Ardbeg Distillery
Ardbeg Distillery Manager Mickey Heads in front of Loch Uigeadail
A step by step breakdown of barley
Accessible only by air or ferry, Islay is home to just 3,500 inhabitants
Loch Uigeadail
Mash tanks extract sugar from the barley yeast, which later is turned to alcohol
Loch Uigeadail
All Articles
All Articles
FOOD + DRINK

Ardbeg Whisky Distillery

We visit the wild island of Islay to discover what makes Scotland's peatiest single malt so unique

by Graham Hiemstra
on 16 July 2013
Ardbeg-Whisky-1.jpg

Those familiar with single malts will recognize the tiny, wild island of Islay as the birthplace of Scotland's most heavily peated whiskies. Once home to over 20 distilleries, Islay (pronounced "eye-lah") now hosts just eight, but the few remaining are some of the most recognizable names in Scotch whisky—from Laphroaig and Lagavulin to Bowmore and Ardbeg. With a well-documented love for the more mellow side of single malts, we were more than excited when we were recently invited to visit the 198-year-old Ardbeg Distillery. Known as the maker of Scotland's peatiest single malt whiskeys, Ardbeg sets itself apart from the rest with an intensely complex flavor that's both smoky and sweet—one that some palates might find intimidating, but others find incomparable.

Ardbeg-Whisk-Peat-3.jpg

"It's the style of whisky of Islay," says Ardbeg Distillery Manager Mickey Heads in regards to the use of peat. "Every whisky has a sort of signature, and that's what the Ardbeg signature is." Historically speaking, peat—an organic material made of decomposed plant matter and found in soil—was the only fuel source on Islay for centuries, meaning it was used to heat homes, cook food and, of course, in the making of whisky. While other distilleries have toned down the smoky flavors peat lends in search of a broader audience, Ardbeg has embraced it. "For us it is the difference. Because the way we distill we have to have that heavy peated malt," continues Heads, who started his career as a peat harvester at Laphroaig Distillery located just a few short miles from Ardbeg. "The peat is quite important to give you that base flavor, to get that phenol level and to get the sweetness, the complexity and the levels of smokiness in the whisky at the end. It gives you that character."

Ardbeg-Distillery-Peat-Harvest.jpg Ardbeg-Whisky-Mickey-Head-Master.jpg

But how does the peat actually help create the signature flavor? Once cut (dug up from about two feet deep in the ground) and dried—a process that can take seven to eight weeks during an arid summer—the plant matter is then burned under a bed of malted barley to share its unique flavor. During this process, Ardbeg's distinct flavor is developed, as the thick peat smoke bonds with the barley husk. Different parts of the island (and Scotland) yield very different peat compositions. Peat harvested near the sea on Islay may be salty and rich in decomposed sea life like seaweed, whereas peat harvested from the mountains or on the mainland may be more woody. These micro-ingredients hold the key to each distillery's signature flavor. In an effort to achieve consistency, Ardbeg has, in recent years, begun sourcing their malted barley from a nearby malter in Port Ellen, which coincidently supplies barley to seven of Islay's eight working distilleries.

Ardbeg-Whisky-Loch.jpg

While peat may be the most important factor in producing Ardbeg's distinguishable taste, the historic distillery's water makes the entire process a reality on a daily basis. Overlooking the distillery near Islay's highest point is Loch Uigeadail, Ardbeg's sole water source. The pristine, elevated lake trickles downhill through countless peat bogs to deliver Ardbeg a never-ending water supply. No other distillery on the island has a single source, so at any point the other distilleries could experience a production-stopping drought.

Ardbeg-Whisky-Distillery-5.jpg Ardbeg-Whisky-Distiller.jpg

All distilleries have uniquely shaped wash stills, as the height and overall shape impacts the spirit's flavor profile. However, Ardbeg's stills feature a purifier at the top, which recirculates vapor back into the basin. Ardbeg is the only distillery on Islay to use this technique, and Heads and his team feel the recycled vapor helps develop and accentuate the spirit's sweeter notes. In addition to the peat and distillation process, it's no surprise to learn Ardbeg relies heavily on the high quality wood used in their sherry and bourbon casks. "For me the distillery contributes about 50% of the flavor, and the cask will do the rest," says Heads. This combination lies in "trying to get the two to balance—trying to get the cask and the spirit to marry, if you like. Also using the different types of oak wood [European and American] gives you a lot of different characters as well."

Ardbeg-Whisky-Casks.jpg

Opened in 1815, the Ardbeg Distillery has changed hands many times in recent history, which unfortunately caused a handful of shutdowns and startups in the 1980s—leaving considerable gaps in production—before being acquired by Glenmorangie in 1997. Partly because of this, and the distillery's many unique characteristics, Ardbeg is of the opinion that quality isn't always driven by age alone. And after a rigorous few days of insightful tours and tastings, in this case we tend to agree.

For a closer look at the historic Ardbeg distillery on Islay, see the slideshow.

Images by Graham Hiemstra

The CH25 is a showcase of creators and innovators from a broad range of disciplines who are currently working to drive the world forward.

Dan Barasch + James Ramsey

A quest to make the future brighter—underground

Read More
We both share a passion for groundbreaking technology and a shared love of New York

Kathleen Supové

The NYC performance artist who’s radically reinventing the piano recital

Read More
I like pieces that are virtuosic, that show off the piano and what it can do, and are awe-inspiring

Roxie Darling

From un-shampoo to transgender identity, the NYC colorist boldly defining the next chapter of hair

Read More
Hair color is as much a science as it is a craft

Tarren Wolfe

The next-generation appliance making kitchens greener—literally

Read More
Our goal is to provide food for everyone in the world, and the best place to start is in our very own community

Alex Kalman

The tiny museum in Manhattan that’s redefining museums

Read More
The mission is to put this small simple and powerful tool into the hands of as many people as possible

Eelke Plasmeijer

The locally driven restaurant that’s upending Balinese food culture

Read More
We really try to keep things simple and let the produce do the talking

Matt Kenyon

Fusing art and technology to disrupt concepts of corporate America

Read More
I want the work to live in the world and circulate, so it can generate more dialogue

Lulu Mickelson

A civic leader bringing change to NYC through design

Read More
Human-centered design is one of the many tools that we can use to better engage the public

Sarah Kunst

The entrepreneur single-handedly changing the landscape for women in tech

Read More
People who live on a planet that is half women but can never seem to find any when they need one, I have solved your problem

Pauline van Dongen

The Dutch designer blazing the wearable technology path

Read More
I’m fascinated by concepts of change, movement, energy and perception; since they are closely related to the way we experience the world

Corinne Joachim Sanon

The chocolatier bringing social change to Haiti and bean-to-bar chocolate to the world

Read More
Seeing the poverty surrounding me and the lack of jobs and opportunity bothered me

Melissa Kushner

Addressing the needs of orphans and vulnerable children in Malawi through microenterprise

Read More
Poverty is complicated, there is an increasing temptation and pressure in the development space to oversimplify things

Sabine Seymour

A future where smart clothes are as ubiquitous as zippers

Read More
In the future you will not buy a piece of 'functional' clothing without SoftSpot

George Arriola and Monohm

An heirloom electronic for the post-smartphone era

Read More
We agonized during the design process as all hyper-obsessed craftspeople should

LaToya Ruby Frazier

Documenting the slow, troubling change in Braddock, Pennsylvania

Read More
I am not a journalist, I am a conceptual documentary artist using my visual expression for building narratives that are unseen and unheard

Meredith Perry

How searching the Internet helped a 22-year-old invent wireless electricity

Read More
It’s not about where the information is, it’s about how you use the tools

Joshua Harker

Pushing the boundaries of sculpture with intricate 3D printing

Read More
My intent was to explore and depict the architecture of the imagination, to interpret and share forms evident in the mind’s eye

Tal Danino

The bioengineer who’s programming DNA to fight cancer

Read More
[Manipulating genes] is very new, people are just learning how to program these organisms

Vanessa Newman

Redesigning pregnancy for the post-gender generation with Butchbaby & Co.

Read More
I want my customers to feel comfortable and unchanged, in that becoming pregnant didn't take away from or compromise their identity

Leopoldine Huyghues Despointes

The young filmmaker and non-profit founder who just wants people to follow their dreams

Read More
I feel confident and ready to accomplish so much more, the movement is on

Marcus Weller

Using technology to turn motorcycle helmet design on its head

Read More
I was taken aback both by the number of people that doubted it, and by the equally large number of people that got behind it

Kegan Schouwenburg

Revolutionizing orthotics through 3D-printed insoles

Read More
What orthotics do is they effectively change the geometry of what your alignment is like

Jonathan Sparks

Reinventing electronic music by inventing multi-disciplinary instruments

Read More
Recorded music is becoming so cheap, so the value of music is now in live performance

Cynthia Breazeal

How an emotional, empathetic robot named Jibo stands to revolutionize communication

Read More
The thing that's so provocative about social robots is that it's fundamentally a community technology

Douglas Riboud + Justin Guilbert

How a mission to create great coconut water led to a whole new way of doing business

Read More
We’ve made a conscious decision to be as transparent and honest as we can, and let people decide for themselves
Loading More...