We took a recent trip to Islay, for an event at Ardbeg distillery (write up to follow) and we were lucky enough to meet the absolute gentleman that is Mickey Heads, distillery manager at Ardbeg. He took some time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for us.

What is it do you think, that makes Ardbeg so special?

Lots of different things. Where we are really helps, Islay is such a wonderful place. Also there can’t be many places that have two hundred years of experience to draw upon.

The growth of the the whisky industry over the past decade or so has also meant we can reach so many more people and thankfully, people seem to like what we do.

We have a huge following and it’s growing all of the time, which we are really proud of.

Ardbeg produce mainly limited runs; was that a decision Ardbeg made at the time or by constrictions on production? 

I think it was at the start. When Glenmorangie took over in 1997 a lot of the bottlings that came out were of older stock. The first bottling that came out was the 17-year-old and that became an instant classic. Then we had the Lord of the Isles and some of the other limited editions that came out and that was the stuff that we had from the warehouse.

When we were starting off, we had to look at business ten years down the line. So we had to release our stock with that in mind. So it was just one of those things but luckily for us, Ardbeg really caught the imagination of people.

Picture: Wikimedia

Picture: Wikimedia

Are you surprised by the success Ardbeg has had? 

It’s always nice to get recognition, we’ve always said that it is important that we maintain the quality of the whisky. I think that’s always been a part of it, people know that when they are buying a bottle of Ardbeg they will be getting the best quality whisky that we can provide.

Do you have a favourite Ardbeg expression? 

I get asked this quite alot. (he laughs) If I’m looking for a dram on a Saturday night then it has to be the Uigeadail. For something a little more special then I have two I like – I loved the 1977 vintage and also the Alligator. The Alligator was a style that just fitted us really well.

What’s it like having one of the greatest jobs in the world? 

It’s great to have and I’m quite lucky. I was born three miles from here and when I came back and got the chance to run Ardbeg. I enjoy it, it’s hard work don’t get me wrong but I have a good team of people around me, which also helps to make it the amazing job that it is.

Islay is such a close knit community, do the distilleries on the island help each other out? 

We do try to help one another out. You know everybody and if something goes wrong and somebody phones up and says ‘this has packed in’ or ‘we’ve run out of this have you got this?’

We’ll always say ‘yeah come on in and we’ll get you going.’

That’s the way it should be, we are an island community and you can’t just run down the road and buy supplies.

What do you think makes Islay such a special region for whisky? 

Islay if you like, is the Queen of the Hebrides and is one of the better islands for farming and so they had the raw materials. They had the water, the peat – which was the fuel – and you had the knowledge of distilling brought here by monks travelling the West Coast.

It sort of grew from there and we gained this reputation for producing a great peated spirit. Although we have got something for everybody with the other two distilleries as well, peated whisky is what the island is recognised for.

Over the last 25 years, people have really taken to that peat flavour, they grow an attachment to it and I think most importantly they like coming here to the island. We always give a warm welcome and they are happy to come back, they feel a part of what is going on here.

The fact we have eight distilleries here just now at the moment who are thriving, has also been great for the island. With the transport, hotels and restaurants, everyone gets a boost.

What have you noticed have been the biggest changes to the island? 

Well when I first started, nearly 35 years ago now, it was very different, I mean we didn’t have so many visitors coming round.

You just got on with the job and working in the still houses when I started off doing distillation, you didn’t see many visitors, but that sort of changed in the 90’s but it’s been great for the island.

The whole place has a buzz about it now. Whisky is such a huge part of Islay. It brings people from all over the world here which is great to have.

What about production techniques, with the advances in cask management and such? 

Wood is an important part of it for us as it imparts about 15 per cent of the flavour.

With everyone now doing so well, good wood is in great demand. So we have to look at it carefully to ensure we get the best casks available. The cost of wood in the year is pretty high but we need it because ten years down the line we want to still be producing the same quality of whisky with the same great character, and wood management plays a huge part in that.

Do you find that picking casks is becoming increasingly important for Ardbeg and in the role you do?

For us, you are always looking to try and find the best casks, you know everyone is looking for something new nowadays. We have our backbone of the core three expressions (10-year-old, Ugeadail and Corryvreckan) but we are always looking to do something new or interesting with our Ardbeg day releases and limited editions, because that’s we are famous for. We like to keep our signature style of course but creating something new and unique is what we enjoy doing.

It’s great when everyone always asks us: “What’s the next bottling? What will it taste like?”

To have that enthusiasm about our whisky is fantastic, it keeps us on our toes.

Picture: Wikimedia

Picture: Wikimedia

Ardbeg are known as the great innovators, always looking to do something different, is it hard for you to keep ahead of the game and change up the creative process? 

The most important thing for us is the consistency, you know? We have to keep getting that great new make into the cask. We want to do new things but keep the classic Ardbeg style in there as well. It’s interesting coming up with ideas and it’s not just us, guys like Bill Lumsden are helping with input too. It’s a big melting pot of experience and ideas, looking for that next big eureka moment.

If you are looking to try a malt that’s not from Ardbeg, what’s it going to be? 

I’m from Islay – the first two whiskies I tasted was 10 year-old Ardbeg and 10 year-old Laphroaig – so you know I always enjoy a peated whisky but it’s nice to try different malts as well. I like Glenmorangie obviously, I like what they do with their range and I like some of the Speysides as well.

It always helps the creative process to look at what everyone else is doing, though as Ardbeg is so unique, something that works elsewhere might not work with us.

What’s the future for Ardbeg?

Big investment, new equipment, new infrastructure. If we keep going the way we are going then the future’s bright for Ardbeg.

 

About The Author

Sean Murphy

Driven by a passion for all things whisky-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over six years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink.

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