Influential fixtures of history have spoken widely to the dangers of excess––except, of course, when it comes to a good whisky. Why not, then, travel to the birthplace of what Jim Murray, spirit expert and author of The Complete Book of Whisky, dubbed “the greatest distillery on Earth,” to savour for ourselves ? Follow us on the Ultimate Ardbeg Ardventure.
Unique in taste and one of the most highly awarded of all the Islay whiskies, Ardbeg exists in a class all its own. The distinguishably smoky-yet-sweet liquor has been distilled for more than 200 years in the eponymous town on Scotland’s rugged Isle of Islay in the Inner Hebrides. It began as a small farming family operation and grew to enjoy true global renown, but an uncertain future saw Ardbeg trade hands in the 1980s. In 1997, however, Glenmorangie purchased the distillery, returning the storied whisky producer to its former glory. Part of The Glenmorangie Company of Moët Hennessy since 2005, Ardbeg has won more than 50 gold and double gold medals in key whisky competitions around the globe—and that’s just since 2008!—far exceeding any of its competitors. Jim Murray is quoted as saying, “If perfection on the palate exists, this is it.” We’ll drink to that!
We’d also hike to that… and pitch, and row and, ultimately, savour once again the unmistakable character of an Ardbeg Ten Years Old by participating in the ancient Ardbeg tradition ourselves. Mixte was fortunate enough to join eight contestants from the U.S., UK, Germany, Japan, and Sweden in the Ultimate Ardbeg ARDventurer, a three-day competition positioned as “the world’s most unorthodox whisky challenge” that takes place along the Isle’s misty, wind-swept coastline. Mickey Heads, award-winning distillery manager at Ardbeg, and Ultimate Challenge leader, painted the ARDventurer as a “showcase [of] the untamed spirit of Ardbeg’s island home.” Joining him at the helm of the trip was award-winning TV explorer, producer, expedition leader, and author, Monty Halls, a true master of the region, known for his unmatched survival expertise. The two worked closely to devise the ARDventurer itinerary, which would have us tackling some pretty wild terrain––but ne’er did we mind. One must keep the heid, as a good whisky takes time!
We began by rifling through our 12kg ration packs––inspired by the smoky-sweet aromas of Ardbeg––in hopes of being the most innovative with its contents. Each pack contained a bottle of Ardbeg Ten Years Old, a bar of soap, a line of tarry rope, a tin of sardines, iodine, lime, peat, menthol Vicks VapoRub, cheese, black pepper, chocolate, aniseed, almonds and matches. After an apprenticeship at the Distillery, where we learned the many intricate steps of creating our very own whisky, we began the arduous trek to Ardbeg’s private water source, Loch Uigeadail––which means “dark and mysterious place” in Gaelic––located some 600 feet above sea level. The famed flavour of Ardbeg is no topographic accident: peat, which adds that distinctive smoke, was cut and harvested by the ARDventurers (64kg of fuel in total, the amount required to fire a kiln to produce one cask of whisky). After a night camping at the Kildalton Cross––a Celtic relic circa 750 AD and symbolic anchor of the Isle’s heritage––the trek continued to Airigh Nam Beist (“shelter of the beast”), a small loch set away from the harsh Atlantic sea spray. Friendly competition brought the ARDventurer to a close, as we were put to the task of rowing a cask of Ardbeg along Islay’s perilous coast (early distillers transported their cargo by sea). The finest of aqua vitae beckoned as the coda of this exercise, so we of course had to give it our utmost!
With newfound friends, and wonderful new stories to tell, it was easy to understand Ardbeg’s international cult following. A traditional, yet uniquely complex taste and tale are what set Ardbeg apart. No wonder, therefore, that the Ardbeg Committee––now in its 16th year––has over 80,000 loyal members from 130 nations. Many of these passionate lovers of Ardbeg make pilgrimage to Islay each year to sip their favourite eau de vie on the rough-hewn coast. The world’s finest, straight from the cask, with a view like this? Ardbeg had us at Och aye!
With the collaboration of Alexandra Gauthier