These are the skies that greeted us as we pulled into Ardbeg on Wednesday morning. We had arrived early to this most southerly of Islay’s distilleries for a walk up into the hills behind the distillery to view the water source and the peat bogs. As we gathered with a group of other enthusiasts in the courtyard outside, the heavens opened. The wind and rain started to roll in from across the Irish Sea and before long we were more than a little cold and damp. Just as I was beginning to think that they would cancel the tour, a side door opened and out popped Dougie, our guide for the day!
With Dougie at the helm, our small group set off up the hill with the wind, rain and distillery at our backs. Dougie was a fascinating fellow, having being born and raised within sight of the distillery. He shared stories of how the distillery changed over the years, from the time when he was a boy to the company that it is today. As the path snaked up between houses and through farmland the clouds began to clear, making for a much more enjoyable trek.
Our first break of the day was a treat for the taste buds. Dougie pulled out a sample bottle and proceeded to fill our glasses with the much loved, but long gone Ardbeg 17 year old. This was the bottling that sparked the revival of Ardbeg after Glenmorangie took over in 1997. It didn’t seem to have nearly the levels of peat that current Ardbeg bottlings have, but it still drank beautifully at just 80 proof. It was soft and seductive with a lovely balance of vanilla and peat. Things were only going to get better from here on.
And they did! Not 20 minutes after our first warming drop, Dougie paused so we could take in the spectacular view of Kildalton and the Mull of Kintyre off in the distance. Dougie was now rummaging in his backpack for another sample bottle. Talk about a man in his element! Well, this malt will probably go down as one of the top 10 whiskies I have ever tasted. Sublime was the only way to describe it. The whisky is called Kildalton which is named after the nearby High Cross of Kildalton, which dates back to the 8th century. The whisky, however, is not as old, dating back to 1980. With a run of only 1,300 bottles, this is a rare beast that commands huge sums of money at auction. My wife is already nudging me to find her a bottle!
On we went. We climbed higher and higher until we came to a fork on the path. The path to the left led further up into the foothills to an old abandoned village known as Solam. Legend has it that a visiting sailor brought the plague with him that wiped out the whole community in a matter of weeks. All that was left was the ruins and possibly the plague, so we took the other route!
And Ardbeg’s whiskies have no shortage of any of the above. But in order to get to the peat, a layer of spongy grass and earth must be lifted off the top. Then a peat iron is used to slice the peat into nice rectangular pieces, which is then lofted over one’s shoulder and afterwards stacked in little piles for it to dry out. It is then ready to be taken to the maltings. However, nowadays much of the peat that the distilleries use is harvested by machine.
After a spot of lunch and more whisky we headed back to the distillery, quite happily I must admit! If you ever want to know where some whiskies gets get their salty maritime tang from, then the picture above will give you a clear indication. Sea spray and salty air permeate every part of the distillery. Bruichladdich, Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Caol Ila all have that characteristic from being situated so close to the water.