Inside Ardbeg Day, Where Scotch Is King and Tradition Is Moot
At Fèis Ìle, the world’s premier whisky gathering, one distillery stands out from the peated crowd
I’m seated at a table in a private room of The Machrie hotel on Islay, Scotland, customizing a leather jacket by inserting pins and studs into its arms and shoulders, and steaming a fabric patch spelling “Chaos” across the back. A boisterous joke teller beside me, continually ensuring I’m double parked with a pint and a pour of Scotch, is adorning his jacket with tartan lettering that reads “Badger Juice.”
That man is Dr. Bill Lumsden, the director of distilling for Ardbeg and Glenmorangie. Together with a small group of other festivalgoers, we’re preparing ourselves — mind, body, and soul, along with those leather jackets — for Ardbeg Day 2022, one of the key distillery events during the annual Fèis Ìle, though this year’s fest is the first back in full force since 2019.
“Badger juice,” meanwhile, is Lumsden’s go-to nickname for peated Islay whisky from the distillery which he has stewarded and molded across its modern resurgence, from a shuttered afterthought in the 1980s to one of the most in-demand cult favorites of the Scotch world. While many would say that with enough Ardbeg in ya you’re bound to go as mad as a rampaging badger, the animal is, more simply, a befitting anagram of the word Ardbeg itself.
The diehard Ardbeg enthusiasts who’ve helped turn the distillery into a modern icon clamor for each and every new special release, and they came out in force by the thousands for the privilege on June 4. The advantages of such fandom are clear, bringing Ardbeg to the forefront of the whisky-collecting world and the horde who support it. The flipside to uber-engaged Ardbeggian stans is for passion to veer into obsession. “I’ve had a lot of comments, I’ve had one death threat, so it puts a slight edge on things,” Lumsden says. By and large though, fans are fans, and few feel the need to turn the term “diehard” into anything approaching a literal statement by threatening the livelihood of a whisky maker due to the flavor profile of his latest release.
Rule-Breaking Whisky, From Ardcore to Anti-Age
At Ardbeg Day 2022, the release du jour is Ardcore, a unique offering from the distillery consisting of 25% black malt. “It’s been incinerated within an inch of its life,” says Master Blender Gillian Macdonald. This type of malt is commonly used for the coloration and flavor of beers such as porters and stouts, but hardly ever found in whisky; here it helps develop notes of dark chocolate syrup, deep-roasted coffee beans, fudge, charcoal and the umami undertones of soil and mushroom.
The name and taste of the whisky is what led this year’s bonanza to be punk themed, which is why we end up spending a few hours under the tutelage of contemporary tartan style queen Siobhan Mackenzie to help ensure we don’t stand out as the squares of the day-long party.
The remaining 75% of Ardcore’s malt doesn’t consist of the distillery’s typically heavily peated variety, though. A lightly peated malt was used alongside the black malt, helping to ensure those intriguing flavors came through ahead of the smoke, rather than be overpowered by it.
Sitting down to a tasting of Ardcore and several other special drams from the distillery, including a spectacular 1975 cask pull consisting of a vatted mix of bourbon and Oloroso sherry-matured whisky, I walk right by Lumsden and Macdonald en route to my chair. Lumsden is leather-clad and his eyes are masked in a deep application of mascara, with hair gelled into a spiky mass. “Yes, I am a performing monkey in case you’re wondering,” Lumsden says, indicating his attire and schtick. But his fun-loving demeanor belies his serious, rigorous approach to whisky production. “I’m a lifelong whisky maker, scientist and geek.” Dr. Bill isn’t just a cheeky moniker — that would be “Billy Lums,” if you’d like to know — but proof of his education: a PhD in fermentation science from Heriot-Watt University.
Much of his time at Ardbeg is spent developing these one-off special releases, while laying down a broad enough swath of different styles and components to present himself with a huge range of future options to play around with and combine. “The core range tends to take care of itself,” Lumsden says. “But consistency is boring. Gillian and I have complete creative freedom to do what we want.”
Macdonald, too, is unrecognizable at the tasting, requiring a double take before parsing who exactly is the wildly-attired character speaking to us about Scotch. She’s wearing a leather skirt and jacket, with fishnets, choker chains and blue hair extensions, and enough multicolored makeup to readily serve as a creepy clown extra in a movie if called upon.
One key aspect of her creative approach with Ardbeg is how she and the distillery focus less on age, whether via age statement or vintage, than almost any other legacy Scotch single malt on the market. “People obsess with age less with Ardbeg, but we think it detracts from the stories we want to tell,” she says. Those stories being unique cask types, malt varieties and combinations thereof, along with more generally the construction of memorable whiskies with big personalities.
On the age-statement front, consider Wee Beastie, a recent permanent edition to the Ardbeg portfolio that proudly bears an age statement of just five years. The mere suggestion of releasing a 5-year-old single malt at a major Scotch whisky producer would get you laughed out of most distillery planning meetings. But not at Ardbeg. It’s a worthy dram; and I’m no slave to age-statement mentality, but when over the course of the festivities you get your hands on something like a yet-to-be-released 16-year-old Manzanilla sherry cask, well, that’s a pretty memorable whisky with a big personality, too.
As the day goes on, Lumsden wields his own big personality, and he’s not bashful about it. “I better not keep going before Billy keeps digging [himself into a hole],” he says while talking a bit of good-natured smack about certain unnamed producers. Blame the badger juice.
The Madhouse of Ardbeg Day and Fèis Ìle
On the festival day itself, our merry band arrives at the Ardbeg celebration by way of the distillery’s concrete pier. We spent the morning on a boat ride filled with an abundance of fresh-caught seafood and whisky as we took in the beautiful scenes of the island’s coastline, and applied temporary tattoos and spike collars and other certifiably punk finishing touches. There are food trucks and festival games, live music and whisky aplenty. Costumed Ardbeggians mingle with families towing children and dogs along for the ride. Bottle fiends stand in line to nab their allotted special edition, billionaire barrel-buying bros are busy plotting their next move, and would-be party crashers and interlopers come and go. All the while Ardbeg is served neat, in cocktails, mixed into ice cream and even poured atop oysters.
There’s no doubt about it, Fèis Ìle is a madhouse. And as has been discussed in the whisky ether as of late, some feel it’s swung entirely too far in the direction of corporate activations and profit-hoarding, eliminating the soul of what had been a celebration for Ìleachs, or Islay natives. Now, the tiny island with its scant 3,000 residents is overrun for a whisky-soaked week each year. Overhearing a few local conversations on the disruptions and noise, and all-around chaos, certainly lends credence to that. It’s the same way Mardi Gras overruns New Orleans, or the way the Super Bowl or the NCAA Tournament have transmogrified from sporting celebrations to prodigious profit parades as their first, second and third objectives.
Yet, the island is also visited by a legion of revelers from around the world who bring with them sheer, unbridled enthusiasm for the products being made there. The economic impact of flights and ferries and hotels and cottage rentals, not to mention the instantly sold-out special releases, and the many workers each of the island’s distilleries employs, aren’t to be understated, and ensure the festival isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Sure, these days it’s all more corporate, more expensive, more difficult for the average fan to attend and experience. But that’s what success can do, and until attendees have had their fill and stop coming back, or the residents of Islay themselves are fed up to the point that they put the kibosh on the whole affair, profit and accolades be damned, that’s going to remain the case.
Fèis Ìle is the world’s premier diehard whisky gathering — a wild whirling dervish of a celebration, one which welcomes the whisky-mad with open arms. It’s a place for unadulterated joy, and fun with friends, and reunions and songs and dances, and drams, plenty of drams, enough to make you question the sanity of it all over the course of the long ferry ride back to the mainland.
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