Sep 212010
 
As more and more voices are joining the online choir of whisky chat, ATW thought it would be a good idea to draw attention to one that resonates a little louder than some of its peers.  Mark Connelly, of Glasgow, is helping to shape not only Glasgow’s whisky community, but the global community at large.  His forum (www.whiskywhiskywhisky.com) is a meeting place for malt lovers and anoraks from around the world to share tasting notes, news, gripes and all things related to whisky.  (Pssst…check out the Maple Leaf Lounge!).  The merit of such a deep pool of information is beyond question.  This is simply the leaping off point however.  Mark also maintains his own blog (www.glasgowswhisky.com), is a member of the Glasgow Whisky Club and is co-founder of the Glasgow Whisky Festival.
 
 Mark was an ideal candidate to be targeted for a chat with ATW.  He is the sort of easy-going humorous soul that we generally hang about with, and his experience and credentials speak for themselves.  Mark is also in a unique position of working in the industry and being a common drammer like many of us out there. 

In true ATW form, we sat down over an e-dram with Mr. Connelly and let him share some insight on the more demanding side of things before having some fun over music and lit.

Without further ado… 

 
 
 
 
ATW:  Everybody starts somewhere.  What was your first whisky?  Was it love at first sight (taste)? 

MC:  I think it was Laphroaig, somewhere in Glasgow, years ago. I loved the stuff. It was in a tumbler full of ice but that suited me fine at the time. I wasn’t looking for all the subtle notes and flavours, just something cold and tasty and alcoholic! I loved it. 

 

ATW:  There is generally a point of no return for whisky lovers such as us.  Do you remember that moment when you realized that you had gone beyond simple appreciation and moved into something more consuming? 

MC:  I think when I went to my first masterclass that really opened my eyes and took whisky from simply a nice drink to something that could be studied and discussed, as well as being enjoyable. From there I joined Glasgow’s Whisky Club and that really set it off. 

  

ATW:  What prompted the creation of the blog and forum? 

MC:  The forum came about because a few of us online were getting frustrated at another forum that we used. A couple of us had an idea to start our own and it seems mine was up and running first. We wanted something that we could make our own and that could evolve to suit us. 

The blog was simply a way for me to get stuff out of my head that was swimming around, but also to keep a record of places I’ve been and things I’ve done in a way that I couldn’t really do with the forum. It’s taking a blog back to the original use of an online diary, although there’s the odd bit of news and other things thrown in too. It’s mainly just for me but if anyone reads it that’s great too. It’s also a place to put Glasgow-based information as the city is under-represented in the whisky world in my opinion. 

  

ATW:  Before starting ATW I asked myself if I had enough to offer in creating a website and going live.  Did you have a moment like this, and if so, what tipped the scales? 

MC:  To be honest the forum was set up on a bit of a whim one night. Similarly with the blog. There’s been no real thought put in to either and they were easy to set up so I thought ‘why not’? I really need to design them properly at some point but right now there aren’t enough hours in the day.

  

ATW:  There is a certain level of responsibility that comes with blogging and reviewing whisky (or anything for that matter).  Let’s face it…others use this information to make informed purchases.  Have you ever given much consideration to the moral side of having a public voice? 

MC:  Since the blog is mainly for me I don’t really think like that. I try to watch what I say in case someone does read it but that’s more in keeping it politely written rather than misinformation. If you are honest then I think that’s the best you can do. I think Ralfy, whom you’ve interviewed, does so well because of his honesty. He also strives to keep his independence which is a big factor too as so many bloggers, writers and commentators are becoming more and more attached to certain companies. You can’t blame them as it’s their dream job to work in the industry but it does make you wonder if they can keep it unbiased. The only thing I am involved in is my festival which might get a few plugs here and there!

 

ATW:  Through the blog and forum you have helped facilitate a wide sphere of influence and allowed a lot of folks access to information that may not have been readily available.  That being said, where do YOU look to for your information? 

MC:  My forum! Seriously, the members are great at posting up news articles and starting discussions. They also regularly add to the tasting notes section which is great for checking whether you might want to buy a whisky as there’s usually more than one opinion to work from. Aside from that site I often pick up a lot of stuff from other blogs, but often it’s Facebook and Twitter where you hear something first. I also buy books, such as Malt Whisky Yearbook which is a great read, and discussions with friends and fellow club members. 

  

ATW:  Being the moderator of a whisky forum, and a damn good one (www.whiskywhiskywhisky.com), what trends do you see, not in the whisky industry, but in the people out there buying and drinking? 

MC:  I think there’s a definite move towards looking for value for money. The price of whisky keeps going up and up and with more limited expressions and fancy finishes (and packaging) it’s harder to find a good dram without spending loads of cash. Certainly that’s what I’m finding these days. The forum is a good place to ask for opinions before buying and for finding good, affordable whisky. There definitely seems to be a little bit of a backlash against all the finishing and wacky casks being used. 

  

ATW:  Do you have plans beyond the current medium you are using (blog/forum)?  

MC:  I have plans for something whisky-related which will have an online aspect but it’s not really a part of that. What I do have coming up is an exclusive bottling for the forum members. I’d really like to be bottling good whisky myself on a regular basis but as stocks are becoming harder to get hold of due to demand that might not be something I can really count on. I am in the middle of redesigning the forum but there’s nothing more I’d like to do online at the moment. I have another idea but I really don’t have the time or resources for that right now. Not giving much away, am I?

 

ATW:  The Glasgow‘s Whisky site has some fantastic photography.  You have a unique approach to shooting that shines as one of the signatures of the site.  Can you speak to the visual side of what you publish on the blog?

MC:  Photography has been a love of mine since before whisky and I was semi-professional at one point, meaning I occasionally got paid for it! I was really into music photography at one stage, shooting bands live from the photo pit at gigs was a great buzz. There just wasn’t really any money in it. I still enjoy photography a lot but I prefer to keep it as a hobby – something for myself – rather than work. I have been shooting a few distilleries recently so I might do something with that in the future. Distilleries are, mainly, a great place for photographers (as long as they don’t give you that ‘explosive environment’ crap!). It’s nice to be able to illustrate the blog articles with a few good photos and I’m lucky that I can do that without needing to source stock images or anything like that.

 

ATW:  How much of your time is devoted to whisky?  Is this hard to reconcile with work and family?

MC:  Hahaha! Yes, very hard. We have a young baby and my going out to a club night or other tasting isn’t looked upon too well right now. Work is now the festival and the other venture I can’t talk about so it’s just family that I need to balance. It’s not easy, though.

 

ATW:  Speaking of committed time…how did your role as organizer/founder of the Glasgow Whisky Festival come about?

MC:  Just like the forum this came about due to frustration at what was currently available. In my opinion Scotland’s largest city should have one of the biggest and best events but unfortunately this isn’t the case. Hopefully we can change that, although iit might take a couple of years to get properly established and build up to something really impressive. We’ve managed to pull in a pretty good lineup for this first one which has a good mixture of producers, including independent bottlers, which has been lacking with the other event here.

 

ATW:  Did you set out with a certain theme or image in mind for how the festival should ultimately turn out?

MC:  The idea was really as many and as varied as possible, and purely focusing on the whisky itself rather than all the sideshows that can sometimes come with these events. We wanted to get all the independent bottlers in Glasgow involved and also the local bars and whisky enthusiasts. The tagline ‘by Glasgow for Glasgow’ sums up our philosophy pretty well.

 

ATW:  How about a few pairings for us?

1)  A good book and malt to accompany it?

MC:  Just finished reading The Rum Diaries by Hunter S Thompson (before they make the film) which I would suggest reading with a large Aberlour A’Bunadh (you’ll need it)!

2)  A good album and malt to accompany it?

MC:  One of my favourite albums of all time is Appetite for Destruction by Guns and Roses. I remember listening to it full blast on my Walkman whilst cutting my parents’ lawn in the summers between years at high school. I would need to listen to that with something big, youthful and a bit wild, something like Ardbeg Still Young.

3)  A good meal and malt to accompany it?

MC:  A great big pot of mussels with a Laphroaig Quarter Cask.

 

ATW:  What is the one malt out there that you are itching to get your hands on?

MC:  If money was no option I would love a bottle of Black Bowmore. I have tried a sample twice and it is one of the best, old, sherried whiskies I have tried. I would love to have a bottle of that. Maybe one day…

 

ATW:  Finally…Can you share your best malt moment to date?

MC:  The best moment for me is whenever I get to try whisky straight from the cask in a warehouse. I hate going to those distilleries where you can’t do anything but have a quick look at the equipment and then you are whisked off to a brightly-lit, heavily-branded tasting room. The warehouse is where all the magic happens and to be able to open a cask and try the maturing whisky in that cool, damp, dark, sweet-smelling atmosphere can’t be beaten.

Sincere thanks, Mark.   (Not only did Mark excuse the delinquency in shipping these questions off to him, he replied within hours).

Readers…if you aren’t already a member or lurker at www.whiskywhiskywhisky.com, I strongly advise a visit.  There is much to learn, even if you don’t care to join in the chat. 

Whisky Whisky Whisky Forumwww.whiskywhiskywhisky.com/forum
Glasgow’s Whisky Festival
www.glasgowswhiskyfestival.com
Glasgow’s Whisky (And Ale) Blog
www.glasgowswhisky.com

 

Slainte!

 Posted by at 9:02 am
Sep 152010
 

From www.glasgowswhisky.com:

Posted in Whisky News on September 15th, 2010 by Mark – 1 Comment

New Bunnahabhain 12yo New Bunnahabhain 12yo 

Burn Stewart, owners of Bunnahabhain, Deanston, Tobermory and Ledaig (as well as Black Bottle) have revamped three of their malts (Deanston was already revamped a year or two ago) to bring them up to 46.3%, unchillfiltered and with new packaging. 

New Ledaig 10yo New Ledaig 10yo 

New Tobermory 10yo New Tobermory 10yo 

Tobermory and Ledaig, being from the same distillery, have been given matching boxes and label designs tying them nicely together. Of the three new ones I have only tried the new Bunnahabhain at a recent festival and it was pretty tasty. I’ll need to try that against the old one which I still have from a recent review post, which is a classic malt in my opinion. 

Good to see another company raise their ABV and cut out the chill-filtering. I believe the colouring has also been left behind. Perhaps one day all malts will be like this. 

Sep 142010
 

Malters,

Take a minute or two to have a read here.  The article below is from a few years back now, and was recently passed on to me.  I can claim no credit here.  A Mr. David Edelstein is the author extraordinaire behind this piece.  This is an example of what all of us small voices in the world of blogging should aspire to.  A well-written piece full of information and an absolute pleasure to read.  David…if you read this…cheers!

Thanks to my sugar-cane addicted amigo, Lance for the heads up on this. 

By David EdelsteinUpdated Monday, May 2, 2005, at 4:06 PM ET

Islay, the whiskiest island

Islay, the whiskiest island

Last Sunday, I sat down on the living-room sofa to watch the first episode of The Sopranos and poured myself a shot of one of the most glorious Scotch whiskies—Talisker, from the ruggedly sublime Isle of Skye. “Ewww, do you have to drink that right next to me?” said my wife, firmly planting herself at the far end of the couch. I eyeballed the glass—a bulb-shaped snifter ideal for focusing the whisky’s aroma, or “nose.” The liquid was a lustrous amber, but I had to concede that it smelled like a slab of smoked herring left overnight on the counter of a warm kitchen. And yet it’s almost mild compared to a Laphroaig, from the Scottish island of Islay. The nose of Laphroaig has smoke and seaweed and something overpoweringly medicinal, like hospital bandages. It smells like someone being treated for burns beside a smoldering building. Next to a bog. Across from an open-air fish market. It smells like … heaven.

Although blended Scotch (composed of whiskies from many different distilleries plus lightening cereal grains) accounts for about 90 percent of the world’s consumption, the market for single malts (whisky from a single distillery) has exploded in the last two decades—and it’s the island spirits that have attracted the most passionate cultists. The reasons for this trend are hard to pinpoint, but it’s surely part of the same movement that brought millions to microbrewed beers and boutique wines: a quest for purity and intensity of flavor after nearly a century of homogenization.

My obsession with the stuff is a story of extremes. As a kid in the suburbs of Connecticut in the ’60s and ’70s, I was weaned on all things bland and homogenized: Wonder Bread, American cheese, iceberg lettuce, fish sticks, and, in high school, Budweiser. I never liked beer until I tasted the robust, hoppy ales of Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. Big California wines—bruiser zinfandels, with a touch of loaminess—followed. Sourdough from what was alleged to be a yeast culture born before the Civil War tantalized me with what I’ll call its … offness. Off like certain cheeses. Off like Asian sauces ladled out of barrels of decomposing fish. I became a freak for all things “off.” When you put something strongly flavored or “off” in your mouth, your most primitive instincts tell you to spit it out, yet the perception of danger heightens the senses and makes the pleasure more intense. A design for living, that.

I don’t mean to suggest that island whiskies taste like rotted fish. It’s just that the ones that I’m swilling these days owe much of their flavor to decay. To wit, they are permeated by peat, which someone in my favorite New York whisky bar—d.b.a. at 41 1st Avenue in Manhattan’s East Village—once explained to me is “the halfway point between dung and coal.” (The attribution for that line is strangely indecipherable in my notebook—one of those nights.) Peat, according to Charles MacLean in his definitive 1997 book Malt Whisky, is “the acidic, decayed vegetation made from bog plants such as sphagnum moss, heather, sedges and grasses—the composition varies according to the peat bog’s location.” The peat bogs close to the sea, he goes on, become “saturated with salt spray, and in some cases contain strands of seaweed, relics of time when they were under water.”

Peat can contribute to whisky at a lot of different evolutionary stages. It can infuse the water itself as it flows through moss and grass on its way to the distillery. More commonly, it’s collected, dried, and used to smoke the malted barley before that barley is mashed, fermented, and distilled. In his breathtaking coffee-table book Scotland and Its Whiskies (with vivid, panoramic photos by Harry Cory Wright), the ebullient beer and whisky scribe Michael Jackson describes an island smoking session in which the aroma of burning malt is like “anchovy paste being spread thickly on freshly-toasted, grainy, thick cut bread.” Finally, in the course of barrel aging (anywhere from 10 to 18 years—or longer—for the good stuff), the whisky can pick up salty/peaty flavor from the island air. As Jackson poetically puts it: “The casks of whisky breathe the smoky, peaty, seaweedy, briny atmosphere as they sleep in those coastal warehouses.”

Although it has been over a decade since I set foot in Scotland, maybe my favorite place on earth, I go back in my mind when I nose an island whisky—especially one with a ton of phenolics or peat-reek. Few things are as redolent of their place of origin—the black rocks of the Cullins on Skye, the maritime fogs, the sheep, the heather. Sometimes this whisky (from the Gaelic uisge beatha, “water of life”) can evoke—in suggestible souls, at least—the mythical loch beasts and Scottish air of melancholy whimsy. “You can’t eat scenery,” a Russian sailor sadly reminds the Yank protagonist of Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero [1983], the definitive movie about the American romanticization of Scotland.

Actually, you can sort of drink scenery if the scenery is peat bogs, and the epicenter of the island style, Islay, looms in the imagination as a fairy-tale peat-bogland. Pronounced “Eye-luh,” this is a 25-mile-long, 15-mile-wide island off Scotland’s southwest coast—only 12 miles from Northern Ireland, where, MacLean reminds us, “the mysteries of distilling originated.” (There is little resemblance, it should be said, between Islay malts and traditional Irish pot-still whiskey or blah blends like Bushmills.)

I’ve never been to Islay, alas, but Isabael MacTaggart, the communications manager for Morrison Bowmore (makers of the moderately, although marvelously peaty Bowmore whiskies) grew up on the island and made it come alive for me. The daughter of a sheep farmer and a Gaelic teacher (I swear I didn’t make these details up), MacTaggart says that whisky on her home island is pretty inescapable, what with seven distilleries in a population of 3,500: “Your friends or your parents work at one of them, and that smell, that lovely smell when the kilns are lit …” She continues, “There’s a long state road, between the two big villages, Port Ellen and Bowmore, and there’s nothing between them but a blanket of bog on either side, dead straight—nothing but bog, and it’s full of peat banks.” The island, she adds, has the sweetest reek. When she moved to London to work for the BBC, she had friends send her envelopes of peat so she could burn little bits of it at home.

Jack Oswald, the former Air Force officer who put together a multipart DVD documentary The Malt Project out of sheer love, reports that when he returned from his last shoot on Islay, he brought the aromas back with him. “Everything reeked,” he recalls. “The clothes, the suitcases, the camera equipment. I can still smell it!”

But enough about peat: Let’s have a drink. Or should I say, a “cracking wee dram.” (One problem with tasting a lot of different whiskies is that fanatics refer to them as “expressions”—as in, “I had the 12-year expression, but the 18-year expression is just so much more expressive.” I can’t imagine myself ever walking into a saloon and saying, “Bartender: Whisky! And make it a sherried 15-year-old expression.”)

The River Kilbride, the water source for the Ardbeg distillery

The River Kilbride, the water source for the Ardbeg distillery

Let me open an Ardbeg 10, from a much-beloved Islay distillery that was recently acquired by the owners of Glenmorangie—the gentle, flowery, woody, and immensely popular Highland whisky. Ardbeg, which began distilling in 1815, was inactive for a time but is back with a vengeance, making one of the world’s reekiest drams (also, at less than $40 a bottle, on the lower end of the price spectrum for great whisky). It’s a pale spirit, without any of the increasingly popular caramel coloring and its attendant “toffeed” sweetness. But the paleness is belied by its monstrous nose—overpoweringly peaty but with its iodine phenols more balanced by smoke and sea-salt than in, say, Laphroaig. There is some char on the finish; this is a 10-year-old, youngish for a great island whisky, and it’s brash. But the elements are all so perfectly knit: The whisky leaves your mouth tingly and your lips with the faintest coat of salt, like a walk along a beach in a warm, humid haze among smoldering bonfires.

I’m not a professional taster, so it’s worth quoting Jim Murray, the extravagant, bearlike author of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2004, on the same dram. Murray scores whisky from 1 to 25 based on four criteria: nose (n), taste (t), finish (f), and overall balance (b). Ardbeg is among the whiskies he lives for, even in this juvenile incarnation, and he gives it a big 93:

n23 oily, slapped-on-all-over-with-a-trowel peat that leaves nothing uncoated. A lovely salty tang gives an extra tweak; t23 sweet, equally oily arrival with massive malt surge. When that has passed the serious work of picking out the intense seaweedy oaky complexity begins; f24 stupendous spices add an extra dimension to the already complex story unfolding on the palate; b23 close your eyes and enjoy.

It’s worth lingering a moment on Murray, one of my favorite whisky/spirits writers for his nutty enthusiasm. Like many of the best food/whisky scribes, he is something of a drama critic. A whisky isn’t some dead, one-dimensional thing: It has a plot. It comes on to you in one form, transforms on the palate, lingers or vanishes abruptly, and leaves you to ponder. Here is Murray’s assessment of the Ardbeg 21: “We all have bad days, weeks, months in our life when we wonder why we were put on this earth, then you open a bottle like this and discover the reason.” And here is Murray on Maker’s Mark Black Seal, a Kentucky bourbon: “A whisky that demands solitude and the ability to listen. The story it tells is worth hearing again and again.”

Under the guidance of Murray, Michael Jackson, Charles MacLean, Jack Oswald, and Ray Deter, co-owner of d.b.a., I have been listening to my whisky—learning to identify and characterize its various components and to make the experience last as long as possible before having another belt. Oswald reports that current thinking among corporate distillers is to downplay the mystique of Scottish whiskies (their selling point for generations) and play up the taste, but with island malts, surely, mystique and taste are tantalizingly interwoven. Sometimes I sit with a dram and Jackson’s Scotland and Its Whiskies and flip through the book with a large magnifying glass, which makes the photos of the landscape seem envelopingly three-dimensional. The combination of those pictures and the whisky’s peat-reek is genuinely transporting—fabulous. And hope springs eternal that my wife will inch a little closer.

 Posted by at 9:32 pm
Sep 122010
 

Greetings, readers and malt junkies!

ATW has just hit 50 whisky reviews! 

Though there are many more reviews in various states of completion in the wings (and will continue to be as long as new whiskies are to be sourced), this is something of a milestone, I think.  There is a certain investment of time, effort and concentration (oh yeah…and cost.  Yeesh!) involved in putting these things together and making them worth reading.  Here’s hoping they are providing a little bit of info in helping you make informed purchasing decisions.

Feel free to drop a line or comment to let us know if a review has helped, or if you completely disagree.  Hey…how else am I to be kept honest?

So…in celebration…I raise a glass to you, readers…and hope you raise one in return.  Thanks for your visits.  The hits on the site suggest some of you may want to see more.  Until that changes…we’ll keep doing what we do (best…oh, that’s kinda sad).

Slainte!

 Posted by at 8:57 pm
Sep 122010
 

Greetings, Members, Malters and soon-to-be-members!

The Willow Park Whisky Club (not an official title) had its first official meeting on the 5th of September, 2010.  Though the Labor Day long weekend prevented several individuals from attending, a large handful came out to break a bottle on the proverbial maiden voyage.  Thanks to all of those (like myself) who lacked the foresight to book an extended vacation at this time and were able to attend.  😉

What happens in Whisky Club stays in Whisky Club.  Well…not really, but…suffice it to say…details will not be shared here for the masses.  The long and short of it was this…

We met, laughed and lingered.  A few glasses were shared from a selection of bottles while we discussed the direction that we would like to go from here.  The decision was made to have one more session as a ‘meet-n’-greet’ as so many were away this time.  Next meeting is Sunday, October 3rd at 7:00pm.  This is when we will sort out a few more details.

A few who came out were surprised that this was an open membership deal.  I think the assumption was that it was an invite only club.  Apologies if anything said here has led to that belief.  In clarifying…

Next meeting is Sunday, October 3rd at 7:00pm.

Anyone reading here…feel free to join us, and if you have others interested…bring ’em along! 

We will cap membership at a specified number, but until that number is reached, it is open to all.  The only criteria…you have to enjoy whisky and want to meet people.

Finally…October 3rd will be something of an Islay night, based on early vote.  I (Curt) will have returned from this land of peat and smoke only days prior.  I’ve been asked to spill a little bit about the trip upon return.  Should have some pics and maybe video to share.  (Anyone care to do the powerpoint work?)

So…spread the word and round up your colleagues.  What is whisky without friends?

Until next update…Slainte!

Sep 102010
 

From Islay Weblog…

Ardbeg and Bruichladdich Islay Distilleries Up For Sale?

Thursday, September 09 2010

Yesterday evening around nine a message was posted on a Dutch forum titled “Astounishing Islay whisky news from Scotland”. The message was posted by Hans Offringa. Hans Offringa is author of the book “The Legend of Laphroaig” and a respected member of the whisky community. The contents of his message were quite astounishing indeed. The news Hans posted was that Ardbeg Distillery was up for sale and Bruichladdich Distillery had recently been sold, according to a reliable Scottish source.

Immediately Twitter and Facebook were buzzing and several forums wrote about this unusual rumour, because that’s what it was/is. Hans Offringa tried to verify the news with some of his friends in Scotland and I did my wee research and checked with the Ileach. Brian was kind enough to contact Ardbeg and he said “I’ve checked with Ardbeg and they know nothing of which you speak. the source of the rumours may be the fact that Diageo own 35% of Moet Hennessy, who own Glenmorangie, but how that woud impact on the sale of ardbeg, I know not.” Continue reading…

In the meanwhile a Twitter message from Bruich_Sales appeared: “Not true! Bruich is still 100% independent & we are all working hard to hit budet this year and next.” Now that sounds like nothing has happened or will happen in the (near) future which means that Bruichladdich will remain independent and Ardbeg won’t be sold. Now why was this message posted in a Dutch forum in the first place? Of course it’s speculation but where there’s smoke there’s a fire. Like I said above, Hans Offringa is a reliable and respected member of the whisky community so my guess is that something really is brewing. Perhaps it’s something completely different, that I don’t know. In the meanwhile Hans is waiting for news from his friends in Scotland and as soon as anything comes up I will post it on Twitter and update this post. So for now the news is no news and the rumours will remain rumours.

Sep 072010
 

Hi all – I’ve added a new page to our whisky basics section: Branching Out. This is intended to give new scotch whisky drinkers some guidance on how to approach the first few purchases beyond their first bottle. Generally speaking, this is the way that I approach my collection and evaluation. Have a look, and drop a post to share your thoughts on how you branched out from casual sipper to malt addict.

Clint

atw.afewdramsshort@gmail.com

Sep 042010
 

Ardbeg’s resurrection and subsequent explosion have been a phenomenon not often seen in the whisky world.  The tagline on the bottle ‘the Ultimate’ says it all.  By now, there is little chance of hiding the ATW bias for Ardbeg.  Fortunately, there is no guilt association…ATW has no ties whatsoever to this Islay giant, simply a profound respect for a great distillery that keeps producing exceptional expressions.  The man at the helm for Ardbeg since March 12, 2007 has been Michael ‘Mickey’ Heads.  Michael is a native Ileach, and has certainly paid his dues in the industry.  ATW was fortunate enough, and grateful, to secure a few moments of Michael’s time to get a glimpse into the life of both a burgeoning distillery and the man who makes it tick. 

Without further ado… 

  

ATW:  Having worked for Laphroaig, Jura and now Ardbeg, can you share a little about what has led you along the path of your whisky career?  

MH:  Probably a good work ethic and being in the right place at the right time!! I certainly didn’t plan it from an early age…in fact I thought it would be the last thing I would do, as my father and grandfathers worked in distilleries, I originally planned to join the police force or go to sea that were the options, somewhere i got lost!! :-) :-) 

   

ATW:  Can you think of a personal proudest moment or career highlight thus far?  

MH: Being able to travel to other countries, meeting new people and talking about something you love doing..
I don’t really have a proudest moment, although, I suppose being asked to take on the responsibility of looking after a well known Distillery is a bit of a compliment!!
 

  

ATW:  What does an average day at the distillery entail for you personally? 

MH:  Usually start around 0730 and check with the boys in the plant to see if everything was ok through the night. Every day is different, check my e-mails, plan budgets, meet company guests, ensure all our records are complete and up to date, check our stocks, carry out quality checks, and anything else that crops up. It is very varied and a lot of the times in doesn’t plan out!! 

 
 
ATW:   What can one expect when visiting Ardbeg and touring the distillery? 
MH:  The Distillery is in a beautiful location, we have friendly staff who will ensure you are made welcome and give an informative tour. Afterward you can taste some of our excellent whiskies, we also have cafe / restaurant at the distillery, the food is excellent and we have a lot of return visitors…it is a great place to spend 2 or 3 hours. 
 
 

ATW:  Has the involvement of Glenmorangie changed the direction Ardbeg has been moving in? 

MH:  Most definitely!! Prior to Glenmorangie being involved the distillery was closed, with a bleak future, now the place is vibrant, has a bright future and the popularity of our whisky is growing world wide. The company has invested heavily in the distillery and should be congratulated for what they have done over the last 13 years. 

 
 
ATW:  There has been an overwhelmingly positive reception to the recent entries in the Ardbeg range, not to mention the awards and accolades that have followed.  Does this add an element of pressure going forward or simply vindicate a team of hard-working and talented individuals?

MH:  I think it is a testament to forward-looking people who have pride in what they do. I don’t think pressure is the word!! We look forward to developing Ardbeg and bringing new product for the enjoyment of our followers and for any new consumers who may join us in the future.
It is always nice to get rewarded, it gives you confidence to know that your efforts are always appreciated.
 

 
 
ATW:  What is your current favorite expression in the Ardbeg range?

MH:   Ardbeg 10 years. For quality it is hard to beat!! 

 
  
ATW:  When not drinking Ardbeg, what is your single malt of choice?

MH:  I have a few, depending on the mood…Laphroaig 10, Longmorn, Clynelish, Glenmorangie Original & Signet, Jura 16. 

 
 
ATW:  For quite some time now Ardbeg has been in a position of having demand far outstrip supply. Are there any plans to increase production at any point in the future? 

MH:  We have no plans to increase the size of the plant. We have been building stock now for the last few years and what we fill now goes one hundred percent into cask for Ardbeg, nothing now goes for blending. 

 
 
ATW:  Most foreign markets are subject to the law of ‘whatever-we-can-get-here’ (*note…at the time of this interview, Aug 2010, Canada has just welcomed Corryvreckan).  For this reason, I’d like to ask what Ardbeg considers its core range of expressions, and how long that will stay static? 

MH:  The core range for Ardbeg is 10 years old, Uigeadail & Corryvreckan and this will be the range for the foreseeable future. 

 
 
ATW:  Can we ask your take on the somewhat controversial issue of whether or not, and to what degree, ambient atmosphere affects whisky maturation, and Ardbeg in particular? 

MH:  I am a great believer that where we are determines what we produce and atmosphere comes into that. We make whisky by the sea, we store it by the sea, the peat that is used comes from peat bogs sitting on raised beach and the Atlantic spray in the winter time is absorbed into it, so it all affects the final product. Movement of spirit in the cask is also important, cold the spirit contracts in the winter, warming and expanding in the summer, this all helps with the maturation process. Casks breath…slowly, but they do breath!! 

 
ATW:  For someone sipping their first Ardbeg, which expression would you suggest? 

MH:  Has to be 10 years old, however we have a gentler version called Blasda which is less than half the phenol level of the 10, however this is limited, so the 10 without doubt. Our new bottlings over the last couple of years have been excellent, this is since Glenmorangie took over the distillery in 1997 and is testament to our wood policy. 

 
ATW:  Can you share any hints as to what may be next for Ardbeg? 

MH:  I’m afraid that would spoil the surprises for the future, what I will say is that we will continue to make and develop high quality whiskies which people will enjoy and hopefully then spread the word, after all it is the ultimate Islay malt!!! 

 
 
ATW:  Any final thoughts you’d like to share? 

MH:  I always think we are in a great business, the people who make Ardbeg are passionate about what they do. Single malt enthusiasts are also passionate about single malt whiskies, they are all good ambassadors and I hope the enthusiasm (especially for Ardbeg) continues and helps spread the word to future generations!!!  

Hearty thanks from ATW, Mickey.  

Keep visiting.  Curt is off to Islay in a couple of weeks and will be visiting Ardbeg (along with the 7 other distilleries on the isle).  Much more will be posted on the distillery and the Ardbeg range.  ATW will also have reviews of Ardbeg’s Rollercoaster and Supernova up in the coming months. 

Slainte.