Ardbeg Distillery – The Making of an Untamed Spirit

Ardbeg Distillery

After our fantastic Laphroaig tour, we moved on to the next distillery along the coast. Ardbeg distillery is yet another famous Islay powerhouse that produces excellent whisky! It used to be known as the “smokiest whisky”, but in recent years, the title belongs to Bruichladdich’s Octomore series. Nonetheless, many whisky lovers still refer to Ardbeg as the “smokiest whisky” because they think that Octomore is more peaty than smoky!

What’s famous at Ardbeg?

Ardbeg distillery is not only famous for its whisky. It is also renowned for its food. The haggis, nips and tatties came highly recommended, as well as some of their other food choices. We decided to have lunch there before we went for the tour. It was the perfect decision. The food was amazing! You would, however, had to go there to find out just how good they were!

A short walk around the distillery

Ardbeg building behind the visitor centre

After lunch, we took a quick walk-around at the distillery while waiting for our tour to start. We found this quaint building at the back of the visitor centre, with chairs fashioned out of casks. It took a lot of patience to take a photo without someone sitting on those chairs! We wished that we could take those chairs home with us though; they would look grand at my home bar!

Starting the Ardbeg Tour

Ardbeg Bus

All tours at Ardbeg began in the area outside of the visitor centre, where a big Ardbeg bus stood. A child had cheekily placed his bike in the middle while he ran around. Our friendly guide came promptly at the start of the journey. After giving us a safety briefing, she took us back into the visitor centre where we gathered again under the Ardbeg signage for a headcount.

Once everyone was accounted for, we were off to the second floor, and into the actual distillery!

Step 1: Grinding of Barley

Barley

Ardbeg does not have a malting floor of their own. They buy customised malted barley (Concerto, smoked to 55ppm) from Port Ellen Maltings. Each batch of malted barley (30 tons) arrives at the distillery each week, and the malting team at the distillery grinds them into grist, husks and flour.

Bobby Mill

Say hello to the Bobby mill of Ardbeg. It is the machine that grinds the barley. There are only 4 Bobby Mills in Scotland. The four distilleries that have them are Ardbeg, Ardnahoe, Bruichladdich and Glen Scotia. The machine mills five tons of barley in each run. The team runs the mill for three to five seconds before catching a sample to weight and check if they got it right. The mill runs for 16 to 17 times in a week. The barley is grounded to 70% grist, 20% husk and 10% flour. The Bobby mill is a manual machine. The team depends on experience to know how long to run the mill as there is no control panel.

Fun Fact: Ardbeg bought their Bobby mill in 1921 at GBP300 as a secondhand! Imagine how much the Bobby mill will cost today!

Step 2: Mash House

Mash Tun

After visiting the relic that is the Bobby mill, we proceeded to the Mash House, where we got into more action. The mash house is the location where the team produces baby whisky. To extract the sugar from the barley, the mashing team puts the barley into the mash tun and adds three steams of hot peated water to it. The first steam of water (17.5 thousand litres) is at 68 degrees C. The water sits in the mash tun for 15 minutes to fully extract the sugar before draining. The second steam of water, also at 68 degrees C, goes in after, and flows out immediately to join the first steam. The last steam of water at 80 degrees C. removes the last bit of sugar available in the barley. It is also drained immediately.

Washback

The liquid at the end of this process is no longer ordinary peated water. It has become wort or sugar water. The team cooled the wort to 18 degrees C before pumping it into the washback. Once ready for fermentation, the wort received 22.5 tons of yeast. Ardbeg sets fermentation at 55 hours in the summer, and 56 to 58 hours in other seasons. The long fermentation allows for flavours to form, but the process is exceptionally smelly!

Yeast in Action

The end product of the fermentation process is known as the wash. The wash is technically a beer. It needs to go through the next step to become the clear liquid we know as new make.

Step 3: Distillation

The Ardbeg Stills

The next step is the distillation, of course! 11.5 thousand litres of wash charges into the wash still at each run and undergo the first distillation. The interesting fact about this process is that the still actually can hold up to 18 thousand litres, but Ardbeg only charged 11.5 thousand litres into the still for every distillation. After the first distillation, the low wines (from the wash still) go into the spirits still for the second distillation.

Ardbeg cuts the heart of the spirit at between 73% abv to 69% abv. Anything above 73% abv is the head, and those below 69% abv is the tail. The head and tail will join the next charge of the wash in the wash still.

Step 4: Maturation

All new-make needs to mature three years in oak casks before they can be called whisky. Unfortunately, we were not able to see the warehouse at Ardbeg due to renovation. However, our guide brought us out of the distillery to enjoy some excellent views!

View from Ardbeg distillery

She also showed us the new building that will house the new Ardbeg stills at the distillery when the renovation completes. There will be four new stills at Ardbeg, and the two old stills will be melted. The new stills will double the production of Ardbeg whisky from 1.4 million litres a year to 2.8 million litres. Our guide shared that the distillery hopes the increased production will eventually push prices down for their whisky so that more people can enjoy the goodness of Ardbeg.

Step 5: Tasting

The tour group returned to the visitor centre, where we entered the bar located next to the cafe. Our guide ushered us into a secret room at the back, and when all of us were comfortably seated, she told us that we would be getting a dram from a choice of five bottles.

Available choices

If you are disappointed, please don’t think that Ardbeg is stingy. We went for their regular tour, and not the warehouse tour, which means that we only get one dram each. Both of us chose the Ardbeg Drum because we had all the other expressions before. The Ardbeg Drum reminded me of pineapples, which was stunning for us! Our guide stayed with us, and we had a wonderful time chit-chatting. Towards the end of the session, we even laughed at the expense of others when our guide shared her stories of how people mispronounced distillery names!

Before we went off, I managed to take a photo of Shortie, Ardbeg’s mascot!

Shortie!

Shortie belonged to one staff member of Ardbeg. He was always naughty and ran around the distillery looking for treats. As a result, the distillery decided to name Shortie the mascot for Ardbeg. Even though he was no longer around, his spirits lived on in every person at Ardbeg distillery!

 

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    Laphroaig Distillery – The Controversial Islay

    Laphroaig Distillery

    Laphroaig distillery is home to the world-famous whisky of the same name. It is a whisky that causes heated debates over how it tasted, and can seriously make one person look demented in the eyes of another. However controversial the whisky may appear to taste, Laphroaig distillery is a place that excites whisky drinkers all over the world.

    Entrance to Laphroaig Visitor Centre

    We visited Laphroaig Distillery on a sunny morning for a tour and tasting. Having a driver who used to work at Laphroaig Distillery as a Stillman made it extra special for us as our dear driver introduced us to everyone at the visitor centre! We arrived earlier than expected, and excitedly, try to explore the little museum located at the visitor centre. It is a small area detailing the history of Laphroaig, as well as providing some explanation to what peat is.

    Peat Explained

    Laphroaig Distillery Tour

    After going through the museum, we met our tour guide for the day and started our tour.

    Step 1: Malting Floor

    Malting Floor

    Laphroaig malts some of their barley at the distillery and buys the rest of them from Port Ellen Malting. The first step of malting barley is naturally seeping them in water. Barley seeped in water for roughly 48 hours. The time depends on the temperature and how fast the barley reacts as the barley needs to get a moisture content of 45% before they are used in the next step.

    The team at the malting hall changes the water regularly to keep the water fresh. Draining the water also helps to allow the barley to breathe before refilling it to continue the seeping process. Once the barley is ready, they will be spread onto the floor. The ideal temperature during the germination is about 18 degrees C to make sure that the barley is ready for the kiln. However, due to weather changes, the distillery needs to monitor the temperature carefully and make changes when necessary. In cold weather, the team keeps the barley warm by closing the windows; in hot weather, the windows are opened to keep the barley cool and well-ventilated.

    During germination, the team works hard to keep the barley fresh by turning them regularly. The process helps to ventilate the barley and prevent them from sticking to one another. It also allows the barley to breathe and germinate properly. During the tour, the guide allowed everyone to help turn the barley using a shovel that they kept to the malting floor. We were very excited to try that as it would be the first time that we get to do it!

    Turning the Barley!

    Here we were! Holding the shovel for the first time, and scooping barley in the attempt to turn it! It was great fun, honestly, with every one of us making a pose for pictures and videos! The barley germinates better with the regular turning, and soon, it would be ready for milling before moving on to the next step.

    Step 2: The Kiln and Smoking

    The germinated barley needs to be dried to stop the growth and make it useful for whisky-making. Maltsers transferred the barley to the kiln when it is ready. The kiln is responsible for both the smoking and drying of the barley. They do the two processes separately. Smoking using peat takes about 12 hours while the drying time depends on the moisture content. The team needs to dry the barley down to 2% moisture.

    The place the barley rest on

    To smoke and dry the barley, the team sends the barley to this “resting floor” above the kiln. The guide took us in to take a look and also to have a feel of getting smoked! The germinated barley gets spread out on the floor before they lit the fire below for the smoking and drying process.

    The Kiln

    This is the kiln at Laphroaig. As it was one of the slower periods in whisky-making, we got a chance to see the kiln when it was not in use. The team will pile peat into the kiln, light it up, and the smoke that rises will reach the floor above where the barley lies. As mentioned earlier, the smoking process takes 12 hours. After that, drying takes place. As mentioned earlier, the distillery takes part of its malted barley from Port Ellen Malting. We understood from our guide that the malt from Port Ellen is around 40-45ppm while the malts from Laphroaig is around 50-55ppm. To achieve an average, the distillery mixes the two malts to get a good balance.

    Peat Lesson

    An Aside: Peat at Laphroaig

    Our knowledgeable guide also worked us through a lesson on peat on Islay as well, explaining how Laphroaig cuts its peat.

    We learned that peat location plays a big part in the kind of peat smoke the distillery wanted. Islay peat is the product of salt-sprayed heather, ferns, gorse, sphagnum moss, moorland grass and seaweed. The combination gives Laphroaig its signature salty, medicinal and coastal notes that creates controversial reactions all over the world. The distillery owns peat beds on the east shores of Loch Indaal, near to the Islay airport. The team looks after the peat beds, making sure that they are in the right conditions for the cutting which is usually done between April to September every year.

    Laphroaig distillery is the last distillery on Islay that is still hand-cutting its peat. Usually, hand-cut peat is wet enough to make lots of smoke, which is perfect for Laphroaig.

    Step 3: Mashing and Fermentation

    We moved on to the mash house, where our guide treated us to more information about the whisky-making process. The mash tun gets three lots of water to extract the sugar from the malted barley. The first lot of water is at 63 degrees C; the second lot at 80 degrees C, and the last lot at 90 degrees C. The first and second lot of water move to the washbacks, while the last lot of water goes back to the mash tun as the first lot of water for the next mash. The sugary liquid, or wort, then cools to about 19 degrees C and moves to the stainless steel washbacks.

    Washback

    Laphroaig used liquid yeast, and the team adds it to the wort in the washback. Fermentation happens, and it yields a low wine (beer) at roughly 8.5% abv. Again, we were excited when our guides offered to let us taste the low wine!

    My cup of Laphroaig “beer.”

    Laphroaig also makes excellent “beer”! It is slightly peaty and smokey, coupled with plenty of sweetness. In my opinion, it tasted even better than the one we had at Kilchoman! Considering that I dislike Laphroaig, I believe I would instead drink its beer (if the distillery ever decides to release one)!

    Step Four: Distillation

    Spirits Still (four in the back); Wash Still (in the foreground)

    Our group trotted to the Still House like a bunch of eager children who had been promised chocolates. Once there, we wowed over the seven stills standing proudly in front of us. There are three wash stills and four spirits stills. Each wash still holds 10,400 litres, while the spirits stills vary in their volume.

    Spirit Safe

    The first distillation through the wash still increases the alcohol percentage from 8.5% abv to around 20-25% abv. The lyne arms slope upwards to get more reflux, which helps to increase the strength of the distilled spirit. The second distillation goes through the spirits stills and alcohol percentage goes up to above 80% abv. Laphroaig takes the cut of the heart between 78% to 62%.

    Step Five: Maturation

    Whisky cannot be whisky if it is not matured for a minimum of three years in Scotland. We headed off to the warehouse once we completed the still house tour.

    Laphroaig Warehouse

    A quick look at the warehouse showed rows and rows of casks lying in the dark and moist environment, waiting for their turn to shine as whisky in a prized bottle. As our tour was a cask strength whisky-tasting tour, we knew what laid ahead.

    The Best Treat at Laphroaig

    Our guide finally bought us to a low-lying warehouse where we see three casks waiting for us. Our group sat down and waited with bated breath as our guide explained the procedure of tasting the three cask-strength whiskies and how we should bottle our favourite into the glass bottles provided. The three casks consisted of a bourbon barrel, a Manzanilla Sherry butt and a Fino Sherry butt.

    Our guide showing us how to draw whisky from the cask

    We were all given a taste of the three casks, and then our guide waited for us to decide on the whisky that we wanted to bottle. Some of the participants rushed to the casks, but we took some time to decide. Our final choices were the bourbon barrel and the Manzanilla Sherry butt.

    The Final Look

    Bottling took longer than expected due to the crowd in our group, but we finally got our hands on the finished products! The above picture showed my bottle nicely sitting inside a beautiful package. Sadly, the box did not survive the flight back, and we had to throw it away in Edinburgh. Nonetheless, the bottle and the glass survived!

    Friends of Laphroaig

    Back at the visitor centre, we claimed our rental for the plot of land that we “own” on Laphroaig’s peat bed. While we did not have time to visit our little plot, it was good to get our rental “payment” of it.

    Our rental payment

    If you are a friend of Laphroaig, remember to claim your rent at the visitor centre when you visit the distillery. It is available once a year and if you are lucky to visit them every year, claim it! We moved on to the next distillery soon after our tour as we were on a tight schedule, but Laphroaig distillery truly gave me one of the best distillery tours on Islay.

     

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      Kilchoman Distillery – The Farmhouse

      Kilchoman Distillery

      Two team members from WhiskyGeeks went on an Islay-centric Scotland tour in September 2019 and we had a whale of a time! Coming back from Scotland was torturous, but such is life! It took us many months to get our bum to settle down in front of our computers to start writing, but here we are, finally!

      Let’s start our journey with Kilchoman, the second newest distillery on Islay. The distillery started distillation in 2005 and have since expanded their production to 220 thousand litres of pure alcohol a year! New washbacks and stills will be installed soon, and we can expect increased production after that.

      Going on a Distillery Tour

      It was fun going on a distillery tour, mainly because you get to see all the machines and get behind the storefront to see the actual production hall. On Islay, the distilleries normally consist of different buildings on the distillery grounds, and Kilchoman is not any different. We started the tour at the shop, where our lovely tour guide met us. She distributed our tour souvenir, a mini Glencairn glass and a lanyard, as we will be using them along the way. After the usual safety briefing, we were off!

      First stop – The Malt Floor

      Entrance to the Malt Room

      Kilchoman does some of their maltings onsite using Islay grown barley from the nearby Rock Side farm. Roughly 30% of the distilled spirit comes from Islay grown barley, while the rest comes from Port Ellen Maltings. Each malting is carried out in the traditional way of spreading the barley on the floor for germination to take place.

      Traditional Malting Floor

      Workers malt around 40 tons of barley at a time, by steeping them in water and allowing for 5-7 days of germination and drying.

      Barley germination in progress

      During the germination, the plant shoot, or acrospire, will start growing. The malting is complete once the acrospire grows to around three quarters or more of the length of barley. Once the maltsters see that the barley is ready, they will start the kilning process.

      Second Stop – The Kiln

      The Kiln

      The kilning begins by igniting dry peat to get the fire going before adding wet peat to create peat smoke. The workers will smoke the barley for 10 hours and leave it to dry until the malt reaches 5% moisture content. This malting onsite leads to a 20ppm phenol content in the Islay malt. To follow the traditional way of malting, Kilchoman lets the barley rest for four days after kilning and before milling them for mashing and fermentation.

      Third Stop – The Still House

      The Still House

      Kilchoman is a farmhouse distillery, which means that space is limited. To make work effective, the mash tun, washbacks and stills are placed in the same location.

      After milling, 1.2 tonnes of grist goes into the mash tun. To extract the sugars, the workers add three streams of hot water at 56degC, 85degC and 95 degC. 6000L of sugary liquid, or wort, goes into the washbacks, along with 20kg of dry yeast. This wort is then left to ferment for approximately 84 hours to become wash, a strong beer at 6-8% abv.

      Our tour guide asked if we would like to try the “Kilchoman beer” and proceed to pour us some when she got a resounding “YES!”

      The Kilchoman Beer

      The wash tasted sweet, with a yeasty, lightly fizzed note at the back. It was good! So good that we asked for a second helping. Personally, I think that Kilchoman should consider making their own beer. I would buy them if they make it!

      The Distillation

      The Stills

      Since the stills are pretty small, only 3000L of wash goes into the wash still at a time. After the first distillation, 1000L of low wines at approximately 19% abv goes into the spirit still for the second distillation. The remaining 2000L became pot ale, which is used to fertilise the crops at Rock Side Farm. Pot ale is useless for making whisky, but its organic compounds made them perfect as fertilisers.

      The low wines from the wash still, and the heads and tails from previous distillations are then added into the spirit still at approximately 26% for the second distillation. Kilchoman takes the cut of the heart between 76% and 65%; this means any distillate above 76% are foreshots, and any distillate below 65% are feints. These foreshots and feints are added to the low wines in the next distillation. After 3.5 hours of distillation, the spirit still produces 3.5 litres of spirit, which will be watered down to a filling strength of 63.5%.

      Fourth Stop – Not the Warehouse

      Sample Casks

      Unfortunately, Kilchoman distillery has a policy that does not allow visitors to see their warehouse. It is due to safety reasons though; they have nothing to hide! Instead, we got to see some sample casks which the tour guide explained their way of storage before she led us to the next exciting part of the distillery tour.

      Fifth and Final Stop – The Bottling Plant

      The machine that helps to bottle Kilchoman Single Malt

      The bottling process is a combination of manual and machine work. The bottling team needs to ensure the cleanliness of the bottles before feeding them to the machine, which will do the bottling. In the above picture, you can see the process of filling the bottle. The filled bottles then passed through the glass portion of the machine where the cork gets fixed onto the bottle. The final process gets the bottles sealed and labelled! The bottling team then completes the process by putting the bottles into their boxes and packed them into cases of six.

      End of the Tour – Back at the Distillery Shop

      Our tour guide led us back to the distillery shop and ended the tour. You must be surprised to see that we did not appear to taste any Kilchoman whisky. We did! It just did not flow nicely in the narratives earlier. We had a Sanaig in the malting room and it was surprisingly good! We got to admit that we are not big Kilchoman fans largely because we find it spicy, but the Sanaig was really awesome.

      Sanaig and peat 

      Back at the shop, we considered having a meal at Kilchoman because we heard that the food was awesome! Alas, we cannot, as we needed to move on to the next distillery. Nonetheless, we had enough time to explore the little farmhouse at the back of the distillery and the below pictures were what we found!

      The Kilchoman Cat and Hen

      There were some other hens running around but they ran away when they saw us. Hahaha…

      It was a fantastic visit to Kilchoman, and we look forward to seeing more of them after their expansion.

       

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