Ardbeg - From one era of modernity to another

Casks of Ardbeg distilled in the 1960s and 1970s enjoy an enviable reputation among whisky enthusiasts. Distilled during a period of profound change, they were only revealed to the public—with the exception of a handful of outstanding Italian bottlings—after the distillery’s long period of mothballing in the 1980s and 1990s.

                                                                                                             The distillery


A key turning point in the 1960s-1970s


In 1959, Distillers Company Limited and the Canadian company Hiram Walker bought a large stake in Ardbeg. The rise in demand for peated whisky led to increased production and the distillery was modernized in the 1960s and 1970s, notably spurred on by the arrival of Hamish Scott in 1964. These updates included replacing the worm tub condensers with shell and tube condensers, steam-heating stills rather than coal-firing, swapping brewers’ yeast for distillers’ yeast, and reducing malting times by using heated water.


The whisky this produced was a huge hit with blenders, resulting in Scott being named general manager in 1971 and being tasked with helping increase production. With this came the question of where to source additional volumes of barley malt, until then produced in-house at the distillery. Part of the new supply was acquired from Moray Firth Malting (Inverness) and Scott did his best to mechanize as much of the peat harvest as possible to improve productivity. A bumper crop in 1972 led to particularly high levels of peat in 1973. Conversely, the following season was marked by unpredictable weather and a complete reversal in conditions preventing the use of machinery, leading to low levels of peating in Ardbegs from 1974. 1974 was also the year Ardbeg began using malt from the Port Ellen maltings—an important change in the eyes of aficionados and one which culminated in Ardbeg closing its malting floors in 1977.


Six months after the distillery was bought by Hiram Walker in late 1976, Scott was forced out over major disagreements as to how the distillery should be managed and, more importantly, how the whisky should be made. Scott felt the new owner was sacrificing quality to cut costs, and after comparing Ardbegs from the first half of the 1970s with those of the second half we tend to feel there was some truth in this. In the end it didn’t matter much, however, as Ardbeg was about to close for almost a decade.

                                                                                                   Ardbeg’s warehouses


Mothballing in the 1980s


In 1979, Hiram Walker & Sons bought Distillers Company Limited’s shares for £300,000 and took over the running of Ardbeg. The distillery was closed in 1981 during the first years of the Whisky Loch crisis, a period of disastrous overproduction in the 1980s that led to the closure and mothballing of a great many of Scotland’s distilleries. Ardbeg reopened in 1989 but only intermittently, now under the aegis of Allied Distillers, a subsidiary of Allied Lyons that bought Hiram Walker’s British assets in 1987.


The distillery closed again in 1996, before eventually being bought by The Glenmorangie Company the following year for £7.7 million. After 15 years of closure and intermittent production, Ardbeg was in bad shape. The equipment was either outdated or had been dismantled and harvested to provide spare parts for Allied Distillers’ other property Laphroaig. Glenmorangie invested huge sums in bringing it back to life and modernizing the site, all of which marked the start of a new era.



Liquidating the past and the renaissance of Ardbeg


When Ardbeg reopened, the casks from the 1970s that hadn’t been sold to blenders at the time were still sleeping in the distillery’s warehouses. The 1960s’ casks had already been sold to independent bottlers or blended to produce an Ardbeg 30 Year Old, the last bottling from the Allied Distillers era. It needed to make space, sell the vestiges of its past—a difficult feat due to their age—and balance the cost of updating the distillery. From the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, therefore, the distillery bottled and sold a large number of casks from the 1970s in various markets (France, Italy, Japan, etc.) and to many companies like Velier and Dugas. The Committee, an Ardbeg fan club set up in 2000, and Feis Ile also got their hands on a few single casks. And, finally, there were a number of small batch releases, such as the Provenance range, which featured four Ardbeg 1974 bottlings, and special editions from 1975, 1977 and 1978.


With no young whisky to bottle, the first regular edition from the new owners was an Ardbeg 17 Year Old, a choice forced upon them by the limited stock and one with a limited future. Once production was back in full swing, several editions all distilled in 1998 were released to mark the journey to the first new Ardbeg 10 Year Old in a range named The Peaty Path to Maturity, featuring Very Young, Still Young, Almost There and, finally, Renaissance, the first 10 year old of the Glenmorangie era, foreshadowing the famous Ardbeg Ten.


Though the 1960s and 1970s marked a major turning point in the distillery’s history and style, Whisky Loch put an end to this momentum and in the end it was Glenmorangie that ushered Ardbeg into the modern era, in the process liquidating a heritage that today is highly sought-after by collectors and offers a treasure trove for those taking part in our auctions.





                                                                                                 Ardbeg 1973 Single Cask

                                                                            49.5%, 70cl, 2004, Bourbon Hogshead #1146, 219 bottles


As mentioned above, 1973 was a year all about peat, and this bottling perfectly sets the tone, with powerful notes of peat, smoke, coal and tar. Although salty and medicinal (camphor, eucalyptus), mint and lemon also bring the whisky freshness. There is also a rustic feel similar to the Ardbegs of the 1960s (malt, hay). Finally, the wood add notes of liquorice, bitter almond and spices (white pepper, clove). An outstanding Ardbeg whose austerity and finesse it is impossible not to be impressed by.


                                                                                               Ardbeg 1974 Single Cask

                                                                  52.5%, 70cl, 2006, Bourbon #3309, For La Maison du Whisky, 109 bottles


This 1974 has several things in common with the 1973 we just tasted, starting with the pronounced medicinal feel (camphor, eucalyptus, turpentine, mint). Where it differs, however, is in its gentle sweetness (butter) and notes of Danish pastries (vanilla, marzipan). Elegant notes of precious wood (sandalwood) bring a resinous and waxy character. On the palate, we find notes of liquorice, aniseed, candied citrus fruit (lemon) and that still very sustained woody aspect. The salty and oily finish takes us to the coast. Maintaining the same charm as its predecessor, this 1974 is more forthcoming and a little rounder. We would struggle to choose between the two.


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