Spirit Of The Week: Ardbeg Heavy Vapours Single Malt Scotch
The Islay label releases its biggest and chunkiest limited-edition whisky to celebrate Ardbeg Day.
“It’s been just stunning; every distillery’s put such on a fantastic day, the feedback’s been amazing, and the whole thing about Islay is it’s about the people—the authenticity of what we’re doing: distilling great liquid!” Jackie Thomson, the amicable Ardbeg Committee Chairman, shouts enthusiastically to the wobbly audience before her.
“From all of us we just want to join together to say bloody hell, thanks for coming! Thanks for embracing the spirit of Planet Ardbeg.”
It’s quite the scene, one not soon to be forgotten. On this gloriously sunny June afternoon it seems the entire island of Islay has descended to the frothy shores of Port Ellen to celebrate both Fèis Ìle (aka Islay Festival) in general, and specifically Ardbeg Day.
Dressed in wild costumes, dancing carefree under the limb-loosening effects of usquebaugh, slurping oysters plucked straight from the ocean and generally freeing themselves of troubles the way only Scots can.
Every year Ardbeg conceptualizes not only a new theme for their climactic Saturday Ardbeg Day soirée, but also a new limited edition bottle. Last year they launched Ardcore, an homage to the island’s heady punk-influenced days, as well as an unrelated graphic novel dubbed Planet Ardbeg. For 2023 they continue the Planet Ardbeg theme with a new chapter illustrated by Dilraj Mann, centered around heroine explorer Agent 46 based on Committee Chairman Thomson.
But the gem whisky fanatics really pilgrimage to Islay for on this week is the limited-edition bottle that Ardbeg creates every year specifically for Fèis Ìle. This year it’s dubbed “Heavy Vapours.”
What separates Heavy Vapours from their flagship 10 Year expression, and really any Ardbeg ever produced until this moment, is this LTO was the first ever made with Ardbeg’s unique purifier, exorcised from the distilling process.
Walking through the wonderfully rustic Port Ellen campus, Ardbeg Distillery Manager Colin Gordon pointed out the purifier—a smallish contraption on the line arm of the second still that returns the condensing vapors back through to the big still cell. This increases the amount of copper contact and reflux, removing the heavier peat compounds.
“What that equates to in flavor is you don’t just get peat, peat, peat, you get all sorts of complex fruit and herbal notes coming over,” explains Ardbeg Master Blender and Head of Whisky Creation Gillian Macdonald.
Ardbeg is the only distillery on Islay employing such a purifier, which they estimate equates to an additional half-distillation in the overall process—resulting in a final spirit famed for its floral and citrus notes, and less smoky than some of its heavily-peated nearby contemporaries.
“We knew [the purifier] did something, but we had procrastinated testing exactly what it does on the spirit,” Macdonald recalls of the experiment. She goes on to say it mitigates what they dub their “peaty paradox”— meaning that Ardbeg always uses comparatively more peat in their grain recipe, yet their whisky isn’t the sort of “smoke monster” that other nearby distilleries are known for. Credit the cleaner, bouquet-forward whiskies partly to this famed purifier.
Coincidentally, these lighter notes are similar to what’s produced in Ardbeg’s sister distillery in the Highlands. Glenmorangie employs “giraffe” stills with exceptionally tall copper necks, creating a similar, abnormally large amount of contact and reflux.
“We believe it makes us sort of stand out, but we thought once and for all let’s give it a go and prove it. Now we could have completely fallen flat on our face and established that it did nothing,” she continues with a laugh. “But we did it, and it did.”
The actual process of exorcising the recirculator wasn’t difficult—it simply needed to be replaced with a blank flange. Still, Ardbeg’s recently retired distillery manager Mickey Heads was more than a bit dubious when the experiment was first proposed 13 years ago.
“When we first asked him to do it, Mickey was a bit taken aback and was just, ‘Oh, why would you want to do that?!’ But once we’d explained our concept, he was all for it.”
To ensure a scientifically sound experiment, the team kept everything about the base spirit’s conditions identical: the same mashbill, same cuts, same run timings on the still, etc. The effect of the purifier was so evident that the Master Blender could discern the new spirit was different as soon as it poured into the spirit safe.
The only other pivot from their standard-bearer Ardbeg 10 was instead of maturing in first- and second-fill bourbon casks, they specifically chose to pour the majority of the new juice into second-fill casks—guaranteeing less wood impact on this unique juice.
“We specifically chose second-fill tasks so that the influence of the wood would be minimized to ensure you could taste the flavor of what we changed at the start,” Macdonald stresses.
Cutting her whisky teeth with the legendary Dr. Jim Swan while she trained under him at Welsh distillery Penderyn, Macdonald has since even further polished her skills and palate working with Glenmorangie and Ardbeg’s esteemed Dr. Bill Lumsden for 11 years.
“If we’d chosen to put it into first-fill Oloroso casks—which would be really rich, fruity and put a load of color into it—you wouldn’t necessarily see the bigger change.”
And the changes are dramatic. When the project was first visualized the creative team gave it the code name Big and Chunky. “That’s kind of what we were expecting because the whole thing was to remove the finesse element of what gives us all those extra layers within Ardbeg,” Macdonald continues. “We were expecting was a bigger and chunkier style of spirit, which is what we’ve ended up with.”
As for what you can expect from Heavy Vapours, Macdonald reveals a common theme it shares with their Ardbeg 10 flagship is dark chocolate, adding “it’s also very ashy.”
Se goes on to list such unique nuances such as creosote and cardamom, with more pointed peat flavors, but goes on to say Heavy Vapours’ uniqueness lies more in what it’s lacking: an addition by subtraction. Ardbeg 10’s distinguishing flavors, like lime and lemon, are absent, as are herbal notes like pine resin and fennel.
“This is definitely lacking those,” continues Macdonald, “which I think is what we can sort of prove the purifier does or adds.”
If you’re eager to try an Ardbeg more committed to the peat, you can find a bottle of Heavy Vapours, which is bottled at 46 percent ABV, here for $139.99.