On the very edge of the Northern Atlantic Ocean – where the wind, rain and eponymous current catch the southwestern edge of Scotland – a cluster of distilleries have been making some of the most revered single malt whiskies for generations. Of these, the Islay distillery of Ardbeg is one of the most celebrated, with dedicated fans travelling from around the world to visit the birthplace of their favourite dram.
Many of those time their pilgrimage for the end of May. Not just because the weather is at its best and the long evenings stretch past midnight – when the lucky few are still enjoying a bonfire and a dram on the long sandy beaches – but because the most extreme Ardbeg experience comes from attending its annual festival day at the Fèis Ìle.
The Islay Festival
The Islay Festival is a celebration of the island’s culture and spirit. And when they say ‘spirit’ they mainly mean whisky. While a rum distillery opened in 2021, this is an island that’s home to nine active whisky distilleries (with two more coming online soon), 3,000 people and approximately 10,000 sheep.
The distilleries have been involved in the festival since the turn of the century, with each taking its turn to host an open day with live music, exclusive access, and limited-edition releases. Perhaps thanks to its own raucous, irreverent spirit, Ardbeg is now firmly established as the unofficial closing party of the festival with the dubious honour of hosting the open day on the final Saturday before the festival closes at the Final Fling ceilidh.
While you could argue that organising a party in a distillery shouldn’t be too tricky a task, it’s a responsibility that the team at Ardbeg have taken seriously for some time now, with the 2022 event launching into a whole new dimension with the inaugural release of the Planet Ardbeg graphic novel universe. The first publication – a 40-page sci-fi analogy, introduced the ‘Ardverse’ through the work of award-winning New York cartoonist Ronald Wimberly in collaboration with Spanish artist Emma Ríos and fellow American Sanford Greene. Each artist took on the responsibility of creating an adventurous fictional origin story for the brand’s core range: Ardbeg 10 Year Old, Ardbeg An Oa and Ardbeg Wee Beastie as well as introducing cameos from some of the larger-than-life personalities that work at the distillery.
In this year’s new edition, London-based artist Diraj Mann has created a second graphic novel in the Planet Ardbeg series to explain the somewhat technical backstory to the distillery’s 2023 Fèis Ìle special release – Ardbeg Heavy Vapours.
The Missing Purifier
On planet Earth, Ardbeg’s signature balance between extreme peat and floral fruitiness is attributed to an unusual piece of copper tubing on its spirit still; the purifier. Thanks to this piece of kit, the heaviest vapours that pass through the still and would normally make their way to the cask are drawn back into the pot never to reach the warehouse or the bottle. This year’s release is, therefore, the answer to Director of Whisky Creation Bill Lumsden asking, ‘What would happen to Ardbeg if we removed the purifier?’
In the Ardverse, however, the purifier hasn’t been disconnected, it’s been gone missing, and it is up to superhero Agent 46 (AKA visitor centre manager and Ardbeg Committee Chair, Jackie Thomson) in a soon-to-be iconic pair of Ardbeg socks and sidekick pup, Shortie, to defeat the evil heavy vapours and return the near-mythical equipment to the stillhouse in time to save the day.
Ardbeg Day 2023
On Islay, this theme is a cue for superhero fancy dress from visitors and distillery staff alike – from Distillery Manager Colin Gordon in safari gear and a ‘Wee Beastie Boys’-style medallion to Brand Ambassador David Blackmore’s turn as Ardbeg’s very own version of Bananaman. The fancy dress isn’t left to the humans either – with several of the distillery’s iconic, white-washed buildings joining in (watch out for the green tentacles poking out of one warehouse) – and artistic impressions of mascot Shortie and the evil heavy vapours popping up around every turn.
A highlight for many this year was the chance to customise your own Ardbeg merchandise with cartoonist Dilraj Mann and some assistants helping visitors to paint the Planet Ardbeg characters and iconography on their own jackets and t-shirts before venturing out to take part in the scavenger hunt, or one of the many charity games that rewarded luck, skill or sometimes both with a dram from the extensive Ardbeg back catalogue.
By late afternoon, fuelled by the drams, the cocktails and energised by the food trucks serving a range of local delicacies (oysters and smoked fish) and the more hearty serves from the Ardstream caravan, the madly-dressed crowd can mostly be found dancing and singing along to the live band playing from the back of a lorry, for no Fèis Ìle day is complete without a raucous rendition of some Scottish classics in a car park.
Ardbeg Day 2023 in London
For those not lucky enough to make it to Islay, the celebrations continued online where Dr Bill Lumsden hosted a tasting Masterclass, and at The Light Bar on Shoreditch High Street, where Londoners were able to transport themselves to Planet Ardbeg. As with the island-based celebrations – this took the form of a quest to solve a series of riddles and codes to crack in support of Agent 46’s mission. While it sounds like hard work, they were fortunately also fuelled by Ardbeg cocktails, the Heavy Vapours special release and food from ‘Shortie’s Smokehouse’.
Ardbeg Heavy Vapours, Islay Single Malt Whisky, 46%
Colour: pale straw; Pinot Grigio.
Nose: creosote, tarred rope, honeydew melon, Turkish delight and BBQ sauce.
Palate: starts medicinal – iodine or TCP; then peppery, aniseed balls, menthol and mint obscure the expected fruity notes.
Finish: long-lasting and smooth.
If you’re feeling like you’ve missed out on the celebrations, Ardbeg Heavy Vapours is available to buy worldwide from Ardbeg Embassies, whisky specialists and, 70cl, £120.
To discover more: visit ardbeg.com
All imagery courtesy of Ardbeg.