Traveling by steamboat and horse-drawn carriage, Alfred Barnard set out in 1885 to visit each of the 161 distilleries in the United Kingdom. His detailed account of the journey, The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, became the authoritative word on whisky after its publication in 1887. In the book, Barnard singled out Ardbeg, on the Isle of Islay, as particularly memorable: “The old distillery well deserves to be noticed, as it is one of the most interesting on the island; the buildings have no pretensions to taste and elegance, nevertheless they look picturesque . . . Its isolation tends to heighten the romantic sense of its position.”
When distillery manager Stuart Thomson arrived at Ardbeg more than a century later, he found little to inspire such prose. “The place was absolutely decrepit,” recalls Thomson, who joined Ardbeg after the Glenmorangie Co. purchased the Islay distillery in 1997. “It was very close to being knocked down and pushed out to sea.”
Ardbeg was not alone in its state of disrepair. A recession and subsequent slump in whisky sales during the 1980s forced several distilleries to close, including Ardbeg, which ceased production in 1981. But the distillery avoided the fate of its now-defunct Islay neighbor, Port Ellen, because whisky blenders such as Ballantine’s prized Ardbeg’s heavily peated malt. The demand for Ardbeg as a blending ingredient prompted Allied Domecq, which also owned nearby Laphroaig at the time, to recommence production at the distillery in 1990.
Still, when Glenmorangie purchased Ardbeg from Allied Domecq, the distillery was producing only small batches of whisky annually. Glenmorangie (which since has been acquired by the LVMH group) aimed not only to increase production, but also to address what the company perceived as a demand for an Ardbeg single malt. Since the late 1960s, independent firms Gordon & MacPhail and, later, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, had been bottling Ardbeg, and the malts had gained a following among connoisseurs. So in the same year it changed ownership, Ardbeg released a 17-year-old malt made from what was—because of the gap in production in the 1980s—the youngest available stock at the time.
Glenmorangie also began the long process of bringing the distillery up to date. The company spent $11 million restoring the buildings and adding a visitor’s center, where today employees serve fresh scones and clotted cream, along with drams of Ardbeg single malts.
Ardbeg continues to produce its malts with stock from the Allied Domecq years. In October, the company released a bottling of 16-year-old Airigh Nam Beist (pronounced Arn-Nam-Beast and named after one of the two lochs from which the distillery draws its water). The new release, priced at $110, is a complex and mellow malt that features aromas and flavors ranging from vanilla and cream to pine nuts, pepper, bacon fat, and, of course, peat.
Although Ardbeg is the most peaty of Islay malts, it also is one of the lightest. This “peaty paradox,” as Thomson calls it, is achieved through a purifier on the still that filters out heavier components. Thomson appears to have perfected this fine balance during his decade at Ardbeg, but alas, the romantic isolation Barnard wrote of in the 19th century has worn thin for the distillery manager. Thomson and his wife are planning to leave Islay and return to Scotland’s mainland in the near future. His influence, however, will continue to be enjoyed for years to come: In 2008, Ardbeg will release a 10-year-old single malt, the first of several bottlings made from stock produced under Thomson’s watch.