Exhilarated by the warm peat of Speyside (see BENRIACH SMOKE SEASON tasting), I'm driving back to France in my faithful Brad Peat, when I get the crazy urge to go and have a look at Islay the magnificent.


As a member of the ARDBEG COMMITTEE, I want to go and see what the new ARDBEG regular reference is like on the spot (as you can imagine, I've been tasting it for some time now, since it was released in full confinement in 2020): the 5 year old WEE BEASTIE! And even if I'm on the spot, I'll compare it to the house reference: the TEN (which, let's remember, was created by Dr RACHEL BARRIE who is now at BENRIACH and to whom we owe our last tasting - see above - but we'll come back to that)!


Here I am, heading due west towards the west coast and the Campbeltown peninsula. A quick ferry hop and I'm in Port Askaig. Then, and this is often the way it happens on Islay, the peat chakras open up and the journey turns into a dream of mellow smoke. The road south to ARDBEG whets your appetite: PORT ASKAIG, BALLYGRANT, BOWMORE, PORT ELLEN, LAPHROAIG, LAGAVULIN....


When you arrive at your destination you have an unbearable urge for peated whisky (but that's not the point because you just have to go there and you'll see that there's a before and an after to be there!) I take the opportunity while passing in front of LAPHROAIG to check that my flag is still on my peaty patch. 



Anyway, here I am at the second end of the island (the first one being in the north at BUNNHABHAIN) the one in the south at ARDBEG. I like this impression of the end of the world of the living before in the world of the gods of the peat. Indeed, if I don't know the translation of ARDBEG in Gaelic (if there is one) but the French translation is: "ah tu veux de la tourbe et bien tu vas en plein le nez" (or something like that).


Imagine, in front of me the end of the world road and the cross of Kidalton, on the right not far away the sea and the distillery which smells good the peat (even if now the barley is dried in the malting of PORT ELLEN - NDLR-) and on the left, behind the red telephone box of the peat fields.



It is in fact on this side that my curiosity will first lead me. I go up the path towards Loch Larnan following the Ardbeg Burn and find myself in front of a bog where everything is not as square (or rather linear) as usual. There are some peat briquettes drying, but the ground seems to have been turned over by a herd of wild boar. I approach an old man and ask him what happened? He tells me that it happened recently, since the island is less frequented because of the virus and that creatures from the mountains have come closer to the sea.


This is the work of the WEE BEASTIE. A small, stocky beast that feeds only on peat and doesn't like to be disturbed when it's making its meal. It has been terrorising the whole area lately. My blood runs cold when I see the scar across its leg. 



So I decide not to linger in the area and to continue towards the distillery.


Once I'm in the middle of the very quiet buildings (considering the situation and especially the time of the island feast) I know I'm in the right place because there is still a small smell of smoke coming out of the 3 pagoda roofs, and above all there is a huge A under my feet.


I continue my way to the quay to enjoy the view on Loch An t-Sàlein and the small island of Eilean Imersay. On my back written in (very) big letters: ARDBEG! I arrived at the goal of my journey, without having been attacked by the Wee beastie...I am well, but I am thirsty! 



On my way back to the distillery, I bumped into the old man I was lucky enough to meet earlier and explained to him that I had come to taste the difference between "TEN" and "WEE BEASTIE".


He introduces himself: "my name is Billy MacDougall and I am a descendant of the distillery's founder" (John MacDougall in 1798 but officially in 1815 as marked in the glass of the bottles). He tells me that the distillery is closed because of the Covid, but that he will accompany me to the OLD KILN CAFE where he will make me do the tasting.


As it is also closed, we sit down on one of the wooden tables outside (anyway, we are safe as the weather is always nice on Islay).



My man comes back after a few minutes and as it is obvious he has his tickets here as he has in his hands a bottle of 10 year old and a bottle of Wee Beastie.


As he prepares the bottles for tasting he apologises again that I have come so far to find the doors closed and tells me about his origins. He tells me that officially the distillery has been producing since 1815, and that his ancestors stayed at the helm of the distillery until 1838 when it was bought by a Glasgow merchant (who was in charge of the sale), but that they stayed at the helm until 1959 (still!). Then he tells me that there was a period with several owners, and several periods of inactivity, but that it is since 1997 that the distillery is really back on the scene. He explains me that the distillery is owned by GLENMORANGIE (so by LVMH, so ...French !!).


He explains me that the TEN we are going to taste was created at that time by a certain DR RACHEL BARRIE (when I told you in my previous article that she liked peat !).



In fact, he takes the opportunity to talk to me about it to serve me a glass worthy of the name!


Before going on to the tasting, he presents it to me (if need be). It was created in 2000 and each distillate spends 10 years only in first fill bourbon casks which gives it a beautiful light golden colour with almost green reflections (it looks like water coming down from the peat bogs).


One can clearly say that this is the essence and the signature of the distillery (one of the references of peated whisky). It is through him (and Rachel BARRIE) that the revival of the brand has come about. Like all ARDBEGs, he tells me that it is distilled from a peat smoke dried barley between 50 and 55 PPM (by the Port Ellen malting plant just next to the closed (but for how long) distillery of the same name. By the way, he tells me about the time when barley was malted on the spot and that it was malted between 80 and 90 PPM ! (and Ardbeg is found to be peaty!!).


He explains me that the TEN we are going to taste was created at that time by a certain DR RACHEL BARRIE (when I told you in my previous article that she liked peat !).

Let's move on to his tasting of the reference :




When you approach the glass, you know immediately who you are dealing with. The smell of peat is trying to escape, bringing with it some citrus fruits.


When the nose plunges more frankly into the glass, it is clearly not disappointed! We came here for peat and we got it! A nice smell of warm smoke accompanied by strong phenolic and sweet notes. We're sitting by a fire grilling a large salmon fillet. If the nose lingers a little too long it will be invaded by beautiful notes of pepper.


On the second pass, the atmosphere warms up a little more. We have just put a bundle of straw on the peat fire. The smells will become agricultural and earthy and we will even detect the cold tobacco ashtray that we forgot the day before next to the hearth.  


On the third pass, the peat remains well in place (and ho! we are in the ARDBEG distillery after all) but it lets some chocolate notes escape.


The smoked whisky lover is in heaven.


I love the effect of an ARDBEG in the palm of my hand: my palm smells like the tyres of my over driven suit. But it also smells like barley.


I look at BILL and he throws me the go with an incredibly Islay-sounding "slainte mhath"!   

The dream continues as the liquid enters the mouth: an incredible sweetness, then quickly pepper that prepares the mouth for the TOWER that never leaves you. The mouth is smoky (it's as if the tongue has been transformed into a strip of bacon). One detects a very stealthy hint of harshness swept away by the return of the peat. Each element that tries to make its mark is swept away by the smoke: a little citrus, boom peat, a touch of pepper, boom peat... but how pleasant!


When you swallow the distillate the finish is long (there is always before and after a TEN!). You keep the citrus fruits in your throat for a long time, but even longer the smells of smoke. And your tongue keeps the traces of the sand of the beach of Aird Lomarsaigh (from where you have one of the best views of the distillery). 


What a beautiful journey every time!


Photo credit  Ayack — Travail personnel, CC BY-SA 3.0,


He then introduces me to the distillery's new "little beast". The WEE BEASTIE. Like the TEN, its barley (at 50 PPM) has been crushed and transformed into grist by Boby (the distillery's malt mill) and has been distilled by the two stills equipped with purifiers ("endemic" to the distillery to further refine the quality of the distillate)


However, he tells me that there are two big differences between the two distillates. The first one is that the recipe is no longer the one of DR RACHEL BARRIE (who left for new peaty lands) but of DR BILL LUMSDEN (who is now in charge of the blends), and above all that its ageing, which lasted only 5 years, was done in Bourbon casks (like the TEN) but also in Oloroso Sherry casks.


As I was able to do in a tasting of two GLENDRONACH references, we will be able to measure the RACHEL vs BILL touch here (note that at the time it was BILL WALKER and that here it is BILL LUMSDEN -NDLR-).


Let's face the Beast!




Like a feisty young animal ready to pounce, the WEE BEASTIE is much more discreet as it approaches the glass; there is a very slight smell of smoke but much less than in the TEN. It seems fresh.


However, it is when the nose enters the glass that the beast leaps. Fiery pear notes explode from the green grass field. It announces itself fresh but it is. A mixture of herbaceous and iodine smells. But beware, the beast is an ARDBEG and it suddenly releases its peat and with it a hint of pepper that comes to freeze the nasal cilia with fear. 


On the second pass, the peat takes a back seat and lets vanilla and a hint of aniseed through. The distillate then becomes more "agricultural" with an earthy smell.


On the third pass, as if to remind us that part of the ageing took place in sherry casks, a few notes of red fruits make a timid appearance as if they had hidden behind the peat that has returned to the front.


In the hand the peat is more discreet. The smell seems to be the opposite of the TEN: more barley than tyre (whereas in the TEN we had first the heated tyre and then the hay).



In the mouth the beast finishes to emerge. It does so with the strength and ardour of its young age. Spices and sugar. The sensation turns out to be warmer than the announcement it made on the nose. The pepper stings the tongue and gives way to peat, accompanied by notes of anise. Once in place, it gives way and remains very present. The impact of the cask is not very marked (or was not long enough to take the place of the peat). The end of the tasting is calmer and becomes increasingly honeyed and mellow. It is as if the WEE BEASTIE is becoming more and more "TENTED" and the distillate is finishing to age in the mouth.


Once swallowed, the finish is more straightforward than for TEN but it is less long and leaves much less room for peat.


Happy with this comparison, I ask BILL what he thinks!


Do you prefer the purr of the 10 year old or the spirit of the 5 year old? He looks at me and says: "You know, my friend, I was drinking ARDBEG when you were still drinking milk (so when it was 80 PPM) and for me the real ARDBEG is the TEN".  


I think that personally too, but I also find that WEE BEASTIE allows a different approach to peat when the person drinking it is not used to chewing a peat log.


On this conclusion I take my leave of BILL and not content with not having been bitten by the little beast I get back into my suit in the direction of new adventures.