At least this time I didn’t chunder. You see, the last time our eminent editors sent me on a press trip as the Malt representative, it involved a boat. And I’m really not great with boats. So when checking the itinerary for this whistle-stop visit to Islay to explore the newest of the island’s distilleries, Ardnahoe, just reading the words ‘boat trip’ made this seafaring failure’s stomach churn. Thankfully, this wasn’t the high speed RHIB of the previous jaunt, and I think I was able to disembark in a slightly more dignified manner. Whereas I can accept that two press trips with boats could be a coincidence, if it happens again, I’ll be having words with Mark and Jason.
Without the boat trip, though, it would have been difficult to fully appreciate the location of Islay’s ninth distillery. Situated in the north of the island, between Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain, it’s vying for the top slot in the league of best distillery views. However, this might be about as competitive as it gets between the island’s three most northerly distilleries. Paul Graham, Visitor Centre Operations Manager, explained that the distilleries have recently partnered up to offer the North Islay Whisky Tour, wherein transport, tours and lunch are all provided. This allows visitors to visit all three distilleries in one day. When it comes to bagging the whisky tourists, cooperation is key here. Actually managing to find someone from Diageo to discuss this, let alone agree to it, constitutes an achievement in itself.
As soon as we were back on dry land, we made our way to the distillery, from which it was a short walk to Loch Ardnahoe, the distillery’s water source. Although Ardnahoe has a licence to take 90000 litres of water per day, it doesn’t currently take this much. It manages to reduce its water usage by recycling the water from its worm tubs. Yes, you read that correctly: worm tubs. But more about them later. The soft water is filtered six times before being used in production, and then twice again to be potable.
By reducing its water usage by 18 to 20%, the team behind Ardnahoe is, at least, making some effort to limit the distillery’s impact on the environment. With Elixir Distillers having submitted plans to build a distillery in the south of the island, together with the resurrection of Port Ellen (where Ardnahoe’s barley is currently malted; how this will change once it is resurrected is not yet known), a lot has already been said and written about the environmental consequences that three new distilleries will have on Islay, and rightly so: it is a major concern. The distilleries do, of course, provide employment and attract tourists (and, hence, money), but only time will tell as to what the real cost to the island will be. What is certain is that making whisky is in the Queen of the Hebrides’ DNA and, whilst the Scotch whisky industry is currently enjoying this boom period, and whilst Islay whisky maintains its cult status, capitalising on this was always inevitable. As much as we love the spirit of whisky—both liquid and community—let’s not forget that it is, first and foremost, big business.
The first runs of distillation at Ardnahoe commenced in October last year, with the first cask filled on the ninth of November. Both the shape and size of the stills were determined by Jim McEwan, who was lured out of retirement to help establish Islay’s newest distillery. Made by the Speyside Copper Works, and taking 14 months (the current waiting time for Forsyths is four years), the stills are reported to have the longest lyne arms in Scotland by approximately 8 ½ inches. These have been designed in this way to negate any heaviness in the spirit caused by those worm tubs.
Did I mention the worm tubs? Although less efficient and more costly to maintain, there are a small number of distilleries in Scotland using them, and those at Ardnahoe are the only ones in use on Islay. In fact, on arrival at Ardnahoe, the worm tubs are the first things you see. For those who recognise them for what they are, they instantly convey authenticity and credibility. For those who don’t, they add to the sense of intrigue. With this current mushroom growth of new distilleries, this makes a change from the usual feelings of doubt and scepticism that arise when the new kids on the block (or, in this case, island) appear. Maintaining the balance of tradition and heritage of Scotch whisky whilst never pretending to be anything other than a new distillery is as important for whisky tourism as it is for whisky production. Tip the balance, and people will see straight through it.
The spirit itself, peated to 40ppm, has a honey sweetness with a slightly oily mouthfeel and a sooty, almost tobacco smoke, note into the finish. A sample of the spirit which had been in its cask for a mere three months, filled at receiver strength, demonstrated that sooty, smoky finish even more. If its precocious complexity is even only partly due to the use of worm tubs, then consider me a ‘worm tub lover’. And if that’s not a t-shirt available to buy in the visitor centre, the Ardnahoe team is missing a trick.
During the tour of the distillery itself, the washback room evoked childhood memories of the scrumpy farms my sister and I would have to go to with my father. Paul suggested that there was a distinct smell of perry, but for me, it was scrumpy all the way. The fermentation time at Ardnahoe is between 65 to 70 hours and, by affording it that extra 10 to 20 hours, those fruit flavours are allowed to intensify.
Despite such a promising young spirit, the Laing family has indicated that it has no intention of releasing a three-year-old whisky. Their business plan precludes that necessity, and brothers Andrew and Scott have made it clear that the first Ardnahoe release will be led by quality; they are not required to release a whisky by a certain time.
According to its website, a proportion of the Ardnahoe spirit is matured at the distillery on Islay, absorbing the particularly maritime atmosphere and adding an extra element of “terroir”. Whereas this isn’t exactly untrue, it is a tad misleading. Currently, the only casks maturing at the Ardnahoe site are those purchased by private customers. The other casks (the majority of which are first fill ex-bourbon barrels from Jim Beam; around 20% are ex-oloroso sherry hogsheads) are destined for maturation on the mainland at a facility in East Kilbride as well as at other future, possibly coastal, locations. Will the distillery expand its warehousing on the island? The Laing family has said that they are not dismissing this as a possibility for the future. Once again, only time will tell.
For those interested in purchasing a private cask, a 200-litre ex-bourbon cask would set you back £7000. Whereas the Laing family had no need to sell casks privately in order to generate cash flow, the opportunity to sell casks of Islay whisky was always going to be too good an opportunity to miss. So can we assume that, as an Islay distillery, the purchase of an Ardnahoe private cask carries a premium? Absolutely. Should it? Well, that’s a whole other article.
Admittedly, it’s difficult to keep track of all the distilleries which have either recently opened or which are about to start production. It’s also easy to dismiss new projects with the ‘not another Scotch whisky distillery’ non-argument. Yet as whisky enthusiasts, we should be celebrating new distilleries rather than giving them the cold shoulder. For sure, some will disappear and not last the distance. As with all businesses, it’s survival of the fittest and, ultimately, it will be the quality of the whisky which determines each new distillery’s fitness. My tasting of Ardnahoe’s new make and three-month-old spirit suggests that it’s already in pretty good shape; the latter was nothing less than a revelation. Here’s hoping it goes from strength to strength.
Full transparency: the press trip organised by Steely Fox included flights to Islay, lunch, dinner, a plentiful supply of whisky and an overnight stay at The Machrie. Transport to Glasgow and an overnight stay at the airport were at my own expense. Photographs kindly provided by Mark from Islay Studios.