Ardbeg Distillery – Medicinal Whisky At Its Finest

​Ardbeg Distillery is a small but mighty institution on the south-east coastline of the Isle of Islay, Scotland. Silent for most of the 1980s and 19​90s, ​Ardbeg has risen phoenix-like from the ashes after undergoing considerable restoration ​in 1997 (​thanks to parent Glenmorangie Company​, a subsidiary of LVMH), to become one of the most popular heavily-peated single malt whisky distilleries in the world.

Ardbeg's twin stills are ​capable of producing 10,000 casks per annum (1.4 million litres), comparably less than neighbours Lagavulin (2.6 million litres ​with four stills) and Laphroaig (​3.3 million litres​ ​with seven stills). Expansion plans were announced in 2018 to add another pair of stills at Ardbeg Distillery (​which will bring the total number to four) as well as building additional warehouses.

Black and white photograph of Ardbeg Whisky Distillery warehouse painted with Ardbeg name viewed from the pier

Ardbeg Whisky Distillery Islay - from the pier.

How to Pronounce ​Ardbeg

How to pronounce​ Ardbeg, courtesy of Brian Cox ...

​Ardbeg Whisky

A 2018 realease of a single cask Ardbeg 10 year old ​(by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society) is descriptively labelled as follows:
"the glass brimmed with mineralic bluster, tarry rope, kelp, simmering peat oils, cured meats and pine resin at first. Then burnt toast, a few tinned fruits and a thick sludge of natural tar liqueur... A slug of water reveals screeching tyres through a farmyard, green olives in brine, smoked German rauchbier, a dollop of dung, paraffin, BBQ sauce and pure, raw peats. On the palate, a mini-tsunami of tar arrives, quickly followed by farmyard and coastal muscle. Earth, hessian, dunnage warehouse, soot, wax and honey all play a part. Reduction gives iodine, peat oils, crushed sea salt, wool, wet rocks, roasted parsnips, more tar, kelp and a final mineral flourish with a lingering herbal fade."

I think this is an apt description of most bottles of Ardbeg! Tarry, medicinal, mineral, and most certainly of the sea (with a bit of barnyard for good measure).

My personal favourite is a festival bottling from 2014, Ardbeg Auriverdes. Ardbeg Auriverdes is a lot softer on the palate than most of the other Ardbeg whiskies I've tried (doesn't smack you in the head quite so much with medicinal seaweed). However, it is still distinctly an Ardbeg release.

​A selection from Ardbeg's core range, from left to right: Ardbeg 10yo, Ardbeg An Oa, Ardbeg Uigeadail, and Ardbeg Corryvreckan.

Ardbeg 10 Years Old

The bulk of Ardbeg spirit goes into producing Ardbeg 10 Year Old. ​According to the Whisky Exchange, "for peat lovers, Ardbeg 10 Year Old is probably the highest-quality 'entry-level' single malt on the market" ​. 

Per Ralfy review 617 (below)​ the nose is "vegetal peat, crisp, dry, under-ripe apples, under-ripe pears, minty, dental mouth wash, complex .. seashells, wet, pebbles, marine notes".

The initial taste is a "big bang big hit, not as volcanic as Laphroaig, but certainly as intense. It has more of a rich gingery dry spice to it, sultanas, vanilla ... tiny bit of fudginess in the background . .. vegetal peat, under-ripe apples, a little bit of sweet, quite a bit of sour".

After water: "intense sour, dramatic vegetal peaty, mint, spearmint, a little bit of aniseed, caraway, cumin.. savoury dry character malt .. green tea and vanilla ... better than many whiskies three times its age."

​Aso see earlier Ralfy reviews no. 542 (2016) and 28 (2009).

Where is ​Ardbeg Distillery?

​Ardbeg Distillery is 3.7 miles/5.9 km ​from Port Ellen, ​the third in the trio distilleries (​Lagavulin and ​Laphroaig being the other two) on Islay's south-east coastline.

​Ardbeg Distillery Tours, Pricing & Bookings

For bookings Tel: 0​1496 302244 or​ complete the contact form​. Bookings are highly advisable (at least 2 days in advance) to avoid disappointment - ​most tours will book out quickly in the summer months. The Table Tasting does not require a booking.​

​For current schedules (which vary from Summer to Winter) see https://www.ardbeg.com/en-gb/visit-us/tours

The 2019 Summer Schedule (April to October) is as follows:

Tasting Only

Table Tastings in the Old Kiln Cafe: 10 am to 12 pm OR 2 pm to 4 pm, Monday to Sunday. Informal tastings are available in the Old Kiln Café.  Pick from one of the daily tasting flights and the staff will briefly talk you through the whiskies then leave you to enjoy them at your leisure. There is no booking required. Cafe menu is available for light snacks or lunch.

Back to the 90’s Tasting: 5.30pm on Wednesdays, April to August, £65 per person / lasts around 1 hour 30 minutes.
Learn how Ardbeg was able to produce the beautiful spirit that is now their 21, 22 and 23-year-old expressions. A tasting of all three, along with stories related to the time, gives a perfect chance to pick your favourite year.

Tour & Tasting

Ardbeg Distillery Tour & Wee Tasting: 11 am OR 3 pm, Monday to Sunday, £8 per person, duration approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes. Informative and fun tour of Ardbeg Distillery with a dram of your choice from the core range at the end.

Ardbeg Full-Range Tour & Tasting: 10 am OR 12.30pm, Monday to Sunday, £25 per person, duration approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes. A detailed tour of the Distillery followed by a tasting of five different drams in the Ardbeg Chairman’s Study. Tasting includes the core range of Ardbeg Ten Year Old, Ardbeg An Oa, Ardbeg Uigeadail and Ardbeg Corryvreckan, plus one Limited Expression chosen by your guide.

Sneak Peak at Four: 4 pm Monday to Sunday, £5 per person, duration approximately 45 minutes. At the end of the day join a quick, enlightening whizz around Ardbeg Distillery. See what makes Ardbeg different and enjoy a dram of the iconic Ardbeg Ten Year Old.

The Big Ardbeg Tour and Warehouse Tasting at Two (in Warehouse Three): 2 pm Monday to Friday, £50 per person, duration approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes. Complete tour with tales, timings, temperatures, traditions, tuns and a tantalising tasting in Warehouse 3. Sample some very unusual Ardbeg expressions, as well as some old favourites.

The Ardbeg Wednesday Bog Off Walk: 11 am Wednesdays, April – August, £65 per person, duration approximately 4 hours.
Take a hike over the hills, drink in the landscape, sample the exquisite Ardbeg drams chosen by your guide, enjoy a picnic lunch and finish with a short tour of the distillery. Note: you will need sturdy footwear and weather appropriate clothing for this tour. Ardbeg may have to cancel the walk entirely, at short notice, if the weather is too horrid. [This would be my choice - Islay is stunning in good weather. The only caveat being, it can be absolutely awful when it's cold and wet, which it often is in summer!].

Ardbeg Single Cask Dinners: 7 pm on the 10th of each month, May to October, £130 per person, duration approximately 4 hours. Every month Ardbeg launches an exclusive single cask.  Join them after hours for a backstage walk around the distillery, a rare tasting and an intimate dinner in the Old Kiln Café with some of the folk who make the whisky. Bring back a bottle that you want to open at the distillery and share it – then taste one of this year’s single casks and buy a bottle if you wish.

​Ardbeg Distillery Images

Purple toned photograph of the ​Main courtyard, Ardbeg Distillery, Islay, Scotland.

​Main courtyard, Ardbeg Distillery, Islay, Scotland.

Moody colour photograph of Empty casks waiting to be filled, in the yard at Ardbeg Distillery

Empty casks waiting to be filled, in the yard at Ardbeg Distillery. The majority of Ardbeg whisky matures in ex-Bourbon oak.

Colour photograph of the front of the The Robert Boby Ltd Malt Mill at Ardbeg Distillery

The Robert Boby Ltd Malt Mill at Ardbeg Distillery - installed in 1921 and currently serviced by Ronnie Lee.

Colour photograph of the rear of the The Robert Boby Ltd Malt Mill at Ardbeg Distillery

Rear View of The Robert Boby Ltd Malt Mill at Ardbeg Distillery. Also visible at the top of the image is the Malt Hopper which funnels the whole malt grains into the mill.

Colour photograph of malt samples including whole grains, grist and husks at Ardbeg Distillery

Malt Samples at Ardbeg Distillery - five bins showing, from left to right: whole grains of malted barley, grist, husk, grit and flour (not visible).

Colour photograph of The Mash Tun at Ardbeg distillery

The Mash Tun at Ardbeg distillery runs 5 tonnes of grist per mash cycle. There are 15 mash cycles per week (run over 24 hours/7 days a week). Each cycle produces 23,000 litres of wort.

Black and white photograph of the The six washbacks at Ardbeg Distillery

The six washbacks at Ardbeg Distillery are not all the same size - washbacks 2 and 5 are the biggest. Each washback will be filled with 23,000 litres of wort, to which 22.5kg of dry yeast is added (first mixed in with 100 litres of wort to stop it clumping). The total fermentation time is around 52 hours, which will generate a wash that is roughly 8% alcohol.

The six washbacks at Ardbeg Distillery

The six washbacks at Ardbeg are filled with 23,000 litres of wort. This is roughly 3/4 full to allow the wort to rise during the fermentation process (like the process of bread rising during prooving). Washbacks have been known to overflow their yeasty contents - the smell and clean up must be awful.

View through the grated floor at Ardbeg Distillery looking down on the huge washbacks

View through the grated floor at Ardbeg Distillery. Like an iceberg, you only see a small fraction of a washback's total volume above the surface.

Black and white photo of the wash (front) and spirit (rear) stills at Ardbeg Distillery.

Black and white photo of the wash (front) and spirit (rear) stills at Ardbeg Distillery.

Colour photo of the The spirit still at Ardbeg Distillery, Islay, Scotland.

The spirit still at Ardbeg Distillery, Islay, Scotland.

Wide angle view of the spirit still at Ardbeg Distillery, looking from the base, up to the neck and the lyne arm where the purifier (copper pipe leading from lyne arm back into the still) is also visible.

Wide angle view of the spirit still at Ardbeg Distillery, looking from the base, up to the neck and the lyne arm where the purifier (copper pipe leading from lyne arm back into the still) is also visible.

Racked casks at Ardbeg Distillery, showing 2016 casks numbers over 10,000 (Ardbeg's capacity is 10,000 casks per year, in 2016 they reached 100% capacity)

Ardbeg's present annual capacity with their two wee stills is only 10,000 casks per year - in 2016 they managed to operate at 100% capacity and broke the 10,000 cask threshold (note the cask numbers pictured here are from 10,077 to 10,097).

Black and white photo of racked casks in the warehouse at Ardbeg Distillery

Casks in the warehouse at Ardbeg Distillery.

Sepia toned photograph of 2010 casks at Ardbeg distillery

Ardbeg 2010 Casks on 3 racks. Ardbeg has only five warehouses at present (2019) - 2 dunnage warehouses and 3 racked, holding a total of 25,000 barrels. Ardbeg is in the process of expanding their warehousing capacity so more of their spirit can be matured on Islay.

​What ​Else ​Is ​Nearby

​References & ​Further ​Reading

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