Describing how a tour at Ardbeg is is like asking “what’s that rollercoaster like”? The coaster is always there and there are some variations between the days and who operates the ride. Like a rollercoaster making whisky is a process of repetition. The same goes for tours. If I write it down like that than it sounds all wrong, but all process based quality driven processes allow for very small tolerances in order to get the quality needed and expected.
The variable in a tour is the person giving the tour and the persons on the tour. What are the backgrounds of these people and how does the interaction influence the outcome. What I’m trying to say is that these are my experiences and when (not if) you are visiting the experience will be different for you!
One of the variables is me and this variable had let his battery of his phone go dead just at the beginning of the tour!! Nooooo!! Luckily I brought a camera and so did my fiend. Tip: check your batteries.
Why had I chosen the “deconstructing the dram” tour. I have been trying to figure out by tasting, reading, studying where flavour components in a dram come from. How are these flavours what they are? The tour, that would give me some of the information i wanted out of my trip to Islay, was this one.
|Our Tour Guide|
The tour started off with a sit-down in a reception kind of area. General background about Ardbeg was given but also information about components in a dram and how they translate to a smell/flavour. It was explained that Ardbeg is able to breakdown a dram into component parts using mass-spectrography.
|Image by Cool Hunting : http://www.coolhunting.com/food-drink/ardbeg-whisky-distillery-visit|
The tour goes to at the mill where the barley is milled. Details are given about the amount of barley, the stages of milling and the final composition of the solids in the mash. I had always thought that only the fine “flour” would go into the mash, but apparently the mixture is a combination of different stages of milling from grist to flour. We tasted and smelled the un-milled barley. I have saved some for later to take my time to really taste.
Dionne, our tour-guide, explained the process in detail. How a fixed amount of milled barley is sifted and weighed in order to get the right mixture of components. I really need to think hard how this worked again, but I will probably remember when watching the photos. Everything gets recorded. Not only for internal process efficiency calculations (alcohol per ton barley ratio) but also for legal purposes. Tax and stuff.
So Dionne made us remember the amount of tons of barley that went in the mill for future reference. Naturally I can’t remember! Lol! It’s not really that important. What I take with me is that the “mash-bill” of Ardbeg is different compared to the “mash-bill” of, for instance, Bruichladdich. This mash-bill works for Ardbeg! This is the unique beginning of their process. Just like a mash-bill at a bourbon would contain fixed amounts of corn, Ardbeg milled their barley to a combination that works for them. The milled barley is transported to the next stage of the process.
|Stainless steal vat|
Mashing at Ardbeg takes place in a large covered stainless steel vat. The milled barley is mixed with different temperature waters at different points in time. This is to extract as much barley sugars and other congeners as one can. (At the Bruichladdich distillery i learned they used different temperatures and heating times). I stuck my face in and withdrew it immediately. This steam is HOT!
The water is from Islay. It is collected form the Uigeadall and another lake. This explained one of the names of the core expressions of Ardbeg.
|Me in front of a wash back|
The product of this process is moved to a free wash back, where the yeast can do it’s thing. We were allowed to “smell” different stages of this process by putting out arms in the wash back and spooning the air. The smell sticks to your arm and this can be smelled better than just sticking your head in the wash back. It felt weird, but it worked.
It smelled fruity, peaty and malty. It also had a beer-like smell to it in a way. It’s great to experience this and let your nose do its job. I spooned the wash back as often as I could in an attempt to get as much smell in my brain as I could. Unfortunately you cannot bottle this. You have to be there. The wash backs are steam cleaned after use in preparation for the next batch.
Next Dionne asked of we would like to taste the wash. Are you kidding? YES!! It tasted like a fruity beer. I hinted on banana on the nose. This taste I tried as often as I was able too. Keep it in my mouth for as long as I could. Closing my eyes. Fruity, banana. The other taste must be malted barley and yeast as main components. What else could it be! Loved this experience!
Dionne did a alcohol gravity measurement and together with the numbers collected at the milling she was able to calculate the alcohol to barley ratio. I will have to look that one up again and describe it better. It made sense.
|No pictures beyond this point|
Behind the point of the door we were not allowed to photograph the stills. So we all photographed before going thru the door. The explanation was safety related. Just like a gas station you don’t want to be blown up by alcohol vapours igniting.
The process was explained. The distilled liquid before the first cut is made is collected for re-use.
We were waiting for the operator to make the first cut. He did. We applauded! It felt nice!
The feints are also collected and redistilled at the next run. I wont give much detail here about the distillation process. The general principle is well documented. The one thing that makes the process unique for Ardbeg is a junction downwards in the beginning of the line arm that feeds back the heaviest alcohols into the still.
What surprised me is that there is no difference in this process for any of the Ardbeg expressions. All are produced in the same way. Only the casks make the difference between the final products. I did not expect that, but this entire process up to this point is a constant. This I find particularly interesting because it means that the flavour differences between Ardbeg expressions only can be explained by the casks and the time spend in the casks.
The produce of this process is transported to the area where the casks are filled. Not all casks are matured at the Ardbeg location, but a lot of them are and Ardbeg was working on expanding the local capacity.
|The filling station|
We were NOT able to taste a sample of the new make spirit. A sample did NOT go from hand to hand. We were NOT able to nose and taste the fruity, malty, high alcohol, peaty smelling liquid! I did NOT have a recognition with other new make spirits I have tasted before. Other new make I have had has similar fruity, banana like nose. the beer like smell of the wash had gone and the peaty smell was more present. Strong but not with an alcohol burn. Well distilled new make! Which I did not smell or taste 😉
Next was a moment to get a photo of yourself and the Ardbeg sign! If we wanted to have our picture taken …
On to the warehouse tasting for the next part of this blog.