The McDougall brothers built a distillery at Ardbeg Farm in 1798 with the help a few local farmers. They chose a site on the south-eastern shore of Islay, a few kilometres from the village Port Ellen. Ardbeg did not run a commercial business until 1815, the year Ardbeg officially was founded.
I the middle 1880s, the distillery was run successfully by two McDougall sisters. At that time, the distillery actually had 60 employees, as opposed to today’s 10. In the end of the 19th century Ardbegs annual production exceeded 1 million litres of whisky.
The distillery was owned by the McDougall family until 1959, when Ardbeg Distillery Ltd was formed. In 1973, the distillery passed on to the newly formed Ardbeg Distillery Trust for £300 000. The distillery was later included in Allied Distillers together with many other distilleries. In 1981 the distillery was closed down since they believed they had enough whisky stored to be able to meet future demand. Additionally, Allied Distilleries also owned Laphroaig, which produces a similar whisky. Eighteen jobs disappeared due to the closedown. Allied Distillers decided to re-open the distillery in 1989, but it was only run at half capacity.
In 1996, Allied Distilleries decided to sell Ardbeg. There was no lack of interested parties, and the purchase finally went to Glenmorangie PLC for £7 million. Of the sum obtained from the sale, the Ardbeg brand name counted for £300 000. Glenmorangie quickly spent quite a bit of money (£1.4 million) in order to get the distillery up-and-running. The new owners realized the importance of continuing the Ardbeg craftsmanship which is so important to the whisky’s flavour. In 2000 the distillery launched the Ardbeg Committee, which has a free membership. Through the association, its members receive news and special offers. The Ardbeg Committee has members in more than 90 countries.
The distillery recently released a new bottling, Very Young Ardbeg, the first since Glenmorangie PLC took over the business. The Ardbeg Committee has added it to their list of ‘committee approved bottling’ with the statement ‘…a vigorous whisky on its way to full maturity’.
Production at Ardbeg
The water used comes from the lake Loch Uigeadail, which also has lent its name to Ardbegs latest bottling. The water in Loch Uigeadail is soft and very peaty. Ardbeg used to malt all its barley themselves until 1973 when they started buying 30% of their barley from Port Ellen Maltings. Since the re-opening in 1989, Ardbeg buys all their malt from Port Ellen Maltings. The malt used for Ardbeg is widely considered to be the most peat-smoked in all of Scotland. However, Bruichladdich claim they are producing a whisky which will be even smokier than Ardbeg.
The mash tuns are made from stainless steel and contain 4.5 tons each. The six washbacks are made from larch and pinewood. Ardbeg has two Onion Stills; the wash still holds 21 000 litres and the spirit still holds 17 000 litres. Ardbegs spirit still has a so called ‘purifier’ at the end, which re-distils the alcohol. Up until 1974 the whisky was stored in warehouses right by the shoreline, supposedly adding a touch of salt and tang to the whisky. Today, the whisky is stored on-site in four traditional warehouses. The bottling is done in Broxbury just outside Edinburgh.
Ardbeg produced 550 000 litres in 1999. In 2003 that amount had almost doubled to 1 million litres.
Port Ellen, Isle of Islay,
Argyll PA42 7EA
Phone: +44 (0) 1496 302 244
Manager: Stuart Thomson
Visitors: Ardbeg receive their visitors in a modern visitors’ centre. They have regular guided tours priced at £2.50, which you get back when you make a purchase over £17. They have a large, popular café with some local dishes seasoned with whisky. The shop adjacent to the café has a large selection of whisky, clothes, glasses etc.