We spoke to the new Ardbeg distillery manager, Colin Gordon, about being a whisky romantic, the future of the category, and what the distillery and its new stillhouse have in store for visitors when it reopens. Oh, and a mosh pit restaurant…
Arbeg means ‘small promontory’ in Scots Gaelic, but you’d have to work hard not to spot it perched proudly off the south coast of Islay. The distillery has been producing whisky originally for blends but now bottled as single malts for over 200 years (on and off). The range goes from the youthful Wee Beastie 5 year old, to its newly released 25 year old. Its long-running distillery manager Michael ‘Mickey’ Heads stepped down from his 13-year tenure in late 2020 and now, Colin Gordon (who has held the similar roles at neighbouring Port Ellen Maltings and Lagavulin Distillery) holds the keys to the growing site. So, what has he got in store for us?
Master of Malt: How have the first few months of running Ardbeg been since you started in October 2020?
Colin Gordon: It’s been brilliant! I already knew the site quite well just from already being on Islay and there is always a buzz here. There’s a close-knit team [about 30 people in the summer] which has been great since coming in – it doesn’t feel like I’ve only been here a few months. It’s been really busy and although Covid has brought its challenges, we’ve been making some fine new make spirits.
MoM: What made you make the move from Lagavulin to Ardbeg?
CG: It’s funny, I really wouldn’t have moved for many jobs to be honest. I already knew quite a few people who worked for Glenmorangie, so when the role came up myself and my family were really settled on Islay and we want to stay here. The Ardbeg brand is alive and well, it is such a funky brand, there’s a great team where you’re really involved and I just felt like it was the right opportunity.
MoM: What was your relationship with Ardbeg before you began the job?
CG: Islay is a close-knit place. Where I used to work in Port Ellen is probably the only place in the world where you get told how your malt is going when you’re standing in the queue buying a loaf of bread. I’d already dealt with Mickey quite closely, so I knew quite a lot about Ardbeg, and it was always a great place to visit and get lunch at the cafe. During Islay Fèis Ìle, the last day is always at Ardbeg, and it was always a really great mix between locals and visitors. Of course it’s also a great whisky – Ardbeg as a liquid is a grand dram.
MoM: What’s the best thing about running a distillery?
CG: I love whisky. It’s funny because there are so many people who work in the industry who don’t love it, but I genuinely do, and single malt especially, so I love what we’re doing day to day. Distilleries are so intertwined with the place as well and we’ve still got people working here related to people who worked here before them and as the 21st distillery manager, you’ve just got to come in and keep that going because we have passionate fans all over the world. No day is the same, and Islay often has unique challenges. As an industry though, we collaborate: I think that’s stronger on Islay – it’s like you’re one brand.
MoM: What does it take to be a distillery manager?
CG: I would say you need to be quite calm under pressure because things do go wrong and you will always have challenges, from poorer crop for your malt to process issues, day-to-day managing, customs – you know, all that good stuff. You need to be passionate about what you do and be open to change and innovation which is huge at Ardbeg: you need that mindset. Distillation and making whisky or new make spirit is a process we’ve been doing for a long time, so you need to try things and have an open mind for that. You’ve got to like people too because ultimately you’re a people manager.
MoM: Did Mickey Heads give you any advice on taking over?
CG: Mickey and I didn’t have a long handover because of Covid and everything was delayed. Mickey finished on 1 October which was pretty much the day I started. We went for a walk around the site and in a very calm manner he said: “This is a great site. Use the team and you’ll be absolutely fine.” He didn’t give me anything too worrying, but he did recommend a few things he’d like to see done.
MoM: Are there any changes you’re looking to implement?
CG: I think the biggest thing for us is really around volume as the demand continues to grow. We have built a new stillhouse and doubled up with two wash stills and two spirit stills. We will hopefully finish at the end of this month and that will be key to help us maintain the brand. Everything [from the original stills] has been replicated, so they’re identical and we need to make sure they run the same, and the spirit we’re running off is the best quality. There will be other bits and pieces, too.
MoM: What are the nuances of the Ardbeg distillery that are different to what you’ve experienced before?
CG: We’re still quite manual in a lot of respects. A lot of the places I’ve worked before have been automated, but I’m a bit of a whisky romantic at heart so I like that the mash is still very manual. The operators are the sequence, with valves being opened by hand, so that’s one of the biggest differences. We’ve still got a lot of people interacting with the process.
MoM: What do you think will be the challenges for whisky distilleries in Islay in the coming years?
CG: I think there are a number of things that will pose challenges. There are a number of distilleries on Islay that will hit a spate of retirements and we need to make sure we have the right people coming through. There is a fine balance in rural Scotland (and rural UK) in that we need to make sure we keep our young population so that we have the next generation working here. That is a real issue – we need to make sure we have the right people to grow. Long term, it’s all about sustainability. The Scotch Whisky Association has set ambitious targets and we support that 100% as a business. They are good challenges.
MoM: What’s on the horizon for Ardbeg in 2021?
CG: Nothing but exciting times. In terms of the distillery side, we have the new stillhouse and there are some more exciting bottlings and special releases. The visitor centre also plays a large role and when we can welcome people back, one of the things we’ve looked at since Covid is our restaurant. It’s one of the great things people loved here, it was like organised chaos (like a mosh pit sometimes), so we’re looking at how we can develop that and restructure nicely so we have an outdoor eatery. It will be like a big American-style trailer with smoked foods and we’re really looking at what we can do with that. We’re a brand that doesn’t sit still.