Ardbeg was one of the first distilleries we visited and also the last; in fact the only one we visited twice. The reason was simple – the café. It is a very good place for lunch and I really don’t know why more distilleries don’t do the same and make themselves more complete tourist destinations. After all there is an increased emphasis on matching food, a cafe with good food is a natural match.
We did not tour the distillery but instead had only a tasting but this was great thing to do. The man behind at the sales counter was was only too happy to break off from till duties to lead us to the tasting room and talk us through three expressions. His enthusiasm and willingness to talk about whisky in general as well as the other whiskies of Islay made for a fantastic time. One of the great things about the island is that all of the distilleries seem very supportive of each other. They might be different companies, competing for customers but here on Islay they are part of a community who know and respect each other. They might, of course, think their own bottles are the bee’s roller skates but that does not stop them appreciating the virtues of the others and recognising that different is just that – not better or worse, just different.
Like Bruichladdich where the tasting included Bere Barley, this tasting began with a whisky that’s no longer easily available but is an interesting point of comparison. Blasda was conceived as a lighter Ardbeg, less peat, less abv (40%) as an introductory spirit, a gateway drug to the hard stuff, if you like. It was interesting, perfectly nice if a little underpowered (and deliberately designed to be so) but drinking it with the others served to highlight what you like about Ardbeg and what a good drink the standard 10 year old is. The comparison made the essential Ardbeg character clearer.
Whilst tasting we also talked about other whiskies and distillery and our guide was open about the virtues of others. I think all enthusiasts have a wide appreciation, very few will stick to only one drink. In particular he had a fondness for Springbank. Partly this was because he could see a similarity with Ardbeg in that they distilled a certain amount and didn’t try to force their capacity and so reduce the quality. He was also impressed by the way Springbank do things their own way and treat their staff with respect. Ardbeg had recently had a visit from the customer relations staff at Springbank who had come to Islay to see how things were done in other distilleries and so broaden their experience and develop their own practices. He liked the idea and regretted the fact that although LVMH was a much bigger company, they never took the staff away in a similar fashion.
Talking with respect of other producers is only really possible if you have faith in what you do. The underlying belief is: others may be good but so are we and we are confident will shine through. I think all the Islay distilleries have that attitude.