Ardbeg, Islay, Scotland.

Extract from Alfred Barnard’s historic tour of every whisky distillery in Great Britain, published in ‘1887’

RESUMING our journey in pursuit of Distilleries, we left the vast Whisky centre, Campbeltown, at the early hour of six in the morning, bound for the port of Tarbert, to catch the boat to Islay. The air was crisp and the first few hours of the long drive chilly, but the morning sun soon filled our hearts with gladness, and we were enabled once again to enjoy the delightful scenery through which we passed and which has been described in a former chapter. Upon due arrival at West Tarbert we boarded the steamer bound for Port Ellen, a journey occupying some hours, yet withal rendered pleasant by weather that was all that could be desired. Tired and hungry after our long day we were glad to reach our destination, and immediately on landing proceeded to the “White Hart Inn” where for several days we took up our quarters, and found the accommodation excellent and the attendants obliging. The next morning we were early astir exploring the town and sea-shore, after which we partook of a substantial breakfast and started on our way to Ardbeg, distant four miles. The road mostly followed the coast line, but frequently a turn brought us almost to the water’s edge. The shore is mostly rocky and dangerous, in many places huge masses of rock rise from the surface of the sea, forming tiny islets round and over which the swell rises and falls in impressive grandeur. Every now and then as we drove along, the scene assumed a new aspect; now we would come. Suddenly upon some little picturesque bar fringed with fantastic and peculiar shaped rocks, or ascending a gentle hill some inland view of green slopes and heather covered hills would reveal itself, which lent a happy contrast to the wild sea-girt shore. Nearly all the way we had in sight the opposite coast of Kyntyre, and almost fancied we could distinguish the long coach road to Tarbert which we had traversed the day before. Journeying along we were continually reminded by the ruins of castles and churches that we were on one of the most historic islands of Scotland, in the land of romance and the home of the “Lords of the Isles,” rendered classic by one of Sir Walter Scott’s finest poems. As we reached the top of a hill, a sudden view of beautiful Ardbeg, as seen in our illustration, presented itself to view and recalled our minds from romantic wanderings.

The Ardbeg Distillery is situated on the south-east coast of the island, in a lonely spot on the very verge of the sea, and its isolation tends to heighten the romantic sense of its position. It was established in the year 1815, but long previous to that date it was a noted haunt of smugglers. For many years the supervisors had been searching for this, nest of illicit traffickers without success; most of the band were known by sight, and endeavours had long been made to catch them when out in their boats. At length the spot where they carried on their nefarious practices was discovered, but the band was too strong for an open attack; however, one day, when the party were absent with a cargo of whisky, a raid was made and the place destroyed after a seizure of a large amount of the illicit spirit. As it was impossible to procure other vessels, and finding their occupation gone, the whole band was scattered, and most of them migrated to the Kintyre shores. The site of their operations was shortly after occupied by the founders of Ardbeg Distillery who chose it on account of the water, the chief characteristics of which are its softness and purity; it is obtained from Lochs Arinambeast and Uigidale.

The old Distillery of Ardbeg well deserves to be noticed, as it is one of the most interesting in the island; the buildings have no pretensions to taste and elegance, nevertheless they look picturesque and are substantially built. The walls enclose a very considerable extent of ground, a portion of which is not built upon, and, with the exception of the Distillery proper, the buildings are somewhat scattered and have the appearance of a Dutch settlement. At a distance of half a mile a fine quay has been built mostly at the expense of the firm where steamers call twice a week. The founders of this business were the McDougalls, of Ardbeg, the last survivor of whom was Alexr. McDougall, whose name is still retained in the firm as being a good Highland representative name, although he died in 1853. He was well known among the members of the spirit trade in Glasgow about fifty years ago, and his integrity and straight- forwardness of character gained him the entire confidence of his friends and customers. He was liberal and benevolent, while his clannishness was intense. This Highland virtue he prominently exhibited on a certain occasion, when he discovered in court that some unknown namesake was pronounced by the judge “Guilty” and sentence of a fine or imprisonment was imposed, Mr. McDougall interposed the statement “that it was impossible that a McDougall could do anything wrong” and therefore he would pay the fine!

In the olden days all the Islay Distilleries were small. Ardbeg fifty years ago was among the larger works and only made about 500 gallons per week, so that in the last half century it has increased tenfold, a proof that the Whisky is held In high appreciation by the public. On reaching the Distillery Mr. Hay received us most courteously and placed a guide at our disposal. We first visited the Malting Department, on the right of the enclosure, a short distance from the office. Ascending a staircase we found ourselves in the Granaries, which consists of five Barley Lofts, capable of storing nearly 3,000 quarters of grain. After walking through these spacious chambers we went down a flight of steps to the levels of the Maltings which are four in number with brick floors and each possessing a brick and cement Steep capable of wetting fifty quarters at one time. Passing out at the northern door we came to the spacious Kilns attached to the Maltings, both are floored with hair cloth over wire netting. These drying floors are 14 feet above the fires, which consist of pen chauffeurs wherein peat only is burned, which is dug from a hill two miles distant. The chief characteristic of the splendid peat used in Ardbeg is the absence of sulphur or other offensive mineral, the composition of the peat being purely vegetable deposit, not highly decomposed, same of the organisms being still traceable in the prepared peat. Adjacent to the Kilns are the Malt Deposits, the walls and floors of which are kept beautifully clean and much care is taken in the preservation of the malt previous to its being ground, as the maltman informed us that both dust and exposure to the air ruins good malt. When we went down stairs from the Malt Deposit we found ourselves in the court yard again, and then ascending a flight of steps we reached the Grist Loft which is above the Mill, and contains the hopper which acts as a feeder to the Mash Tun. Following our guide we next visited the Mash House a capital building which contains the Mash Tun, a cast iron vessel 16 feet in diameter and 51 deep; possessing the patent stirring rakes and draining plates. The grains are discharged from the Mash Tun by elevators; about one half of the draff is disposed of to the local farmers and the rest shipped to Larne and other Irish ports. Here also we were shown the two copper Boilers which supply the hot water to the Tun, also a cast iron Underback, two of Morton’s Refrigerators and the customary appurtenance. Ascending a wide staircase we came to the staging of the Tun Room, a long gallery fitted up with the various pipes and pumping appliances, and in the middle, eight Washbacks, each with a capacity of 8,000 gallons. We then retraced our steps to the yard and entered the Still House, a spacious and ancient building, wherein we observed two “Old Pot Stills,” a Wash Still containing 4,000 gallons, and a Spirit Still, 3,000 gallons. The Wash Charger is a handsome timber vessel placed on an elevation so as to command the Stills. Underneath are three Receivers, two Condensers, Pumps, etc. Following our guide we came to the Spirit Store, a neat building adjoining the Still House, containing a Vat which holds 6,000 gallons. Distributed about the premises are five Warehouses of large dimensions, all of them built with stone and roofed with slate; they contained 6,000 casks of Whisky at the time of our visit, and some idea of their proportions may be gathered from the fact that two of them are 228 feet long and 60 wide. Both steam and water power are available; and sixty persons are employed on the premises, for whom the proprietors have provided comfortable dwellings.

Mr. Colin Hay resides in a picturesque house on the property, which is built almost on the water’s edge, and both he and his son are concerned in the management of the Distillery, while a practical distiller and brewer, Mr. John McMillan, has been in the employ of the Company at Ardbeg for the last thirty years. The make is Pure Islay Malt, and the annual output is 250,000 gallons, which is all taken up by the larger firms of wine and spirit merchants in Glasgow, Liverpool, and London. The firm are distillers from malt only, not dealers or merchants otherwise. Mr. Alex. W. Gray Buchanan, of Parkhill, Polmont, Stirlingshire, is the head of the firm.

Sole agents, Buchanan: Wilson & Co., 40, St. Vincent’s Place, Glasgow.