Today’s lesson in whisky history explains why lovers of Ardbeg need to show Ballantine’s some love. Here is the incontrovertible logic leading to this truth:
Before I explain why this is, let’s take a look at the psychology of the peathead, or more specifically, the Ardbeggian personality. Indeed, if you who are reading these lines love your Ardbeg, your personality.
So, you consider yourself to be something of a whisky expert. You tend to scoff at cheap blends; you prefer independent bottlings of Mortlach to the official ones; perhaps you keep a few IB:s of 1997 Clynelish in your shelves – indeed, you know the lingo well enough to be using terms like IB, musing to yourself each time someone asks what that acronym means on social media.* And each year, you keep collecting those Feis ile bottlings from every distillery on Islay.
Of all distilleries still active today, Ardbeg is closest to your heart. Sure, there’s the sherry monsters and all that, but Ardbeg, to you, remains number one. If you’re really down with your distillery, you’ll have conversations where things like ”well sure, it’s a great dram, but Ping 1 beats the 868 eight days a week” are uttered with absolute certainty. It’s like the masonic handshake; if people in the room don’t get what is being said, well, then they are not real Ardbeggians, just posers.
Somewhere deep down, though, you’re beginning to see a trend where you absolutely loved Day, while the Auriverdes and the Perpetuum didn’t really make your heart melt. Maybe, just maybe, your love is beginning to fade. But sure, you will be chasing after that committee release of Dark cove all the same, just like everyone else will. You just don’t know if it’s for the certain money to be made, if it’s out of old habit, or if you will be tasting it. You’re not worrying about that tattoo of the Ardbeg logo on your arm. Not just yet.
Where you are absolutely certain, though, is in your critique of cheaper whiskies. You haven’t tried Johnnie Walker red in about a decade – it’s simply beneath you. Bell’s? Not in a million years. J&B? No way, José. Ballantine’s, do you consider it to be a useful whisky in any sense? Noooooo. That would be like saying that the Pope has a normal hat.
However, you really should change your mindset. And we don’t need to go into the whole ”it’s the selling of blends which is the backbone of the whisky industry” argument. Let’s just consider your attitude to Ballantine’s as compared to what you think of Ardbeg. You really should be thinking of Ballantine’s with the utmost of respect and gratitude.
You see, if it hadn’t been for Ballantine’s, Ardbeg would not exist. No Ballantine’s, and you would be taking your walk – or, more appropriately perhaps, wandering on your pilgrimage – from Laphroaig to Lagavulin to a big pile of nothing on those southers shores of Islay.
If you’re a truly genuine peathead, you’ll know that Ardbeg was closed between 1981 and 1989. What you might not know is that back then, there were far-reaching plans to demolish the distillery, just run it over with bulldozers. Why were these plans never carried out? Because even while the distillery was supposedly mothballed, it was still distilling very small amounts of spirit. There was still a need for Ardbeg. Who supplied this demand? Ballantine’s, which at least in those days had a dash of Ardbeg in its recipe.
Klaus Pinkernell, the whisky maverick who gave the world such interesting innovations as Fishky, Torf! and Re-peat and since many years now working at Cadenhead’s whisky shop in Berlin, was told this story back in the 1980s. This was during a private viewing of the closed Ardbeg distillery he got from a manager of another nearby distillery. Indeed, when Ardbeg came back on stream in 1989, part of the deal included that the distillery would keep supplying whisky for Ballantine’s. As Pinkernell smilingly concluded when discussing these things with me over a couple of fantastic drams at his Cadenhead’s whisky shop after closing hours, ”If you don’t enjoy Ballantine’s, you have no right to drink Ardbeg.”