We visited Ardbeg first, and got an incredibly in-depth tour from distillery manager Mickey Heads. Our first impression was how shockingly small the operation is, at least in comparison to their marketing budget. Ardbeg only operates a single pair of stills. To put that in perspective Glenlivet has 28 pairs.
-Currently using Concerto barley from the 2015 and 2016 harvests.
-Peated to 50-55 ppm. You lose about 50% of that throughout the distillation and aging process.
-Their grain mill is from 1821!
-Washbacks are twice the size of the wash still, so they go through 2 fermentations. The first is 54 hours, the second is about 5 hours longer.
-The wash comes out at 8.5-8.7% abv
-23,000 liters from the washback turns into about 2.000 liters coming out of the spirit still.
Bruichladdich came next, and it was another small, quirky distillery. Similar to Springbank in that sense. They also use an open top, cast iron mash tun. It’s a big tun, holding 4,000 liters per mash. They have a single set of stills. Their Boby grain mill dates to the distillery opening, 1881.
-About 50% of the barley they use is grown on Islay, by 17 farmers.
-Producing 1.5 million liters per year.
-Wash ferments for 72 hours and comes out at 5-7% abv.
-Washbacks hold 36,000 liters.
The legendary Laphroaig was next, founded in 1815. Laphroaig is a large, modernized operation now with a stainless-steel mash tun and 3 wash stills paired oddly with 4 spirit stills. Laphroaig still malts some of their own barley in-house. It takes 6 days for the germination to take place before it goes to the kiln. They are currently using 15% malt made there, 85% outsourced. Uniquely, Laphroaig uses only hand-cut peat. This leaves the peat wetter which makes it give off more smoke. At the distillery maltings barley is smoked for 17 hours and then dried for 17 hours. Even for the outsourced malt, Laphroaig hand cuts all the peat and sends it to the maltings.
-Commercially malted barley they use is 40-45 ppm, but barley malted in house is higher.
-They use 1 ton of peat per 7 tons of malt.
-Fermentation is 50-55 hours.
-The stills have very steep line arms. This creates a lot of reflux and leaves all the heavy compounds in the still. The Laphroaig spirit is very light, and picks up all of its heavy body from the casks.
The small farm distillery of Kilchoman was next on the tour, and is one of the true hidden gems of single malt whisky. Founded just over 7 years ago, it’s very much a grain-to-glass operation. They are currently producing about 20% of their own malt on site, from barley grown on Islay. The barley that is outsourced is peated to 50 ppm, while the distillery produced malt is peated at 10-20 ppm. This is a very small operation, producing about 220-230,000 liters per year.
-Malt made in-house is peat smoked for 10 hours.
-Fermentation is 80-90 hours.
-Wash comes out at 6-7% abv.
-Wash still holds 3,000 liters, spirit still 1,700 liters.
-75% of spirit is aged in bourbon casks.
Islay’s newest distillery, Ardnahoe, is currently under construction on the northeast coast and is the brainchild of the Laing family and legendary Master Distiller Jim McEwan. Architect Iain Hepburn gave us a tour of the site. It’s on a beautiful hillside looking out over the coast and across the channel to the Isle of Jura. The foundations were just starting to be poured when we visited. The distillery will be laid out with visitors in mind, and all areas will even be accessible for the disabled. When completed in 2018 it will produce a classically Islay malt, heavily peated and aged in ex bourbon casks. There’s few better equipped to create and guide a new Islay distillery than Mr. McEwan who has 15 years at Bruichladdich and 38 years at Bowmore under his belt. We can’t wait to taste the spirit the next time we’re back.
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