.
Earlier this year, it became the latest entry into the core range, but will be available in limited allocation on account of its poignant maturity. Bottled from casks filled during the 1990s when the distillery was producing only a trickle of new make spirit each year, it offers an opportunity to experience some of the most scarce and sacred Ardbeg available.
Those lucky enough to land a bottle will uncork a decadent delight. Bottled at 46% ABV, it is assertive in aromas of fennel, peppermint and pine. On the tongue is a revelation of creamy toffee and sherbet lemon to accompany the seaweed and tar. Fudge in the finish helps accentuate the dynamic nature of this dram; a crowning achievement in what the distillery affectionately refers to as “the peaty paradox.”
“After a quarter of a century in the cask, you’d be forgiven for imagining that Ardbeg 25 Years Old would have lost some of the hallmark smoky punch,” says Lumsden. “I can assure you it hasn’t. And yet there’s also a remarkable complexity and elegance to this whisky that I find utterly captivating. It’s unmistakably Ardbeg, but unlike any Ardbeg you’ve tasted before.”