It’s a testament to the revival of Ardbeg under current owners Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy that it’s become the most visible and widely supported distillery on Islay thanks partially to the power of marketing and their annual release programme.
Hennessey purchased the distillery in 1997 for the princely sum of £7 million and in doing so acquired a great deal of potential, a legacy and reputation as well as some unique problems. Ardbeg was established in 1815 although records indicate that a distillery was active on the site back into the 1790’s. The initial owners were the MacDougall’s who were local farmers but also prone to the spot of distilling; unsurprising on the same site prior to the establishment of Ardbeg. As was common at the time, transportation links were of the upmost importance to export whisky further afield and for Islay this meant a coastal setting.
The distillery was relatively successful and for a while was the largest on Islay, providing employment for over 40 locals. It managed to soldier on even when faced with economic events such as the Great Depression and Prohibition with only a short period of closure in the 1930’s. In 1838 the distillery was acquired by a Glasgow spirit merchant for the sum of £1800, with a relative of the MacDougall’s continuing to oversee Ardbeg. The distillery remained in private hands until 1959 when it is acquired by Hiram Walker in 1973, who then set about making changes to increase productivity and efficiency. The traditional floor maltings are closed and used for the last time in 1980, with the distillery now relying on malt from the Port Ellen facility. This decision is lamented by fans and master blender Bill Lumsden himself, who would love to reopen the maltings that still exist today but LVMH deem the cost too substantial.
Hiram Walker’s ownership is short-lived, with the distillery closing in 1981 due to the fall in whisky demand combined with over production. Allied Lyons takes over the reign and has little appetite for Ardbeg with the distillery closing once again in 1996. Its equipment is kept in operation by workers from Laphroaig during this era before Hennessey via Glenmorangie Plc, takes over the distillery with a vision for success. This includes the release of a 17-year-old expression, a vintage from 1978 and the Provenance range, which represents some of the finest whisky to ever be bottled by Ardbeg. Although American giant Brown-Forman also have a stake in the plc, this is sold in 2005 giving LVMH complete ownership.
Despite its prominence today as a brand, Ardbeg remains a relatively small producer with an annual capacity of 1.3 million litres. In 2000 the spirit still reached the grand old age of 50 and was replaced in October of the same year. The distillery is literally working flat out to meet demand and importantly lay down stock for future years. This is an aspect that Hennessey has had to contend with over the years with Ardbeg’s periods of inactivity and explains their adoption of limited batches of releases that are slightly different thanks to inventive cask usage. The pilgrimage to Islay is well worth the effort and Ardbeg offers a distillery tour, well stocked shop and an excellent café on site to cater for all your needs.
Ardbeg’s whiskies are bold featuring sweet peat and coastal characteristics and wonderfully balanced between the earthiness and elements of smoke. The staple 10-year-old is the only age expression in the core range but is rightly considered a classic and is of a consistently high standard. It’s style of new make spirit seems to work equally well with sherry butts and ex-bourbon barrels allowing for the innovation from Dr Lumsden which is meticulously planned years in advance to satisfy the annual demand for something new from Ardbeg.