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The Heart of the Community
Ardbeg distillery was legally established in 1815 by John McDougall. A small community grew around the distillery with housing, a hall, greenhouses, a school and a bowling green to support some 60 employees. The distillery would remain in the McDougall family for many years.
Ardbeg enjoyed early success. The Inverness Courier of 16th May 1822 reported that the distillery had produced 4,183 gallons between 21 November 1820 and 21 November 1821.
An article in the same newspaper, dated Thursday 17 January 1850, read:
“The trade in whisky, the great staple commodity of this island, is at present in a most flourishing state. The distillers are hard at work, day and night, keeping up the supplies for the market; and it may safely be estimated that not less than ten thousand gallons are exported every week. The whole is sent to Glasgow…. From the distillery at Ardbeg alone two thousand four hundred gallons were lately shipped, a quantity sufficient to enable no small portion of the “Glasgow bodies” to “drive dull care away”, at the commencement of the new year.“
It seems we Glaswegians have always had an affinity for the smokier side of the Scotch whisky spectrum.
Distilleries occupied a role central to the entire community in those days. In January of 1898, Alexander McDougall & Co, owner of Ardbeg distillery, distributed a supply of coals to “80 poor persons” that resided in the village of Port Ellen. Can anyone imagine current owner Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH) heating the island’s poor during a harsh winter? And Islay winter’s can be very harsh indeed. In 1893 a young crofter by the name of John Morrison went missing after collecting draff from Ardbeg. Upon reaching Port Ellen he sent his brother home with the cart and went for a drink. That evening a fearsome storm blew in. Morrison left the inn at 10pm but never made it home. His body was discovered near the Port Ellen pier three days later.
Even today, distillery closures can have a devastating impact on a community. The whisky loch of the 1980s saw Hiram Walker halt all production at Ardbeg. Though the stills were fired up intermittently in the years that followed, the distillery fell into ruin. Help eventually came in the form of Glenmorangie plc who took over the running in 1996. Production resumed and investment brought significant upgrades to the site. Soon, the parent company was bought over by LVMH, reframing this once-destitute distillery as the producer of a so-called luxury product.
In my opinion, Ardbeg’s core range of single malts is as strong as you’ll find in Scotland. This is helped by the standard bottling strength of 46% and a policy of natural colour and zero chill-filtration. The news that a new permanent release is to be added to the lineup can sometimes raise an eyebrow in the concern that standards won’t be maintained.
That said, I soon got excited when I learned that the new release was to be a 5-year-old, described as the rawest, smokiest Ardbeg yet. We all know how good Islay whisky can be at a young age and the idea of Ardbeg indulging its wilder nature had me hook, line and sinker.
The 5-year-old Wee Beastie is matured in a combination of ex-bourbon and ex-oloroso casks before bottling at 47.4%. It retails for around £40 a bottle.
Smell: I would think most people would have a reasonable idea what to expect from an Ardbeg whisky called Wee Beastie. It’s not going to be subtle, is it? The nose is particularly pungent with plenty of medicinal peat. There’s also seaweed and brine. Seashells and sandy beaches. It also has a nice malty backbone and a touch of lemony freshness. Wee touch of liquorice too.
Taste: Wonderfully rich. You get a touch of that oloroso on the arrival with some dried fruits and winter spices. The peat smoke, whilst obvious, isn’t quite as dominant as on the nose. It’s there, but it hangs back until the finish when it comes into its own and then seems to build and build. You also get some more of that lovely malt character and a wee touch of charcoal along with honey, aniseed, dark chocolate and pepper.
Thoughts: I think I’m in love. The Wee Beastie is one of the best new releases from Islay in years. Who cares if it’s young. That just adds to its power. The bottling strength of 47.4% is excellent too because it delivers the full intensity of flavour without ever singeing the tongue like some cask strength drams can. The nose is coastal, the palate carries a little more of the sherry character. The whole package, priced under £40 in the UK, is an excellent purchase.
Intense, robust, uncompromising, complex, balanced. Throw all the cliches at it because they will all stick. Quite simply a wonderful whisky and an absolute bargain.
You can buy Ardbeg 5-year-old Wee Beastie from Master of Malt. Please be aware that as an affiliate I can be paid a small commission on any purchase you make from links on my page. Other retailers are available.
For more on Ardbeg visit here.