Ardnahoe: How Islay’s ninth distillery is set to influence the whisky isle

As family-owned Ardnahoe celebrates the launch of its five-year-old Inaugural Release, Kristiane Sherry explores the impact of the ninth distillery on Islay and considers the future of whisky on the island as a wave of new producers look to set up shop

Words by Kristiane Sherry

Ardnahoe lead
The Ardnahoe distillery has views east to Jura, while behind is the loch from which it takes water for whisky production

Everything gleams at Ardnahoe. From the stills and the spirit safe, to the girders in the brand new, 20,000 cask-capacity warehouse, the Islay distillery is almost jarringly modern. Perched on the hilltop – ‘Ardnahoe’ literally means ‘height of the hollow’ in Scots Gaelic – its sleek silhouette seems at odds with the naturalness of its surroundings. Accessible only by a snaking single-track road, the first glimpse of the roofs comes as you round a final corner. Undulations give way to stunning views across the moorland-like topography to the rugged coastline and the soaring mountains beyond. Only on Islay could you expect to discover a distillery in such a spot.

The unveiling of their first single malt is a momentous occasion for the team at Ardnahoe. Carrying a five-year age statement, Inaugural Release is a serious declaration of the distillery’s prowess. And it’s been highly anticipated by the world’s whisky lovers too. ‘It’s an iconic Islay, a unique Islay,’ distillery manager Fraser Hughes declares.

They are words that could describe Ardnahoe itself. The ninth maker to begin production on the island and the first of a new generation, its place on Islay could be contentious. At the time ground broke in late 2016, there were rumblings among locals that the island simply didn’t need another distillery. But today, with a total of 14 makers either operational or planned, Ardnahoe feels as established on the map as any other. As the first release proves, it’s already an accomplished whisky-maker. This is not a distillery experiencing an identity crisis.

Ardnahoe jura view
Construction of the Ardnahoe distillery began in 2016

Ardnahoe lays claim to a number of Islay firsts. It is home to the only worm-tub condensers on the island, which exert huge influence on the spirit’s signature robust character. Similarly, the lyne arms on its stills are the longest in Scotland at a surprising 7.5m. All that copper contact results in a profoundly round spirit. And its Loch Ardnahoe water source, just the other side of that twisting road, is the deepest on the island. To visit Ardnahoe is to find yourself like nowhere else. Yet it all happened by chance.


Finding Ardnahoe

Almost 11 years ago to the day, the second-generation brothers behind Douglas Laing, Fred and Stewart, undertook what was reported at the time as a ‘demerger’. Their father’s business, founded back in 1949, was to head in two different directions. Fred effectively took over at the existing company, while Stewart founded Hunter Laing, Ardnahoe’s parent, to run alongside his two sons, Andrew and Scott. It was when they joined the business, back in 2013, that the seeds of a new distillery were sewn.

‘We initially thought we might buy a distillery but there wasn’t really any candidate,’ Andrew explained, as we toured the distillery. The ambitious Hunter Laing plans required it, he said. After all, spirit needed sourcing. The focus evolved to constructing one from scratch.

Ardnahoe Inaugural Release
Ardnahoe's Inaugural Release, 'a dram far more elegant than its youth suggests'

For months, the family scouted for sites right across Scotland but nothing available was suitable. It was only when passing by on that track-like road that they spotted the Ardnahoe hollow. Planning permission followed and then, what at one time felt too good to be true became reality. As much as a business venture, it became ‘a passion project’, Andrew noted. Trips to and from the mainland became a regular occurrence during construction. ‘It’s really, really about creating something of our own.’ Inside the impressive building, it seems inconceivable that this wasn’t always plan A. ‘We were very single-minded once we decided that we were going to build a distillery.’

For Scott, Ardnahoe’s location towards the north of the island creates an ‘ABC’ for whisky lovers and draws tourists up from the more heavily frequented south. That of course stands for Ardnahoe, Bunnahabhain (situated at the very end of the track down by the water), and Caol Ila. ‘It’s a destination,’ he states emphatically, with the distilleries just a few miles apart.

Ardnahoe still room
The lyne arms on Ardnahoe's stills are the longest in Scotland and the increased copper contact creates a rounder spirit

A new style of whisky for Islay?

‘Destination’ feels appropriate, given the assuredness of both the setup and philosophy behind the whisky-making. Everything is engineered to give Hughes and his team the maximum flavour spectrum to play with and levers to pull. The heavier texture of the first whisky, for example, owing to the method of condensing, could be adjusted in future. Hughes advocates for the ‘good bacteria’ in the Douglas Fir washbacks (‘I’d never use stainless steel’), which will build up over and over after each 75-hour ferment. His spirit cut is ‘quite high’ to keep things relatively soft, before the spirit heads to the 77m-long coils in the worm-tub condensers. The new-make is brimming with bright orchard fruit notes, backed by a creamy malt. The quality is never in question. And it translates well through to the Inaugural Release.

The nose opens with green apples, peach, raisins and Danish pastries, backed by a subtle hint of smoke. The palate develops with custard, shortbread, liquorice, buttery croissants and a robust smoke that trails all the way into the finish. Peated to 40ppm, it’s smokier than Bowmore but less so than Ardbeg or Laphroaig, and is neither a smoke monster nor a sherry bomb. Its Oloroso profile is balanced by the softness of bourbon casks. Tasting it in the stillhouse, drinking in the dual aspect views over Jura, felt like the perfect setting to explore a dram far more elegant than its youth suggests.

Fraser, Andrew, Scott
Fraser Hughes with Andrew and Scott Laing

For Scott Laing, the release is ‘very important’ to his life. ‘I don’t think I’ll ever found another distillery,’ he says, with a rare tone of whimsy in his voice. His perspectives throughout the visit have been more grounded in the commercial, as they need to be: whisky is increasingly an industry that runs on the bottom line, rather than romance. Brand Islay is strong and the Laings are astutely tapping into that. After all, distilleries have to be profitable as well as passionate.

‘For Ardnahoe itself, we’d eventually like it to be considered an equal peer of the other Islay distilleries. We would consider our job done at that point,’ Scott confirmed in an email after the launch event. Ardnahoe, coming 15 years after Kilchoman yet before the wave of new makers, appears to have the momentum and timing to make that a possibility. For the other newcomers, set to arrive on an increasingly crowded island that has a limited ability to sustain more distilleries, life may not be quite so straightforward.

Find out more about Ardnahoe’s Inaugural Release and distillery visits at ardnahoedistillery.com