What's in a name?
We draw the water to produce Ardnahoe spirit from the eponymous Loch Ardnahoe, which lies a stone’s throw from the distillery. Loch Ardnahoe offers exceptionally soft water that has been filtered through peat and rock for thousands of years. The result is an exceptional water source to use in all aspects of the whisky making process.
Mysteries surround Loch Ardnahoe: no one is quite sure how deep it is, while others say there’s a ghost of a charging white steed that rises out of the Loch on a full moon. They’re stories for another time...
One could be forgiven for thinking they’re in heaven – a natural, stunning and magical environment to create an exceptional spirit with a heart and soul of its very own.
Barley and the Boby Mill
The whole process of making whisky is a remarkable chemistry that is orchestrated by the most skilled masters of their art. Firstly, the barley is malted on Islay, a process where the malt is steeped in water in order to allow the seeds to germinate; that unlocks the sugar potential to be turned into alcohol later in the process. Once the barley has been soaked, it is then dried over peat smoke for around 20 hours, this is the foundation of the distinctive peaty Islay flavour in the ultimate spirit. The barley is then ground into ‘grist’ in our beautiful 100 year old Vickers Boby mill – the only piece of equipment in the distillery which is not new. A little bit of the past, brought to the present as we go onto the future.
The Mash Tun
The milled grist is transferred to our copper-domed mash tun. Water from Loch Ardnahoe is heated, added to the grist and the process begins to produce a liquid called ‘wort’: a sweet, sugary solution and in our case, also smoky. The attention to detail at this point in the process is paramount: too hot and the enzymes will die, too cold and the enzymes will not convert as much starch. At Ardnahoe the aim is to create the clearest wort possible and this can only be accomplished by careful consideration as to how much the mixture is mashed. Therefore, it is constantly checked for temperature, mixing rates and quality. The result at Ardnahoe is a liquid so clear, pure and sweet that it lends itself perfectly to our ultimate, unique and dynamic spirit.
The wort is separated from the barley husks and taken to the next stage of the process, whilst the husks, known as “draff” are taken away by local farmers to be used as cattle feed.
It is in the four traditional Oregon Pine washbacks that the next part of the alchemic transformation takes place. Specially designed and constructed using this long, straight variety of timber which has minimal sap and knots and offers the optimum habitat for yeast development, these were constructed by JB Vats in Dufftown. Chilled yeast is added to the sweet, clear wort and the reaction begins. The yeast feeds on the sugar to produce alcohol and froths violently before subsiding after 50 hours into a ‘wash’, a liquid not unlike weak beer. The total fermentation time at Ardnahoe is approximately 65 – 70 hours which gives the desired result of a wonderfully fruity wash.
Situated in their bright, airy still room with beautiful vistas of the Sound of Islay, the two copper pot stills at Ardnahoe were manufactured in the North East of the country by the artisans of Speyside Copperworks. Lantern-shaped in design, they are relatively large with a capacity of 13,000 litres for the wash still and 11,000 litres for the spirit still, which along with their unusually long descending lyne arms allows the vapour plenty of copper contact. Slow, gentle distillation ensures that the Ardnahoe spirit has all of the desired characteristics; being fruity, peaty and of the highest quality.
The Worm Tubs
Ardnahoe Distillery is unique on Islay and one of only a handful in Scotland still to employ the traditional style of worm tub condenser. Large copper coils submerged in tanks or “tubs” of cold water allow the vapour after it has passed through the lyne arm of the still to condense gently and gradually, thus imbuing it with added texture and complexity. This style of condensing used to be common throughout Scotland but fell somewhat out of favour in the 20th century because its use necessitates particularly slow distillation. Whilst the accountants may not share our enthusiasm, we believe the benefits of this less efficient method will ultimately be apparent in the glass!
Just as today, in the days of Illicit distillation “the worm” was a highly valued and expensive to manufacture piece of equipment, indeed those illicit distillers would, during a raid, ensure that they retained their “worms”, even if meant losing their stills to the excisemen. It is an interesting piece of local folklore that Ardnahoe was the site of last illicit still on the island as recently as 50 years ago.
Cask selection is of paramount importance to the creation of exceptional whisky. At Ardnahoe we use around 70% first fill ex-bourbon barrels and 20% ex-oloroso sherry hogsheads. The bourbon casks come directly from the United States and are made from American White Oak, which imparts flavours of toffee, honey and vanilla to the whisky. Directly from Jerez, the Oloroso sherry casks are made from European Oak and impart rich intense flavours of red fruits, brown sugar and spices.
To be called scotch whisky, the spirit must be produced and warehoused in Scotland for a minimum of 3 years. As the spirit rests in the casks, over time the effects of the maturation soften and flavour its spirited character. Approximately 2% of the casks’ volume (liquid & alcohol) evaporates every year, this is what’s known as The Angels’ Share – how much they steal away depends on the warehouse type and location. A proportion of the Ardnahoe spirit is matured at the distillery on Islay, absorbing the particularly maritime atmosphere and adding an extra element of “terroir”.
Our aim is to produce a classically peated style of Islay single malt whisky; smoky, dynamic and full bodied. When will we know it’s ready? The whisky will tell us. Never rush a good thing...