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The Magic of Distilleries

I think Ardbeg could win wars. In the shape of its Committee the Islay distillery has, in the event that the word “closure” wriggles from Gallic mouths in LVMH, a sizeable and quickly-mobilised private army. Paris would fall in hours. People hold Ardbeg in the kind of esteem that was once more commonly displayed for one’s country. Ardbeg transcends nationality, however. Japanese, Scandinavians and Americans would muster alongside the Ileachs beneath the banner emblazoned with that stylised Pictish ‘A’ should strife threaten the peacable, peaty kingdom. In fact, I rather suspect Ardbeg transcends whisky altogether.

Ardbeg: a whisky lover's Wembley Stadium, Graceland and Mecca - all rolled into one.

Ardbeg: a whisky lover's Wembley Stadium, Graceland and Mecca - all rolled into one.

I use Ardbeg as the most demonstrative and well-documented example of this tribal fanaticism. Clan Ardbeg is vociferous, protective and passionate bordering on unhinged. When I visited in May the distillery was crawling with people. Hordes of men (and they were almost entirely male) roved about the visitor centre, clutching T-shirts, caressing bottles, looking as if they would shortly wet themselves with excitement and joy. However, I could not fail to interpret something more in their fixed stares, proud gaits and faint smiles: spiritual gratification and beatification was burgeoning in their souls with every step and profound breath. Their visit had unshakeable, indeed consoling and elevating, overtones of the divine. Their pilgrimage was at an end; their faith had been rewarded. The atmopshere was one of incredible intensity – such are the emissions of reverence. Perhaps that explains my prevailing disappointment with the tour itself.

Only near-neighbour Laphroaig can administer the single malt sacrament akin to the Ardbeg dogma. In the visitor centre there, too, it was easy to pick out the disciples for whom this was no simple diversion but a sacred destination. I could isolate the contingent of hushed devotees at Macallan, Springbank, Bowmore and virtually every other distillery I toured, global icon or not.

The question is why? What compels someone to travel to the birthplace of their favourite malt? Why is it so crucial to hear the mill, smell the washbacks, feel the heat of the stills and see the middle cut gushing through the spirit safe? For many, such a journey is neither straightforward nor cheap yet whisky enthusiasts arrive in their thousands each year in order to learn how that bottle of Bruichladdich they bought in Osaka, Stockholm or Seattle came into being. I think it is a means to discover, to acquaint themselves with, a malt whisky’s complete personality; flavour being only one limited facet of it. Octomore, after all, will taste the same on Islay as it does in Idaho, but seeing for yourself where it is made, by whom and how, adds so much to the experience of pouring a dram once back home.

However, if your interest in malt whisky has been keen enough to lure you to the distillery’s front door, I must warn you that it is already too late to resist the exponential momentum to which your relationship with the spirit is now prey. It will carry you into obsession and alter entirely your perceptions of the industry. Suddenly, the drink will become subsidiary to the premises that craft it in the same way that music is subsidiary to the person who writes and performs it. Visiting a distillery is like seeing the band live; the songs are the same but they are enriched by the arousal of all the senses in response to the wholeness of the experience: the essential mechanics of the performance, the demeanour of the musicians, the intoxicating sensation of sharing space with many other like-minded people. A great concert can be further enhanced by occurrences and encounters only loosely connected to it before, during or after; close-to or far away. All provide texture, depth and context to the main event.

The same is true of distilleries. To travel to one is to immerse oneself in its locality, and in Scotland that is almost invariably beautiful and dramatic. No longer is your favourite dram made in the isolation of your imagination but amidst hills, lochs, forest and foaming waves. You associate it with so many things: your landlady of the previous night; the man in the pub; the guide and staff in the visitor centre. You are charmed by the architecture, absorb the history of the place radiated from every stone and dusty corner. A fascination with and love of Scotch malt is so readily translated into an equally potent desire for Scotland. A little more exploration reveals an indelible symbiotic tie between the most engaging, dynamic and endearing distilleries and the most authentic and personable faces of the country. These may occasionally be tragic and melancholy ones but this only strenghtens the preference of the enthusiast.

All of which leads me back to Ardbeg and its beautiful rennaissance. The underdog, not so very long ago broken and dishevelled, has come good. It is now a distillery of charisma, drama and energy, with these heady ingredients imbued - in the romantic eyes of the fans - into its expressions, and who among us wouldn’t wish for a similar apotheosis at times?

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August 28, 2010 um 10:04 am
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  1. Fraser

    Excellent! I keep meaning to vist Islay,Laphroag and Ardbeg especially.They really are my 2 favourite malts around.

    Ive done speyside a few times….

    #1 Comment vom 29. August 2010 um 2:19 pm

  2. saxon

    Hi Fraser,
    I think it is precisely Islay’s comparative inaccessibility which further heightens that sense of awe and anticipation. It is no casual exercise getting there in the way that it might be for Speyside and other regions in mainland Scotland.
    Believe me when I say that the whisky enthusiast is well rewarded when they arrive on Islay, however. Laphroaig offers an excellent standard tour. Ardbeg’s isn’t especially extraordinary – no warehouse visit and manically busy – but your own enthusiasm fills in the blanks: “I’m at Ardbeg!” speeds unceasingly around your brain.
    Thanks for getting in touch,

    #2 Comment vom 30. August 2010 um 9:32 am

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