So…those that know me know that Ardbeg would certainly be one of my trip highlights. Undoubtedly one of my top three distilleries, if not my number one. If you’re thinking this is outright fanboy-ism…well…perhaps you’re right. Then again…a multitude of awards (including more than one ‘whisky of the year’) would seem to attest in my favor that Ardbeg simply produce bloody amazing whisky.
Having been in contact with Janey Torrance and Michael Heads at the distillery, I was already highly anticipating this visit for a couple of reasons. One…Janey was holding a bottle of the long since sold out Rollercoaster. Two…I had just completed an interview with Mr. Heads, distillery manager, and could hardly wait to see the distillery itself. And finally…hey…this Ardbeg…I just wanted to be there.
I rose early after a short (very short) 8 hour sleep. Serious problems dragging myself through the shower. To be honest…more problems dragging myself out of the shower. I locked up Kate’s self-catering place and spent an hour or two in the pre-dawn light wandering Bowmore. Sunrise on Islay is gorgeous. The round church bathed in first light was quite stunning from the waterfront. I hopped a bus from Bowmore to Ardbeg, but elected to hop off in Port Ellen instead. Undoubtedly the best decision I’ve made so far. Nabbed a few more sweets for the family back home (originally being from the UK, there are many things they miss from there), some Marmite for the in-laws and an apple and OJ for my morning snack. I set off along the Southern Coast for the three beefiest distilleries on Islay. Walking a few miles this morning just seemed like the right idea.
Man…the walk from Port Ellen to Ardbeg is unbelievable. Aside from frequent leaps from one side of the road to the other in order to avoid traffic, what a truly relaxing journey. Green and gorgeous, and the absolute epitome of pastoral beauty. Seeing Laphroaig and Lagavulin and having to keep walking was hard. Kept telling myself ‘hours till Lagavulin…days till Laphroaig’.
I arrived at Ardbeg to phenomenal scenery. These locations are heavensent. They all look like postcards (which, of course…they all are). Hope pics turn out okay, but hey…I’m no photographer. <Quick note here…any photos that are decent…credit to Pat. Any that are bad…blame me.> Nestled along the Southern Coast, Ardbeg is Islay’s most southeasterly distillery. The views all around are nothing short of spectacular and surreal, rich in greenery and rocky outcrops with the ocean lapping the shoreline.
I strolled down the lane and snapped a few pictures of the Ardbeg flag flapping in the breeze, the lettered casks spelling out ‘ARDBEG’ in their rollercoaster set-up and the signature pagodas. I took a few minutes to peek around as I was plenty early.
First stop was the shop and Old Kiln Cafe, still masterfully run by Jackie Thompson. Having watched the Ardbeg webshop from home I already knew there were a few things I wanted to take home with me. I had my eye on a brown Ardbeg hoodie and my wife was interested in a shoulder bag. Being the only thing she had actually mentioned wanting, I was devastated to find out that it was out of stock. Still managed to make a decent little pile to bring home (hoodie, polo shirt, peat cones, mini, etc). I mentioned to the girl behind the counter that I had one more thing to nab before paying for this…that bottle of Rollercoaster that Janey was holding for me. At this, a lady nearby lifted her head and said, “I’m Janey”. I introduced myself and she came around greeting me with a warm hug and a peck on the cheek. She is truly a wonderful lady. Hope our paths cross again (next visit…2012, maybe?).
This committee bottling of Rollercoaster was the last one around. There wasn’t even an empty kicking around for them to be able to scan for price. As it was carefully packed up in cardboard for me, they asked if it would be okay to open it. This is one I won’t be opening anytime soon. We’ll save it for something special. Fortunately I was able to leave this all behind as Ella took a group of us through the distillery for our tour.
Great tour, and great guide. Ella was engaging and interesting. I love listening to someone who not only knows what they are talking about, but can present it in a way that shows they are passionate about it. She had a way of slowing things down and simplifying everything so that even those in the group who knew relatively little about whisky could understand and leave feeling as though they had gotten something out of the experience. Ella’s account of the ups and downs of Ardbeg’s tumultuous history was a highlight simply due to her presentation.
The distillery itself is beautiful. Both the grounds and the production facility. Well kept and obviously loved with a renewed vigor. Hard to believe the state it was in years ago when Jackie and Stuart Thompson arrived to re-open ‘er. I have a feeling Ardbeg is safe for many years to come now. From the 120 year old Boby mill to the snazzy mash tun to the six washbacks to the gorgeous shiny stills…Ardbeg was immaculate.
After wrapping up, we were taken back to the Old Kiln Cafe for a dram of the good stuff. The options were all there (Ten, Corryvreckan, Supernova, Uigeadail and Blasda), and I was the only one to opt for the Blasda. I know, have and love all the others…why not try an Ardbeg I haven’t had while at the source? This whisky is unfairly excluded from the Ardbeg canon in most people’s eye, due to the low peating level (though at 8 ppm it is still heavier than Bunna at 2 ppm). Not bad at all. I will need to revisit this one.
Took a load off my weary feet and back over a bowl of Islay Crab Chowder in the cafe. Dear gawd…wow. Unquestionably the best soup I have EVER had. Honestly. Though the cafe already has a stellar reputation…no visit to Ardbeg (and Islay in general) should be complete without lunch here. Note…come early though. It fills up.
So here I sit…sipping coffee…jotting away with hours till Lagavulin (3:45 pm). Will finish my coffee and go shooting some more pics around here before maybe strolling up toward the Kildalton Cross.
Uhhh…hit the sign post at the end of the Ardbeg lane. One sign points to the Kildalton cross. Six miles further on. Ahem…miles, not kilometers. Twelve miles return. Being on foot that just ain’t gonna happen. I’d need to do those twelve miles in two and half hours, not including any time I spend there. While carrying heavy bags. Just not enough time. Oh well.
I am sitting outside Lagavulin right now. They are closed for lunch. There is a 2:30 pm tour. I will see if they will let me bump my scheduled tour time. Hope they’re not booked full.
Indeed, the ladies at Lagavulin were more than happy to change my tour time. Saved me sitting around for another hour and a bit. Not that that would have been too bad, mind you. When you’re in places like these, those moments you get to spend alone with your thoughts are one of the trip highlights for me.
Wow…what a location. Lagavulin sits on the rocky coast, where the distillery faces the remains of a the castle out over the waters. About 27 miles across the sea I could just make out the hazy outline of Ireland. So tempting to try to head over for a day. Not sure how I could work the logistics of that one. Next time perhaps.
I ended up having about half an hour to wait for the shop and visitor center to re-open. This gave me a bit of time to shoot a bit of video to share back home. I should have been doing more of this as I went along, but I keep thinking of it an hour or so after I’ve left each location. Sigh. None too bright apparently. Oh well.
A brief aside before speaking to the Lagavulin tour…
(I hate to get down on Diageo, as it seems to be the easy and trendy thing to do, but I was a little disappointed that all of the distilleries on the island allowed photography throughout the tours, excepting the two Diageo ones (Caol Ila and Lagavulin). C’mon, guys and gals…lighten up. Lagavulin especially was a bloody great tour. One of the most enjoyable of all eight, I must say. It is only slightly souring that I couldn’t take back some visual mementos to share with the gang back home. Tsk tsk. This is the reason there are few photos to share of the Lagavulin experience here.)
Anyway, the same lovely lady that greeted me and changed my tour time, Marjorie, was our guide for the tour. Our group included a fun and hilarious couple from Wisconsin (full of self-deprecating wit and Southern charm…initially being from the deep South, they said), a friendly English couple (whom I ran into several times in various places) and several Scandinavian gents (whom I also ran into several times throughout my visit). We were cautioned right off that photography would not be permitted. For shame, as the stills at Lag are stunning, and images would have been of interest to many.
Anyway…Marjorie was a brilliant guide. Warm and humorous. Her comment at one point, “we couldn’t survive here without you people visiting our island” or something to that effect, was quite heartwarming, though I personally think they’d make out just fine with their amazing ways of life. Though a couple key tour pieces were either unavailable or not shown (warehousing and filling come to mind…there was an issue with a key being unavailable), the rest of the tour was exceptional. A metal cylinder full of warm wash was passed around for us to taste the sweet and smoky alcohol before distillation. Though nifty, and of a different character that the wash at Ardbeg, I can’t imagine this would fly off the shelves if bottled. It was somewhat surprising to hear that Lag is only peated to about 35 ppm.
Our stroll out to the pier towards the end was a perfect climax leading into the ultimate denouement…retiring to the tasting lounge.
The lounge is elegant, classy and homey somehow. All rolled into one. Bottles of whisky, books, leather armchairs and good company. Does it get better? The drams on offer? The flagship 16 year old, the double-matured, a distillery bottling…and I believe there was one more. I opted to try the distillery bottling. An exclusive to the shop at Lagavulin obviously, this caught my eye as soon as I wlked in. After a dram I was convinced. £66 after a £3 discount with the tour. Man…this is a helluva whisky. Though a no age statement bottle, it is complex and mature. Sherry finished (however briefly), cask strength at 52.5% and limited to 6000 bottles. Exceptional.
So..the Lagavulin tour provided:
- a dram of Lagavulin
- Lagavulin Glencairn glass
- complimentary entry to Caol Ila (Lag’s sister distillery)
- £3 discount on a bottle
Not bad, huh?
Until next update…cheers!
Later that night…
Well…10:17 pm. Back at the B&B. A group of young Swedish gents have arrived and occupy the room next door. Chatted for a bit and they offered a dram of the Laphroaig 10 y.o. they’d picked up. Nice guys. Talked hockey for a bit. C’mon…throw a Canadian and a few Swedes in a room…what do you expect?
How truly amazing to walk out of a great whisky bar after sipping three cask strength monsters and head towards the shore of the Atlantic, where the evening waves are gently lapping the edges of Bowmore. I have drunk almost nothing but cask strength drams since arriving on Islay and it simply reinforces my opinion and makes me ask again…why do distilleries bottle at anything other than natural cask strength? Whisky is alive. It should live strong and untamed. This is how it is meant to be.
Tonight’s bevvies…Caol Ila cask strength…Laphroaig cask strength…Ardbeg Renaissance. Reviews will follow on ATW in the none too distant future.
Tired now. Lots of walking. Worn out. Will return to this later.