Rural Scotland has been proudly nurturing a legend for centuries. It is a lore that tells of the inception of the whisky brand -- ‘Ardbeg’-- in an illicit rocky cove that was once used by smugglers to stock up precious ‘aquavitae’ and its subsequent ascent to glory as ‘the ultimate Islay malt’.
In Gaelic, Ardbeg implies ‘small headland’ and as Barnard enunciates in his book ‘The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom' - Ardbeg was indeed a remote and romantic place ideal for illegal distilling. While pure water oozing out of the verdant hillside made its way to the barrel, the guarded cove made it easier to escape prying eyes and allowed whisky to be easily smuggled out by sea.
Eventually the smugglers had to give up and thereafter, the distillery was established by the McDougall family in 1815.
John McDougal, a farmer by profession and a clan descendent of the Lords of the Isles managed to get a license which helped him to establish Ardbeg as a legitimate commercial distillery. In the same year, Laphroaig also came into existence, a few miles along the same trail.
After a pretty decent start, Ardbeg got a new owner in 1838. A Glasgow-based spirit merchant, Thomas Buchanan acquired the distillery for £1400. However, Alexander McDougal, son of John McDougal continued to manage the operations. In 1853, Alexander passed away and the torch was handed over to Colin Hay and sisters of Alexander-- Margaret and Flora-- who are believed to be the first female distillers of Scotland.
Rise To Prominence
Ardbeg hit the high spot in 1887, when it evolved as the most productive distillery on Islay. Barnard’s account states that the distillery went on to produce an astonishing 250,000 gallons of whisky in a year. What’s even more overwhelming is the fact that at this time around almost one-third of the entire townsfolk started working in the distillery.
In 1911, the name ‘Ardbeg’ was registered as a trademark for the first time. In fact, the brand also registered its iconic brand initial - ‘A’ to protect its reputation. A major reason for which Ardbeg enjoyed continued success during this period was the growing demand for blended ‘Whiskies That Had Several Layers Of Smoke.’
On The Skids
When the war and iconic depression affected the blended whisky market in 1920, the going got tough for Ardbeg-- like most other distilleries. The Hay family grasped the helms tight and steered the business back to profitability, before the license was acquired by Canada-based Hiram Walker and DCL in the year 1959. But this wasn’t going to be the only time it would find itself amidst doldrums!
A steep rise in the demand for peaty whisky translated into growing productivity for Ardbeg in the 1960s and 70s. However, starting from 1974, the demand also forced the distillery to import peated malt from Port Ellen. For the brand aficionados, Ardbeg’s lack of self-sufficiency marked the end of an era. Seven years later, in 1981 – the kilns of Ardbeg got finally snuffed. The closure of the distillery had devastating effects on the local people, owing to the fact that 18 people lost their jobs in the fiasco.
The distillery started once again in 1989 but on an intermittent basis, only to meet the demands of other blenders. But, the resurrection was short-lived. In 1996, the distillery went silent yet again!
Making Up The Leeway
Glenmorangie’s decision to acquire the distillery and all its stock for £7 million in 1997, helped Ardbeg to rise from the ashes. By this time, the brand already held the reputation of being a cult single malt. Thus, Glenmorangie’s objectives were clear. It just had to manage expectations, shell out the remaining stock and start focusing on rebuilding the brand.
Within a year, the distillery made a remarkable comeback. In a strategic move, Glenmorangie unveiled a new café and visitor center which not only helped the distillery to attract 3500 new visitors but also gave it an edge to grab the title of being the ‘Distillery of the Year’.
Today, with a growing global demand, Ardbeg as a brand continues to rule as a cult or perhaps an emotion that inspires a global community – ‘The Committee’ which has more than 120,000 people as members.