Founded in 1815 by the Macdougall family, Ardbeg is well established as one of Islay’s cult single malts with an enviable fan club in the devout Ardbeg Committee. Despite its reputation today, the distillery had a difficult time for much of the 20th century, including a period of closure in the 1980s -1990s which pointed to an uncertain future. In 1997, the distillery was purchased by the Glenmorangie company and has since flourished under its ownership.
Ardbeg is renowned for producing a whisky as peat-laden as Islay itself, showcasing the island’s archetypal character. Ask any Ardbeg collector or connoisseur about periods of production at the distillery and it's likely they will go into raptures about the legendary output from the 1960s and 1970s. A quick scroll through the listings on the Whisky Auctioneer platform and it’s affirmed that these vintages command both the highest auction prices and demand for the distillery.
The 1960s saw the beginning of production modernisations across much of the Scotch whisky industry. At Ardbeg, significant change was underway in the early 1960s under the direction of distillery manager Hamish Scott, an established industry character with a wealth of experience from distilleries such as Aberfeldy, Glen Ord and Benriach. Scott had also previously held a managerial role at the Diamond Distillery in Guyana, producing rum on the country’s famed heritage stills. It is this connection to the rum trade that inspired the 2019 release ‘Ardbeg Drum’ which included a finishing period in ex-rum casks.
After a tough start to the 20th century, negotiating two World Wars, Prohibition and the Great Depression, things were starting to look up for the distillery and in 1959 minority shares were purchased between Hiram Walker and The Distillers Company (DCL), both intending to supply their blends. Various changes at the distillery were made to improve the quality and consistency of the distillery’s output for its owners. Namely, these included replacing the four wash stills and a move to exclusively use distillers yeast (prior to Scott’s arrival, Ardbeg used a mix of brewers and distillers yeast). At the start of the decade, the distillery had direct-fired stills and worm tubs but entered the 1970s with steam heating and a modern condenser. Oil-heated steam allowed for greater control of the heating of the stills, while the shell and tube condenser would have removed some of the heavier sulphur-like compounds resulting in a somewhat cleaner spirit.
Demand from blenders for its product in the late 1960s - 1970s soared and Ardbeg was forced to stop using its own malted barley, instead buying it in from the neighbouring Port Ellen maltings. Historically, Ardbeg had operated their own floor maltings, and acquired peat that was unique in character from a 3,500 acre parcel in the Ardtulla estate at Kintour.
The last batch of spirit to have been made using entirely on-site-peated malt was run in 1974. On-site malting continued for some years after, but similar to Bowmore and Laphroaig, it was supplemented with malt from other sources. The malting barn and one of the old kilns were given a new lease of life, converted into the distillery’s Visitor Centre in 1998.
The result of closing Ardbeg’s maltings was a change in the style and profile of the distillery's whisky, and pre-1974 vintages are incredibly sought after by connoisseurs and collectors alike. For Ardbeg enthusiasts, the end of Ardbeg’s maltings represented the end of ‘old-school’ Ardbeg.
“An example such as the Ardbeg 1974 Cadenhead’s 150th anniversary bottling would likely be expensive anyway today as there are plenty folk now chasing this series. But the added weight of the reputation that 1970s Ardbeg carries makes considerable difference.
This effect is even more pronounced with the 1965 23 year old Mizuhashi bottling: a whisky of profound directness, structure and power. Ardbeg in the 1960s was drier, lighter in peat intensity but purer in its clean and sinewed manifestation of that flavour. This 1965 from Cadenhead is a kind of perfect counterpoint with the flabbier and more rambunctious 1974 150th anniversary bottling, in that both represent the very pinnacle of their respective decades for Ardbeg.”
An extract by Angus MacRaild
from a Whisky Auctioneer news entry: Islay Highlights in November 2019 Auction
The loud fanfare around these legendary bottlings of 1960s and 1970s has only increased with some spectacular scores from respected authorities and whisky reviewers over the years. Finding older Ardbeg however isn’t easy, DCL backed out of the distillery in 1979 (closing many of their other distilleries a few years later), and Hiram Walker then struggled in the 1980s era oversupply when interest in blended Scotch was waning. The distillery was closed from 1981 to 1989, and production continued on only a limited level until 1997.
It's therefore no surprise that those fortunate enough to have discovered and tried some of their earlier distillates savour this old-style of Ardbeg from days gone by. These older whiskies not only offer insight into how Ardbeg used to be produced, but the personalities behind them.
Legendary Ardbeg Expressions
Serge Valentin of WhiskyFun loved this one, awarding it a princely 97 points, stating, "an entrancing simplicity, and one of my favourite whiskies ever."
A rare and desirable Ardbeg, this was distilled in 1965 and drawn from two exceptionally old casks, #3678 and #3679 in 2005. The incredible presentation includes a hand-blown glass bottle with a numbered wax seal, a glass display case with locks and a cleaning set including white cotton gloves.
These 1967 vintage Ardbegs are highly regarded and well known as one of Andrew Symington's favourite parcel of casks.
This particular cask is selected as Serge's favourite on WhiskyFun, receiving a staggering score of 97 points. He had this to say, "…It’s got everything."
Between 1997 and 2000, Ardbeg released four legendary Ardbeg Provenance bottlings all distilled in 1974. These whiskies are highly acclaimed and equally desirable.