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Whisky at Hallowe’en
As the Scottish winter creeps ever closer, the time has come again for us to bar our doors against the vile and twisted creatures of the night, soon to wake from their unnatural slumber on All Hallows Eve. Naturally, such an occasion calls for the very stiffest of drinks and this year, I’ll be looking towards Ardbeg distillery for my dose of Scotch courage.
Scotland is a country with a long and oftentimes dark history, but the Isle of Islay, in spite of its relatively small size, seems to have more than its fair share of tales to tell. A small island off the western coast, Islay has a population of just 3000 people but it is a land abundant with spirit, in more ways than one.
Ardbeg stands on a remote rocky coast to the south of the island. Dating from 1815, it is one of the oldest distilleries on Islay and produces a boldly flavoured, heavily peated spirit. It has, however, also been the site of many a strange tale over the years, the telling of which could make the blood of even the hardiest soul run icy cold.
Years ago, on a bitter October evening, a pair of mainlanders working at the distillery were forced to leave their posts and head into the cold night air to investigate a blockage in the water supply. Cautiously making their way up the hill, their lanterns flickering in the wind, the men huddled together for reassurance against the great unknown of the surrounding hillside as it was slowly swallowed up by the blackness of night.
Ardbeg had long since been drawing its water from Loch Uigeadail, the ‘dark and mysterious place’ and it was in that direction the two men headed. As they drew near the eerie place known as ‘Airigh Nam Beist‘, where the ruin of some ancient croft lay crumbling in the mud, the men froze in terror as a hideous shriek pierced the night air. For what must have seemed an eternity, they stood in total silence, daring not even to breathe in case they should alert whatever demonic thing could have produced such a sound.
As the moments passed and all remained still, they slowly regained their composure and decided to carry on with the task at hand. Creeping forward, they rounded a broken wall and were confronted with the most dreadful stench. Covering his mouth to stop from wretching, the most advanced of the men took a step forward but was stopped by an inhuman grunting, coming from the direction of the stream that lay to his left. Peering into the darkness, he could just make out a black form, struggling in the sticky peat-bog by the waters edge. Assuming it to be some pitiful, half-dead cow, the man placed his lantern on the ground and tentatively reached into the darkness to aid the poor beast. When his hand found its intended target however, he knew in an instant that it was no cow. The hide was covered in a thick fur, broken intermittently by patches of scaly skin. At his touch, the beast recoiled and let out an angry bellow, the likes of which could drive any man mad. It drew itself up to a height of well over eight feet and loomed over the poor man as he cowered in the soaking mud. He closed his eyes in preparation for the end but was saved by the quick thinking of his colleague, who hurled his lantern as hard as he could against the great body of the thing.
As the lantern struck home and flame exploded from its casing, the great beast howled in rage before pulling itself free and disappearing in the direction of the Loch. Fearing it might return at any moment, the men fled downhill towards the distillery, barring the doors and windows upon their arrival. Pouring themselves a drink in order to calm their shattered nerves, the men resolved to tell their co-workers the full story in the morning.
Many scoffed in their face of course, taking the scent of Ardbeg on their breath as all the evidence that was required, but others were less dismissive. Some nodded solemnly as the two men, clearly still shaken, recounted their terrible tale and one, long in the tooth and nearing the end of his working life, told them it was not the first time he had heard such things. He could even translate for them, the name of the ruined croft where they faced their demon just a few hours before. Airigh Nam Beist – Shelter of the Beast.
*A version of this story was first shared by Ardbeg upon the release of their Airigh Nam Beist single malt, then covered further in Robin Laing’s ‘Whisky Legends of Islay’ book. Here, I have deployed a little artistic license in order to give my own spin on the story.
Ardbeg Uigeadail is bottled at 54.2% alcohol by volume and retails in the UK for around £60 a bottle.
Smell: Caramel, Golden Syrup, Honey, Chocolate Oranges, Vanilla, Pepper and thick, acrid Bonfire Smoke.
Taste: Orange Liqueur and Sultana Cake, Nutmeg, Clove and Ginger, lots of Woody Smoke and a wonderfully silky texture on the palate.
Thoughts: Rare and old Ardbegs can go for very silly amounts of money but their core range offers some of the best bang for your buck drams on the market, so long as you can tolerate the lack of an age statement. Uigeadail, however, is easily one of their most popular offerings. With good reason too, as the combination of that strong sherry influence with the thick Islay smoke is an absolute winner. For my taste, I still think Corryvreckan is the best version but Uigeadail isn’t far behind. It is a phenomenal single malt and a price of £60 isn’t unreasonable for such quality.
*If the whisky reviewed in this article has caught your eye, you can buy it from Master of Malt here. Please be aware that as an affiliate I can be paid a small commission on any purchases you make after following links from my page. The whisky is also available from several other excellent retailers.