There is a long road on the southern tip of the Isle of Islay, that edges along the coast from the Port Ellen maltings. With sweet, smoky malt and the salty sea air in your lungs, you’ll take that long road to the legendary ladies of Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. Follow that road past all three and you’ll arrive at the Kildalton Cross, the oldest known relic of its kind in this part of the world – and part of the reason these ladies of Islay are sometimes known as the Kildalton distilleries.
In a single day on Islay, while the sun was shining and the air was mostly still, I drove the long road. I drove the long straight stretch that reminds of Waipu, Northland through the peat beds of Lagavulin where my sister owns a 6-inch brick of land. I stopped at Laphroaig, I stopped at Lagavulin and I finally arrived at Ardbeg. They sit mere miles from one another, that pass by in a glimpse of green, gray rock, wide skies and sharp corners.
Ardbeg, like so many distilleries, survives through tenacity and partly, luck. Reading the tides, as it were. There was a once a thriving community that lived within walking distance of the distillery but those people, the infrastructure and the school are long since gone. Like so many, to survive has meant sale after sale of the distillery and her stock and near constant reinvention and exploration. The Ardbeg we know today is quite different in approach to the Ardbeg that once dominated production on the island, before the turn of the 20th century. She has lived through two closures until she finally re-opened in 1997, under the ownership of Glenmorangie (part of Moët Hennessey). Upon starting production again, they began to release some of the old stock and invest in new production. This would eventually shape the way Ardbeg was re-introduced to the world as being back ‘for good’.
I say ‘for good’ because part of Ardbeg’s fate now rests in the hands of the Ardbeg Committee, a worldwide fan club of sorts that was started in the year 2000. This coincided with the release of what has become the core expression of the Ardbeg line, the Ardbeg Ten. This malt is sweet and smoky and big, as all the Kindalton ladies can be. That committee receives unique and exclusive bottlings, on which the committee’s feedback influences the release to broader public consumption. I’m a member, along with many other New Zealanders but it’s something special to actually make it to the grounds of any distillery that you know and love.
When you arrive at Ardbeg, the light bounces off the tall copper-painted, still-shaped monument in the forecourt. The bright white Ardbeg ‘A’ logo glows white from the asphalt surface the tiles are embedded in. *The large forecourt is a relatively new development, in time for the bi-centenial Ardbeg celebrations last year. 200 years of a robust and wild spirit was celebrated on Ardbeg Day 2015 with the release of Perpetuum.
The annual Ardbeg Day celebration started in 2012 with the release of ‘Galileo’ at the end of Feis Ile, the Islay Festival of Music and Malt. They need the space on that forecourt because the population of the island swells by thousands for the week-long festival. Galileo was the celebration of Ardbeg’s space experiment, to see how spirit might age different in a no-gravity environment. Since then Ardbog, Auriverdes and Perpetuum have all celebrated different aspects of Ardbeg’s future, flavour and past. Ardbeg Day 2016 is just around the corner on the 28th of May. Mark it in your calendars now.
But this is more than just marketing, I promise. Sure – a limited edition that is guaranteed to sell out within 48 hours around the world (less than 2 hours in Auckland, 2015) is a great way to create buzz. It must be said though, that this unique way of engaging with lovers of Ardbeg is worth pursuing and protecting. After re-opening in 1997, Ardbeg won Distillery of the Year three times in a row. Each of the Ardbeg Day whiskies has made it’s way to my collection and for good measure, I buy a bottle to drink and a bottle to keep. And the road to Ardbeg is worth the drive, to savour the nature of survival.
The crisp white wall of the distillery buildings and the signature name etched along the foreshore stands firm and concrete. I wandered down to the foreshore and skipped stones into the sea, smelt the freshness of the ocean and thought to myself, some things find a way to survive so long as they are loved. I walked through the distillery and enjoyed the Old Kiln Cafe. I enjoyed the Committee Release variation of Dark Cove*, bottled at cask strength. I wandered through the warehouses and breathed the old stone, new spirit aroma of Ardbeg itself, the land, sea and air of the place.
For all the energy and enthusiasm of a young distillery reborn (she’s only been open again for just under 20 years, with her ‘Young’ series from the early 1998 distillings still stacked in warehouses for periodic release), there is an ancient spirit on the long road. You’ll meet it at Ardbeg and then you’ll meet it again at the Kildaton Cross.
They reckon the Irish monks arrived and starting making whisky on Islay sometime in the late 14th century, on the run from Nordic invaders. This cross is older than that, carved from stone. The Parish in which the Cross is found dates from around 1580, but the gravestones found within the parish grounds are older than that too. The Cross takes similar form to those found in Iona and so it’s assumed it was carved sometime in the mid-8th century. It was when repairing the Kildalton Cross years ago, they discovered the bodies of a man and woman, below. The man died from terrible trauma. So old, so mysterious, so unknown. What was the story of these people that lived and died on this rugged earth?
There is a sense of mystery about this place and this corner of the island in particular. It can’t help but spill over into the myths and legends of whisky-runners, illicit stills and hiding from the excisemen that litter the history of Islay, and in particular, Ardbeg malt. Caves, pirates, smugglers and risky tales abound. This year’s Ardbeg Day release has been named Dark Cove and embraces some of this darker, mysterious history. But those tasting notes and secrets will be released shortly.
*Dark Cove will be released on 28th May, when Ardbeg Day becomes Ardbeg Night. Subscribe for updates on where you can taste and experience the #ArdbegNight festivities. This year, New Zealand welcomes it’s first Ardbeg Embassy bar, The Jefferson to join the three off-premise locations: Whisky Galore, Regional Wines and Spirits and Sam Snead’s House of Whiskey. The Ardbeg Embassies in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch will all host events during the day and night.