Hugh Smith’s letter from Islay
ARDBEG DISTILLERY is one of the three similar establishments to be found in the Kildalton district and on the south east coast of Islay.
It was officially founded by local farmer and distiller John MacDougall, whose family was to play a long and vital role in the history of the island distillery.
In 1838 Ardbeg was bought for £1,800 by the Glasgow spirit merchant Thomas Buchanan but continued to be managed by the MacDougall family.
In the 1850s it was run by sisters Margaret and Flora MacDougall who were probably Scotland’s first lady distillers. Also involved was Colin Hay, whose father had been coachman to Walter Frederick Campbell, the island’s principal landowner.
Following the sisters’ deaths, the Hay family took over the reins and their names became synonymous with the distillery and the surrounding Ardbeg district – the Gaelic name refers to ‘the small promontory’.
By the early 1900s the village was home to around 40 families and had its own pier and school, which had close on 100 pupils.
The whisky writer and traveller Alfred Barnard visited Ardbeg distillery in 1886 and reported that ‘it was one of the most interesting on the island’ with an annual whisky output of 250,000 gallons which made it the most productive of all the Islay distilleries,
Following the Hay tenure, which was not without its tribulations, it was purchased in 1922 for £19,000 by Alex MacDougall and Co., and with this acquisition a link with the founding family was re- established.
Sadly, this purchase did not fare well and in 1959 the MacDougall company went into liquidation and resulted in the formation of the Ardbeg Distillers Company.
In 1973 it came under the joint control of the Distillers’ Company Ltd, (the DCL), and the Canadian- owned Hiram Walker and Sons. Hiram Walker took over full ownership in 1877 and four years later the distillery was mothballed. This resulted in the loss of 18 jobs which had a devastating effect on the community.
A bleak period followed before it was taken over Allied Distillers which also had interests in nearby Laphroaig Distillery. Production restarted on a very limited basis with very mixed results and this brought the shutters down for a second time in 1996.
One year later Ardbeg was bought by Glenmorangie plc, now under the umbrella of the French luxury group Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, which invested £7million in a complete refurbishment programme leading to a resumption and a notable increase in production.
The improvements and renovations saw the introduction of the Kiln Café and the visitors’ centre which helped to cement the distillery as a major tourist attraction.
Awards and recommendations followed and their varied whisky selection gleaned international praise and prestige. Whisky Magazine was delighted to name Ardbeg as its ‘distillery of the year’ and the Scottish Tourist Board was happy to grade it as a four-star visitor attraction. There were further celebrations in 2015 when the island distillery marked its bicentenary. And we can be sure that founder John MacDougall was very much there in spirit!
HIGH PRAISE indeed must go the Romy Mitchell who is this year’s dux at the Islay High School.
The Gaelic-speaking Bowmore schoolgirl was the worthy recipient of the Lady Margadale and Gilchrist dux medals at the celebration of achievements ceremony in the school’s assembly hall on June 16.
The dux medallist spent her early years in the Lagavulin district and lessons began for her at the Gaelic Medium Education unit attached to the Bowmore primary school.
All wish Romy well as she continues her studies at Edinburgh University where she plans to graduate in mathematics.
Guest speaker at the achievements ceremony was former pupil Peter MacLellan whose managerial skills are much in evidence at his familyowned Bowmore Hotel.
Ardbeg Distillery was founded by farmer and distiller John MacDougall.