The Road to Ardnahoe

Hugo JACOMET

The Road to Ardnahoe

Today, for the first article published on PG on the fascinating world of whiskies, we have the pleasure to welcome in our columns an exceptional contributor : The Right Honorable Brian Wilson.

Brian Wilson is a former politician in the United Kingdom who now lives on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.  He was a Labour Party Member of Parliament from 1987 until 2005 and served as a Minister of State from 1997 to 2003 (Scottish Office 1997–1998, UK Trade Minister 1998–1999, Scottish Office 1999–2001, Foreign Office 2001 and UK Energy Minister 2001–2003). After standing down as a Minister prior to his departure from Parliament, he was asked by Tony Blair to act as the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Overseas Trade. Having continued to take an interest in trade promotion he was appointed to the newly re-established UK Board of Trade in 2017. He is also chairman of Harris Tweed Hebrides (that we will visit in April for a special episode of our Sartorial Talks), a director of Celtic Football Club and Visiting Professor at the University of Strathclyde.

It is thus our honor and pleasure to publish today on PG a first piece (hopefully of a series) written by Brian Wilson, on one of the most exciting distillery projects of recent years : Ardnahoe on the island of Islay, which is due to open later this year.

This article was originally published on Whiskeria Magazine (see the link to the digital version of the magazine at the end of the article).

The Road to Ardnahoe

by Brian Wilson

Text and photos ©Whiskeria Magazine

The narrow road which opens up the northeast coast of the Isle of Islay offers one of the most stunning vistas in Scotland. Turn a corner on a clear day and suddenly you are looking far up the Hebridean chain beyond the Paps of Jura, towards Mull with the Cuillins of Skye in the distance.

It is a road which owes its existence to Islay’s preeminence in the whisky industry since it was built in the 1880s boom time, to service new distilleries at Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila. In these days, nobody was considering the views when they chose their sites. These came as a bonus for the folk who lived and toiled in these newly established distillery villages.

Fast forward, however, to 2018.

Distilleries are created not just as centres of production but also as visitor attractions where the multitudes of travellers with an interest in Scotch whisky can observe how it is made, appreciate the complexity of the process and savour the end product in situ. An industry which was long fiercely protective of its secrets is now much better at sharing them.

Soon that winding whisky road will serve a brand new distillery, Ardnahoe, which is due to open later this year. In this case, location has been very important and the distillery has been built around the twin pre-conditions of pure Islay water and a world-class setting. Ardnahoe promises to be a very special addition to Islay’s status as a place of pilgrimage for all lovers of whisky.

When Alfred Barnard undertook a grand tour in the 1880s, leading to publication of his magisterial The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, he described nine establishments on the island of Islay. Their names remain very familiar today… Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig,  Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Caol Ila, Bunahabhainn have all been in production ever since, bar wars and occasional crises.

Port Ellen ceased production in 1983 but has continued to provide the maltings for several of the Islay distilleries. The owners, Diageo, have announced that the distillery will return to production in 2020. The ninth on Barnard’s list, Lochindaal was re-named Port Charlotte and closed in 1929.  The buildings remained intact and are now closely integrated into production at nearby Bruichladdich.

It is a remarkably stable scenario compared to other whisky regions which have boomed and gone bust, losing far more small distilleries and in recent years, seeing lots of newcomers emerge. At present, there are at least 40 distillery projects at various stages of development in Scotland but the only one in progress on Islay is Ardnahoe.

Indeed, Islay has added only one new label in modern times. When Kilchoman – called after one of the island’s  four historic parishes –  opened in 2005, it was the first new distillery on the island for 124 years! So, if you are still with me, there are currently eight active distilleries on Islay. The emergence of Ardnahoe followed by Port Ellen’s reawakening will take the number to ten. Barnard would probably be surprised by how little has changed in that respect at least!

Ardnahoe will represent the fulfilment of a long-held vision for Stewart Laing, who has had a lifelong involvement with Scotch whisky. His company, Hunter Laing, sells to 65 countries. It holds vast reserves of wonderful whiskies. However, they have never been distillers in their own right and that is the last piece of the industry jigsaw which will now be filled in at Ardnahoe. It is also a legacy project and Stewart’s co-directors include his sons, Andrew and Scott.

They chose Islay for their distillery largely because of an awareness of worldwide demand for its whiskies which is not being fully met from existing stocks. The first challenge was to find a site and, initially, they looked at one near Bowmore – the island’s main village – where there had been previous plans for a new distillery. When this fell through, they widened their search and an island landowner offered them a list of six possible sites.

The first of these was Ardnahoe and once they saw it, the rest of the tour became a matter of courtesy rather than necessity. Ardnahoe ticked all their boxes. Iain Hepburn, the engineer in charge of designing and constructing the distillery, recalls: “There was no point going anywhere else. It had everything – the fantastic views, water from the loch and power going through the site. It was perfect”.  Iain adds: “It must be one of the most beautiful sites for a distillery anywhere in the world”.

No less enthusiastic was Jim MacEwan, a legend in the whisky industry, who had been tempted out of retirement to take charge of production. He says: “The most critical requirement is to have a constant supply of high quality, pure water. Without that, it is very difficult to make good whisky. Just across the road from the distillery, Ardnahoe Loch is reputed to be the deepest water on Islay. So we are assured of water all the year round, very pure and at a pretty constant temperature. Perfect!”.

Jim joined the industry as a 15 year-old in 1963, as an apprentice cooper at Bowmore distillery. Apart from a few years in Glasgow to develop his blending skills, most of his working life has been on his native island –28 years at Bowmore, latterly as distillery manager and also as global ambassador for the Bowmore brand at a time when it was necessary to educate consumers in the distinctive qualities of single malts in general and Islay ones in particular.

Only one job would have tempted Jim away from Bowmore and it arose when he was asked to join the team of private investors which, around the turn of the century, set out to resurrect  Bruichladdich  – a distillery for which he had a particular respect. Like many in the industry, he had been outraged when it was closed in 1994 by Jim Beam, who had bought it with great promises of investment. In his role as master distiller and production director, Jim played a huge role in Bruichladdich’s success story – now owned by Rémy Cointreau, it employs  100 people on Islay.

Now, Ardnahoe represents another magnificent challenge for a man with Jim’s background, the chance to shape a new Islay distillery from scratch. Latterly, he experimented with some very high peat contents at Bruichladdich but the Ardnahoe malt will offer the “40 parts per million” more commonly associated with Islay whiskies. He also says it will be the first time on Islay that the “worm tub” method of condensation has been used, maximizing contact with copper and further purifying the water. Jim clearly has a few ideas in mind to make Ardnahoe both different and special.

For Iain Hepburn too, it is a project which offers a unique opportunity to design a distillery which is intended to act as a visitor centre as well as a place of production, and also to utilise the outstanding location to maximum effect. It will be a place for whisky connoisseurs to come and enjoy, he says.  “The Laings own so many old whiskies which visitors will be able to experience, even before Ardnahoe’s own first production is ready. The great thing about this project is that there is no hurry!”.

Stewart Laing dismisses the idea, now common, of bridging the initial production gap by producing gin. “We’re whisky people, not gin people,” he says. Orders are however being taken for casks of the first Ardnahoe production. Meanwhile, he adds: “We are just happy to be part of the island legend  – and eventually to enhance it”.

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Opening illustration by Sean Mulvenna.

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