I’m sitting at a table in a private room at The Machrie hotel in Islay, Scotland, customizing a leather jacket by inserting pins and nails into its arms and shoulders, and steaming a fabric patch spelling out “Chaos” on the back. A boisterous joke teller next to me, continually making sure I’m double-parked with a pint and a pour of scotch, adorns his jacket with tartan lettering that says “Badger Juice.”
This man is Dr Bill Lumsden, the director of distillation for Ardbeg and Glenmorangie. Together with a small group of other festival-goers, we are preparing – mind, body and soul, as well as those leather jackets – for Ardbeg Day 2022, one of the distillery’s key events during the annual Fèis Ìle, although the festival of this year is the first strong comeback since 2019.
“Badger Juice,” meanwhile, is Lumsden’s nickname for the distillery’s peated Islay whiskey he has managed and shaped through its modern resurgence, from an afterthought in the 1980s to the one of Scotland’s most in-demand cult favourites. While many would say that with enough Ardbeg in you, you’ll go as mad as a raging badger, the animal is, more simply, a fitting anagram of the word Ardbeg itself.
The die-hard Ardbeg enthusiasts who helped turn the distillery into a modern icon clamor for every new special release, and they came out in force in the thousands for the privilege on June 4. The benefits of such fandom are clear, bringing Ardbeg to the forefront of the world of whiskey collecting and the horde that supports it. The other side of the ultra-committed Ardbeggian stans is that passion turns into obsession. “I’ve had a lot of comments, I’ve had a death threat, so that gives things a slight edge,” Lumsden says. On the whole though, fans are fans, and few feel the need to spin the term “diehard” into something approaching a literal statement by threatening a whiskey maker’s livelihood due of the flavor profile of its latest release.
Revolutionary whiskey, from Ardcore to Anti-Age
On Ardbeg Day 2022, the release of the day is Ardcore, a unique offering from the distillery made with 25% dark malt. “It was incinerated within a centimeter of its lifespan,” says master blender Gillian Macdonald. This type of malt is commonly used for coloring and flavoring beers such as porters and stouts, but is almost never found in whiskey; here it helps develop notes of dark chocolate syrup, roasted coffee beans, fudge, charcoal, and umami undertones of earth and mushroom.
The whiskey name and taste 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 make sure that we don’t stand out as the one day party squares.
However, the remaining 75% of Ardcore’s malt is not the distillery’s typically heavily peated variety. A lightly peated malt has been used alongside the dark malt, helping to ensure those intriguing flavors emerge before the smoke, rather than being overpowered by it.
Sitting down for a tasting of Arcore and several other special drams from the distillery, including a spectacular 1975 cask draw of a tank mix of bourbon and Oloroso sherry-matured whiskey, I walk just past Lumsden and Macdonald on their way to my chair. Lumsden is dressed in leather and his eyes are obscured by a deep application of mascara, with hair gelled into a spiky mass. “Yeah, I’m a performing monkey in case you were wondering,” Lumsden says, pointing to his attire and schtick. But his fun demeanor belies his serious and rigorous approach to whiskey production. “I’m a lifelong whiskey maker, scientist and geek.” Dr. Bill is not just a cheeky nickname – it would be “Billy Lums”, if you want to know – but proof of his education: a doctorate in fermentation science from Heriot-Watt University.
Much of his time at Ardbeg is spent developing these unique special builds, while establishing a wide enough range of different styles and components to present himself with a huge range of future options to play and combine. “The basic range tends to take care of itself,” says Lumsden. “But consistency is boring. Gillian and I have complete creative freedom to do whatever we want.
Macdonald, too, is unrecognizable upon tasting, requiring a double take before we analyze who exactly is the character in crazy outfits telling us about Scotch. She wears a leather skirt and jacket, complete with fishnets, choker chains and blue hair extensions, and enough multicolored makeup to easily serve as a scary clown in a movie if asked.
A key aspect of her creative approach with Ardbeg is how she and the distillery focus less on age, whether through age declaration or vintage, than almost any other legacy Scotch single malt on the market. “People are less age-obsessed with Ardbeg, but we think it hurts the stories we want to tell,” she says. These stories being unique cask types, malt varieties and their combinations, as well as more generally building memorable whiskeys with big personalities.
On the age statement front, consider Wee Beastie, a recent permanent edition from the Ardbeg wallet that proudly bears an age statement of only five years. The mere suggestion of releasing a 5-year-old single malt from a major Scotch whiskey producer would make you laugh at most distillery planning meetings. But not in Ardbeg. It’s a worthy dram; and I’m no slave to age mentality, but when during the festivities you get your hands on something like a cask of 16-year-old Manzanilla sherry that hasn’t been released yet, well, it’s is quite a memorable whiskey with a big personality, too.
As the day goes on, Lumsden exercises his own big personality, and he’s not shy about it. “I better not go on ’til Billy keep digging [himself into a hole]“, he says, talking a little good-natured slap about certain anonymous producers. “Some other distillers on the island are fucking liars.” Must be the badger juice talking.
Ardbeg Day and Fèis Ìle lunatic asylum
On the day of the festival itself, our merry band arrives at the Ardbeg party via the distillery’s concrete jetty. We spent the morning taking a boat ride filled with an abundance of freshly caught seafood and whiskey while taking in the beautiful scenes of the island’s coastline and applying temporary tattoos, spike collars and other certifiably punk finishing touches. There are food trucks and festival games, live music and whiskey galore. Costumed Ardbeggians mingle with families towing children and dogs for the ride. Bottle fiends line up to grab their allotted special edition, barrel-buying billionaire bros are busy planning their next move, and party-breakers and would-be intruders come and go. All the while, Ardbeg is served neat, in cocktails, mixed with ice cream, and even poured over oysters.
There is no doubt about it, Fèis Ìle is a lunatic asylum. And as has been discussed in the whiskey ether lately, some believe it’s gone too far in the direction of corporate activations and profit hoarding, stripping the soul of what had been a celebration for the Ìleachs, or the natives of Islay. Today, the small island with its approximately 3,000 inhabitants is invaded every year for a whiskey-soaked week. Hearing a few local conversations about the disturbances and noise, and widespread chaos, certainly lends credence to that. It’s the same way Mardi Gras takes over New Orleans, or how the Super Bowl or NCAA Tournament morphed from sports celebrations to parades of lavish benefits as first, second, and third goals.
Yet the island is also visited by a legion of revelers from around the world who bring with them a pure and unbridled enthusiasm for the products made there. The economic impact of flights, ferries, hotels and cabin rentals, not to mention the sold-out special outings and the many workers employed by each of the island’s distilleries, should not be underestimated and ensures that the festival is not taking place. anywhere soon.
Of course, these days everything is more corporate, more expensive, more difficult for the average fan to attend and experience. But that’s what success can do, and until the participants have had their fill and stop coming back, or the people of Islay themselves are fed up enough to put the kibosh on all the case, profit and accolades be damned, it’ll stay the case.
Fèis Ìle is the world’s premier purebred whiskey gathering – a wild whirling dervish of a celebration, which welcomes whiskey freaks with open arms. It is a place of pure joy, fun with friends, reunions, songs, dances, drams, many drams, enough to make you doubt your sanity all along the long ferry ride to the mainland.
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