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The appeal of Islay and the attraction of Ardbeg

It's easy to see why people fall in love with Ardbeg and its wonderful whisky, finds Sean Murphy

Published: May 18, 2015

It's a Saturday morning and I wake, unusually for me (I'm not a morning person), with child like excitement.

Even having to close the pub last night - I work the occasional shift in the Potstill in Glasgow - and getting to bed at 2am before waking up at 7.30am, hasn't put a dampener on the occasion.

You see I'm going on an adventure.

And not just any adventure, it's almost a sort of pilgrimage.

I'm heading to the spiritual home of whisky, the island of Islay, a place where the story of our national drink may not have began but a place that would definitely feature in the first few chapters of the autobiography of the uisge beatha under 'formative years'.

As everyone knows, if you wish to trace the history of a drink (or spirit if you'll forgive the pun) in any given nation, then you must look to the movement of that nation's holy men.


And while distilling certainly didn't begin on Islay - I won't bore you with the many arguments as to where it did begin - then the cross-pollination of Irish and Scots monks who would have more than likely stopped over on the island when journeying between both countries, would certainly have seen distilling being perfected it there.

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Everything about Islay screams whisky; from the white walled distilleries spotted from ferry decks, to the bags of freshly cut peat that lay by the side of the road and the numerous fields that are perfect for the cultivation of barley. Whisky and the production of it, is everywhere.

It's also key to remember when faced with the abundance of rain on the island, that today's downpour will be tomorrow's whisky and nowhere is that truer than on Islay, with its eight (soon to be nine) distilleries.

When I eventually leave the ferry and travel up the steep road from Port Askaig, I am immediately greeted by a sign for Caol Ila distillery pointing down a little side road. I of course take a right and find myself grinning like a Cheshire cat as I happily snap photographs of the first of the many Islay distilleries.

When I eventually return to the main road it's not long before a second sign for a second distillery appears, this time for Bunnahabhain. Sensibly, I decide I don't have the time, and instead resume my journey to the hotel to get ready for the night's events in Ardbeg distillery.

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I grin as we pass Bowmore, Laphroaig and Lagavulin distilleries on the way to Ardbeg and think to myself, not for the first time, that Islay truly is a wonderful place. At the distillery I'm greeted by Mickey Head, the distillery manager, and surprisingly an Ardbeg mojito - trust me it works. I just about have enough time to grab a quick chat with Mickey before the festivities begin.

photo 2

Luckily, I'm then introduced to Dougie MacTaggart, a native Ileach and tour guide at the distillery, who has some amazing stories surrounding the island.

For instance, did you know that the abundance of Sphagnum moss on Islay helps to flavour the malt almost as much as the briney sea air? Or that the draff produced by the island's distillery is often not used by farmer's for their beef cattle as the peat can affect the flavour of the meat?

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Neither did I and that's what makes trips like this so special, all the studying in the world can't replace the experience of those who live and breath whisky and on Islay, they know whisky.

It's easy to see why people fall in love with Ardbeg - I don't joke when I say it is like a cult - the whisky itself inspires a particular type of devotion, one that would see people travel from all over the world on a busy May weekend just to honour an invite from the distillery team for dinner, indeed as David Whyte, international director for Ardbeg and Glenmorangie, succinctly puts it: "We asked you to come here and you got here by any means possible. Be that ferry, plane or even, I'm sure, by rowboat. Thank you for that."

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The dinner itself is set in spectacular surroundings, the old malting room has been transformed in a modern and beautiful church of Ardbeg, the twin pagoda roofs - the Doig inspired hallmark of most Scottish distilleries - stretch upwards above us and the stone walls have been painted that signature Islay white.

Three long tables fill the room with enough seating for around 60 people and only the lack of a head table facing outwards stops this reminding me of a clan hold of older times where  the clan chief would feast with his kinsmen and family, the comparison is none the less still there.

If there is a chief for the night then that man is most certainly Mickey.

The hallmark of any good chief they say, is his hospitality and judging by the food, atmosphere and whisky being offered, Mickey is clearly a chief of undeniable pedigree.


Clearly at home with his audience, Mickey has the assembled guests laughing at his jokes one minute and enraptured by his stories the next.

As dinner is served he takes the opportunity to thank everyone for coming and offer praise to his staff for their hard work, without which the night or indeed Ardbeg's success, would not be possible.

The food and merriment it seems are merely sideshows when compared to the whisky selection that is soon to be on offer.

Not to be content with the numerous bottles brought to the night by its many attendees, Mickey has chosen some truly spectacular Arbegs with which to offer his guests.

We begin, well at the beginning, our starter is complimented by some surprisingly drinkable Ardbeg new make spirit.

This is quickly followed by the Venison and Turbot mains, and a truly stunning - and I don't say that lightly- 1976 Ardbeg that is all fruit notes complimented by the most wonderfully balanced peat smoke. Like a fire at a fruit and ice cream factory, it is absolutely gorgeous.

"Mickey's 1975"

"Mickey's 1975"

The wonderful Ardbeg Galileo, which tastes like smoked and salted apricots, is next up to perfectly compliment our dessert.

But it is the best that is saved for last and it's with much glee we greet 'Mickey's 1975'.

Imagine if you will, standing in one of Islay's many peat bogs, surrounded by that wonderful salty air while you are fed grapes and strawberries and cream. You still wouldn't be close to just how wonderful this dram was, but you wouldn't be far off.

As the night comes to its inevitable conclusion, Mickey has us toast to another 200 years of Ardbeg with a glass of the excellent new release, Perpetuum.

200 more years? I think as I raise my glass, where do I sign up?

See also:

Meet the distiller: Mickey Heads, Ardbeg distillery

Distillery of the week: Ardbeg distillery, Islay

Driven by a passion for all things drinks-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 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.

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