Ardbeg has launched its latest whisky ahead of this year’s Ardbeg Day, Heavy Vapours. Jess looks back on when she attended last year’s festivities and talked about all things innovation with Dr Bill Lumsden.
The first time I visited the Ardbeg distillery was for Ardbeg Day 2022. If that’s not the way to pop your distillery cherry, I don’t know what is.
It was also the first time I met the revered Dr Bill Lumsden (director of whisky creation) and the brilliant Gillian Macdonald (master blender and head of whisky). They had just released Ardbeg Ardcore, the 2022 Ardbeg Day edition, and little did I know what they had up their sleeves for this year’s release with Heavy Vapours.
When Lumsden started out in the industry, peaty whiskies were for the Ardcore hardcore drinkers – but no more. “Peated whisky is here to stay,” Lumsden attests. “But even I have to be in the mood to drink Ardbeg. It’s not necessarily my everyday whisky because it’s so idiosyncratic and so distinctive.”
What does innovation mean at Ardbeg?
With so much freedom at his disposal, how does Lumsden decide on how to innovate? The answer is really quite simple. “My mantra has always been ‘does it actually taste good?’ If it doesn’t, what’s the point in doing it? Some people will absolutely hate the whiskies I make, and that’s fine! There’s an equal number who will love it.” Haters gonna hate, and innovators gonna innovate.
But he also notes that he has to keep a certain level of restraint. “You have to be quite disciplined, because if you vary too many things at one time you’ll never be sure what it is that’s actually giving you the end result,” he tells me.
Lumsden, who has been with the brand for 29 years, has also learned to not give a stuff about what’s trending. “Trends are a bad word for me. If something is trendy and in fashion, it will not interest me in the slightest,” he reveals. Good thing then that missing purifiers aren’t all the rage right now.
Ardbeg Heavy Vapours
When it comes to whisky innovation, many people’s minds will jump to cask finishing, but in the case of Heavy Vapours the innovation started much earlier in the whisky making process. What happens when life takes away your purifier? If you’re Lumsden, you make a whisky with this new liquid and release it for Ardbeg Day!
This is the first time ever that Ardbeg has distilled its whisky without a purifier, generally regarded as a pretty key piece of apparatus on the still, responsible for maintaining Ardbeg’s balance between extreme peat and floral fruitiness. A purifier is basically a small copper pot on the underside of the lyne arm. When the heavier vapours rise from the still into the lyne arm, they fall into the purifier, condense, and fall back into the still (a process called reflux), ready to be redistilled. More reflux equals a lighter spirit.
What does Ardbeg Heavy Vapours taste like?
Its absence means that the heaviest vapours have been allowed to rise up the still during the distillation process, before being captured, matured, and bottled. “The juice is quite a few years beyond new make, matured entirely in refill bourbon casks to maximise the difference from disconnecting the purifier,” Lumsden told Master of Malt. The no-age statement single malt has been bottled at 46% ABV. In terms of flavour profile, we found it to be like a turbo-charged Ardbeg new make, with ashy smoke and vegetal tones among hints of citrus fruit.
“A missing purifier is unprecedented for Ardbeg. This experiment was something I’ve always imagined trying – what would happen to the flavour and character of Ardbeg as we know and love it, by distilling in this unique way?” Lumsden said of this new release. “Well, it’s now time for Ardbeg fans to find out; this is a full-blown dram where Ardbeg’s exalted balance has been disrupted in the most fantastic of ways – a truly captivating dram.”
Alongside the new whisky, this year Ardbeg fans are invited to celebrate the theme of ‘Planet’ Ardbeg Day, where they can expect to be transported into Ardbeg’s mythical, graphic novel universe. If you can’t make it to Islay in person, Lumsden will be hosting an Ardbeg Heavy Vapours masterclass on ardbeg.com or you can join the celebrations in London on Saturday 3 June.
You can buy Ardbeg Heavy Vapours at Master of Malt here.
Master of Malt tastes Ardbeg Heavy Vapours
Appearance: Very very pale colour. Almost looks like new make.
Nose: Lots of deep and earthy wood smoke on the nose, briny seaside notes, vegetal, touch of lime – it’s like turbo-charged Ardbeg new make – with cardamom warmth, herbal eucalyptus, as well as a strange funkiness akin to Gruyère.
Palate: You would think Ardbeg without the purifier would come out punching, but this is a more relaxed intensity. It’s spicy and briny, while thick ashy smoke drifts through a palate rich with dark chocolate, apples, charred honeyed meat, lime zest, and a little cumin.
Finish: A touch of creaminess and vanilla on the finish, balanced with old coffee, more chocolate, smouldering wood, and minty herbs.