Ardbeg Distillery is the third of the three distilleries you encounter if you follow the road that leads eastwards along the south coast of Islay from Port Ellen. Collectively known as the Kildalton Distilleries, Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg are the best known group of distilleries in Scotland, and between them define the Islay style of peaty, iodine flavoured, almost medicinal whiskies. Ardbeg is all of these, and more, while the distillery itself is an essential stopping off point for anyone visiting Islay.
Ardbeg stands a little over three miles east of Port Ellen, and although maps show the A846 actually ending in the distillery yard, you do need to turn off the coast road to drive the last few hundred yards into the distillery. Beyond Ardbeg the road along the south coast is unclassified and single track, though worth following for the four miles to the ruin of Kildalton Church and the absolutely magnificent Kildalton Cross, the finest early Christian cross in Scotland.
But let's focus on Ardbeg itself. As you drive into the distillery you are directed past the large disused still into a nicely landscaped visitors' car park. From here you make your way through the door in the building topped off by twin pagodas, and into Ardbeg's reception and shop. Here you also find the excellent Old Kiln Cafe, which serves outstanding food. So good, in fact, that many visitors and locals descend on Ardbeg when the service starts simply in order to have lunch. Meanwhile, like everything else at Ardbeg, the shop is classy and attractive, selling a range of branded goods and, of course, the distillery's product.
Ardbeg is a distillery whose exterior repays exploration almost as much as its interior. The place to appreciate it best is on the rocky shoreline. If you make your way past the old kiln and across the yard in which barrels are stored (and moved, so some care is needed), you come to the start of a short path that leads up onto a grass and rock outcrop between the distillery yard and the shore. This is by far the best vantage point for the distillery itself, offering views back across the yard to the old kiln, and along the shore to the distillery's pier, past a white painted building on which, in true Islay style, "ARDBEG" has been painted in large black letters.
Ardbeg Distillery was officially established in 1815 by a member of a local farming and distilling family, John MacDougall. The word "officially" in that sentence is significant, because it seems likely that distilling had taken place on the site on an unofficial (i.e. illegal) basis during the tenure of the previous landowner, Alexander Stewart, at least as far back as 1794. In 1838 the distillery was purchased by Thomas Buchanan, a Glasgow spirit merchant, for £1,800, though it continued to be managed by the MacDougall family.
In the 1850s Ardbeg was being run by two sisters, Margaret and Flora MacDougall and an associate, Colin Hay. When the whisky writer Alfred Barnard visited Ardbeg in 1886, he commented that it was "one of the most interesting on the island" and that with an output of 250,000 gallons per year (or 1.1 million litres) it was also the most productive of Islay's distilleries.
In 1911 "Ardbeg" was registered as a trademark, and in 1922 the distillery was purchased by Alexander MacDougall & Co for £19,000, so restoring the link between the distillery and the MacDougall family who had established it. Ardbeg did not fare well through the middle decades of the 1900s, and after Alexander MacDougall & Co went into liquidation in 1959, Ardbeg Distillery Ltd. was formed. In 1973 Ardbeg came under the joint control of Distillers Company Limited and the Canadian company Hiram Walker & Sons. Hiram Walker took over sole ownership in 1977, and in 1981 the distillery was mothballed, with the loss of all the production jobs.
In 1989 Ardbeg was purchased by Allied Distillers, who also owned nearby Laphroaig, and production restarted on a limited scale. It was not to last, however, and the distillery closed for the second time in 1996. The following year Ardbeg was acquired by Glenmorangie plc, who invested heavily in renovating the distillery and bringing it back into production. By 1998 they had turned the old kilns and malting floors into the cafe and shop you see today, and investment has continued in the years since to ensure that Ardbeg remains both a major distillery and an important visitor attraction.
This ethos is reflected in the way Ardbeg manages its highly regarded and justifiably popular distillery tours. The travails of the 1980s resulted in the loss of Ardbeg's traditional floor maltings, so, as at most distilleries, the process begins with the arrival of the heavily peated malted barley from Port Ellen maltings. Stones are first sifted out to avoid damage to the mill (and sparks) and the milling is done by a machine produced, apparently a considerable time ago, by Robert Boby of Bury St Edmunds. Ardbeg is proud of the fact that all its production processes are carried out by traditional methods and records kept by paper and pen: there is not a computer screen to be seen anywhere. The insight you gain during the tour into aspects of the process not covered elsewhere, such as the simple way the milled malted barley is checked and graded, is fascinating.
You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process. The mash tun is magnificent and looks to be (like a popular Scottish soft drink) "made from girders". The complex ironwork of the body carries a plaque showing it was produced by the Newmill Ironworks of Elgin in 1961, and it is topped off by what appears to be a rather more recent stainless steel cover. The six washbacks occupy a room offering magnificent sea views. When we visited one was very new and the smell of the Oregon pine permeated the room.
The still room is home to a single pair of very large stills, with the wash and spirit stills looking unusually well matched in size and appearance. Two features of the spirit still are worthy of note. The first is a band of imitation rivets encircling its neck. The still it replaced had the neck and body joined together by rivets, and when the replacement was ordered, the imitation band of rivets was specified to ensure the new still matched the old as closely as possible to ensure continuity of character of the spirit it produced. The second is a tube, complete with U-bend, which descends from the lyne arm back into the still. This "purifier" recirculates some of what emerges from the still and effectively means that Ardbeg is two-and-a-half times distilled. The spirit safe is mounted on top of the large circular spirit receiver.
Ardbeg's coastal location mean that the spirit stored in its bonded warehouses gains some characteristic seaside flavours as it very slowly turns from raw spirit into Scotch whisky.