Ardbeg Distillery

A whisky distillery in a small settlement of the same name on the S coast of Islay in the Inner Hebrides, Ardbeg occupies white-painted buildings on the shore. The name comes from the Gaelic àird bheag or 'small promontory' and whisky has been produced here since 1794, although legitimate commercial production only began in 1815, when John MacDougall gained a license from the government.

The malted barley comes from Port Ellen Maltings, specified to be the most highly-peated supplied to any of the Islay distilleries, and the water comes from Loch Uigeadail via a diversion through Loch Iarnan and the Ardbeg Burn. Sugar is extracted from malt in an enormous 4.9m / 16-foot wide mash tun which is constructed from cast-iron plates bolted together and covered with a stainless-steel lid. The wort is fermented in Oregon pine wash backs for longer than other distilleries. It then passes into a single 18,000-litre wash still and finally a single 17,000-litre spirit still for the ultimate distillation. Uniquely on Islay, Ardbeg uses a purifier attached to its spirit still, which allows the extraction of more good-quality alcohol and is said to produce a smoother spirit. Ardbeg produces 1,350,000 litres of whisky per annum, which is then laid down in barrels of various types, but the majority are made from American White Oak, previously used to store bourbon and bought relatively cheaply from the USA. Others include new French Oak barrels and old sherry casks. The whisky is matured in warehouses next to the sea, where they acquire characteristics of salt and iodine.

In 1838, Thomas Buchanan, a Glasgow spirit merchant, took over the insolvent Distillery for £1800, but its remained managed by the MacDougalls. In 1855, John Ramsay (1815-92) bought the distillery, along with the Kildalton Estate on which it stood, but the MacDougalls retained the lease and in 1922 gained outright ownership. In the 20th century the Distillers Company and the Canadian Hiram Walker & Sons Ltd. gain interests in Ardbeg, and the distillery is acquired by the latter in 1976. It became the property of Allied Distillers Ltd. in 1992 and the Glenmorangie Company in 1997, which was taken over by the current owners, French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) in 2004. LVMH have an annual turnover of £47.5 billion (2019).

By 1887, Ardbeg employed 60 people and was producing 250,000 gallons (1.13 million litres) of whisky a year, making it the most productive distillery on Islay. Today, it employs only 16 but annual production is 1,350,000 litres of spirit. The distillery has seen three periods of closure; 1932-35, 1981-89 and 1996-97. A visitor centre opened in 1998, occupying the old malting floors and kiln, and including a bar, cafe and shop. A new still house is under construction which will double distilling capacity.

In 2011, a quantity of alcohol from Ardbeg, together with wood shavings from inside a charred oak barrel, were sent to the International Space Station to investigate the effects of micro-gravity on the release of naturally-occurring compounds from the oak into the spirit. Differences were observed, giving rise to the potential of new flavours of whisky.

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