Ardbeg was officially established by the MacDougall family in 1815, the same year as Laphroaig came into official existence a few miles along the road, although it seems that illicit distilling had already been taking place on the site for over twenty years, with Alexander Stewart having founded a distillery there in 1794. Like its fellow southern Ileachs, Laphroaig and Lagavulin, Ardbeg is heavily peated, with a turfy smoke and seaspray character predominant in most bottlings. The distillery fell foul of the global whisky downturn in the late 1970s, which, coupled with some criminal mismanagement by the then owners Hiram Walker, led to the distillery falling silent in 1981. Production resumed sporadically in 1989, but the distillery fell silent again in 1996.
However, all was not lost. In 1997 Ardbeg was taken over by Glenmorangie plc, and the past decade has seen a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for this previously neglected distillery, which now boasts an excellent tour onsite, a cracking restaraunt and a worldwide following eager for all things Ardbeg. An initial release of aged stocks bottled as a 17 year-old in newly-designed packaging proved an instant runaway success, and has been followed by a string of highly successful official bottlings.
The core of the range is now the standard 10 year-old – an exuberant, fruity, peaty dram – but there have been several vintage and single cask bottlings that have been elevated to the status of instant classics by Islay aficionados, and surviving bottles of the earlier releases now command sums far in excess of their initial list price.
The success of these new bottlings, coupled with the huge surge of popularity of all things Islay-related in recent years, has also led to a revival of interest in older bottlings of Ardbeg, with the result that independent bottlnigs released while the distillery was silent in the eighties and early nineties have shot up in value. In particular, vintage releases of Ardbeg from the period before 1977 when the distillery’s floor maltings were removed (a dreadful error by Hiram Walker) are extremely highly sought-after.