Ardbeg Corryvreckan Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Ardbeg Corryvreckan Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky (Photo by the brand)

Ardbeg- Synonymous with Peat

Ardbeg Distillery is synonymous with peated Scotch- for many, it defines the genre. Islay Scotch whiskies are characterized by aromas and flavors derived from the peat used to dry the barley, with descriptors often related to the sea- salt, iodine, tarry rope, kippers, phenolic, and more. Few distilleries exhibit as many of these and more than Ardbeg. Like its competitor (and one-time owner) Laphroaig, Ardbeg leans into these flavors and Ardbeg Corryvreackan more than most. Please see the tasting notes at the end of this article.

Ardbeg was officially founded in 1815 by John MacDougal, although some records indicate he began distilling whisky illegally in 1794. The distillery changed hands multiple times in the ensuing years, but always with some MacDougal family members involved, at least in the early years. It’s also one of the first Scotch distilleries to be headed by a woman (two, in fact), John’s sisters Margaret and Flora.

By 1886, Ardbeg was in high demand by blenders for its heavily peated style and as a single malt, particularly for export. The heavily smoked character resulted from kilns unequipped with extractor fans- the drying smoke filled the kilns and lingered. At an estimated 250K-300K gallons, Argbeg was by far the largest producer on Islay. Its success drove a population boom, employing over 60 men and supporting a town population of over 200. And despite a fire in 1887 that destroyed much of Ardbeg’s facilities, the distillery rebuilt and continued its success.

Ardbeg’s name and distinctive “A” logo were registered as trademarks in 1911. In 1922, the MacDougal family regained control under the Alexander MacDougal and Co umbrella. Ardbeg closed briefly from 1932-1935 due to the Great Depression but remained family-owned and operated until Ardbeg Distillery LTD was formed in 1959. Demand for peated whiskey continued to grow, prompting shareholders Distillers Company Limited (DCL) and Canadian-based Hiram Walker & Sons to form Ardbeg Distillery Trust in 1973, purchasing Ardbeg for USD 375K (about $2.5M in 2023 dollars).

Sagging demand led to a Hiram-Walker buyout for $375K in 1977, and sales continued to slide. The “Whisky Loch” or glut of the 1980s saw Ardbeg shuttered in 1981, reopening on an extremely limited basis in 1989 under Laphroiag’s parent Allied Distillers mantle (they purchased Hiram Walker). Ardbeg became a source for Laphroaig’s spare parts and fell into severe disrepair.

In 1997, Glenmorangie purchased Arbeg’s distillery and remaining stock, undertaking a complete refurbishment. They released s 17-year-old from existing barrels and, four years later, a 25-year-old, both of which became highly sought expressions. The visitor’s center opened in 1998, and by its bicentennial in 2015, Arbeg had regained its status as a world-class Islay Scotch distillery. The Ardbeg Committee, an international enthusiasts group, was founded on 1/1/2000; its primary aim is to ensure Ardbeg never again closes. The Ardbeg Committee provides news, updates, and unique release whiskies available only to members.

Ardbeg Corryvreckan

In the icy North Atlantic, in the deep and narrow Strait of Corryvreckan between the islands of Jura and Scarba, in Argyll and Bute, just off the west coast of mainland Scotland, you’ll find the world’s third largest oceanic whirlpool. It’s also a source of Norse and Scottish mythology, considered by mariners, ancient and modern, as one of the most dangerous stretches of water around the British Isles. Ardbeg’s Corryvreckan heavily peated Scotch whisky takes its name from the dark and dangerous reputation of that stretch of water, alluding to its reputation as a place “where only the bravest souls dare to venture,” and, “like the whirlpool itself, Corryvreckan is not for the faint-hearted!”

Tasting Notes

Ardbeg Corryvreckan pours a gorgeous golden amber and immediately assaults the sense with intense aromas of wet campfire, the beach, kippers, black pepper, roasted meat, and burnt sugar. Handwarming reveals unrefined cocoa and cigar tobacco, and swirling releases additional notes of orange zest, brine, pine tar, prunes, and baked cherries. Distant hints of toffee, oatmeal, and barrel spice round out the nose. NOTE- the aromas last far after the dram. I’ve even noticed it a full day after emptying the glass!

The initial sip is surprisingly round, oily, salty, and prickly, compliments of a 57.1% ABV. Impressively complex, there is a full array of Islay-influenced flavors, including notes of savory spice, seawater, and phenols, followed by hints of sour lemon, baked cherries, kelp, and iodine. The finish is long, warm, salty, and bittersweet, with distant notes of coffee, black pepper, baked sole, and smoked meats. The afterglow is quite salty and drying.

This whisky is EXACTLY what I think of when I think Isaly- textbook if you will. And, despite lacking an age statement, it feels like a well-aged Scotch; complex, balanced, and integrated. No wonder it’s won so many awards, including Gold at the 2019 International Spirits Challenge, a “Master” rating at the 2013 Scotch Whisky Masters competition, Double Gold at the 2013 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and “World’s Best Single Malt” in 2010.

This is presently tied for my favorite Scotch. When I find the one it’s tied with, I’ll let you know (teehee)! In the meantime, you can read David Zivan’s review here, plus some other Ardbeg “greatest hits” here and here.