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.