Catching Up With Mickey Heads

We've got the Ardbeg Space Train rolling into the Redwood City parking lot tomorrow if you want to get come check out the festivities. There will be a trailer parked out back that has a new exhibit about the Ardbeg space-aged whisky and most likely some free schwag. They’re going to open it up at about 4 PM, so come check out the excitement if you’re in the neighborhood. Seeing that we’ll be celebrating Ardbeg this week, I thought I’d check in with my old friend Mickey Heads—the distillery manager for the company—for a piece we're calling: "Catching Up With Mickey Heads".

David: So tell me what’s been happening around the distillery with the big 200th anniversary this year?

Mickey: We’ve had a busy year. There’s been a lot of investment in the distillery. We had a big celebration for Ardbeg Day, which was probably the busiest one we’ve ever had. People were coming over in large numbers—bearing in mind that many people have been planning to come visit for the last four or five years, and decided this would be the time to do it. If I had to guess how many exactly I would reckon a couple of thousand, plus.

David: Oh wow. 

Mickey: It’s such a big open space we have here. We just asked people to just come along and join in on the fun. We don’t really count numbers at the gate, if you know what I mean.

David: How does that work with the ferry during the Feis Ile Festival? Do they run extra boats to get all those people over?

Mickey: The ferry is pretty busy that whole time. Some people arrive and stay for the whole week, and some will stay for either the first or second half, depending on what they want to do. Ardbeg Day is always the last day, however, so a lot of people want to stay until the end. There are extra ferries going as well.

David: Are there even 1,000 guest rooms available on Islay? I can only picture about a hundred or so.

Mickey: I think we’ve got about 1200 beds in total, but a lot of people come over in campers or mobile homes and make their own place to stay. We had a good day this year. We’re also doing some bicentennial dinners—this Saturday we’re going another one—and we have people come over for that. We’ve been calling them “Bring Back Your Own Bottle”, so if you’ve got a favorite bottle of Ardbeg you can bring it back to the distillery and have a dram with people, chat about it, relax. It’s quite a nice thing to do.

David: How have things changed at the distillery in the face of all this demand? Has it become more hectic with the extra interest in all things Ardbeg?

Mickey: We upped the production about two or three years ago and took on some new people. If you think back to the late 90s when we started with six people, we’ve now got eighteen of us working in the distillery directly—including myself and Janie in the office. Then we’ve got ten guys in the process and another six looking after casks and putting the whiskies together, so we’ve got quite a number of people now. The production has stepped up—we run 24/7 now—so we’ve got a new process to help make a little bit more. This is the highest production we’ve ever done this year—we’re up over 1.2 million liters. We’re hoping to get it up a little more as we had to shut down longer than planned this year to install new equipment. We’ve also refurbished the site a bit. We’ve got new car parks and we’ve revitalized all the stone walls along the entrance walkway. There’s a nice area now for pedestrians that’s separated from the car park without the larger vehicles in their way.

David: How has the island responded to the growth in popularity—with both single malt whisky and Islay whisky particularly?

Mickey: I think in a positive way. The whole island’s had a boost, you know? Farming is of course one of the biggest industries we have, but now it’s tourism as well—all the bed and breakfasts, hotels, self-catering locations, and all that. There are more people coming in all the time. The distillery was very busy today with tours and people eating in the cafe—this is the middle of September—so I think the visitor season is getting longer. We’re busy from March through to October now, which is great.

David: We’ve got our own Ardbeg tourism industry coming tomorrow to the Redwood City store. Have you seen the new space trailer yet?

Mickey: No, I haven’t, but I’ve heard all about it. 

David: At some point tomorrow afternoon it will pull into the parking lot behind the store and set up camp. It’s got the space-aged whisky inside, I believe. What’s the plan for that whisky, do you think? Are they going to auction it off at some point?

Mickey: The amount they have is quite small—something like twelve vials of it that went up there. I think it’s all traveling around at the moment, but hopefully we’ll get some back here eventually. I was lucky enough to see Bill (Lumsden) when he was opening some of them up in the lab, so that was quite interesting to see that liquid come out and go into a bottle. 

David: I love that Ardbeg can still embrace the imaginative and fun-based side of marketing without ever sacrificing quality. It’s not really about drinking the space whisky as much as it is about simply doing something crazy—outside the box—in the name of exploration, right?

Mickey: I know we do things a little bit quirky….

David: Which I really enjoy….

Mickey: …but we’ve always been known for the quality of the whisky. As you know, I work alongside with Bill and quality is always at the top of his priorities. What’s the feedback been so far with the Supernova?

David: Fantastic, of course. That’s why you guys can get away with doing all this wacky stuff. It’s because ultimately everything you make is so good. The marketing never comes at the expense of flavor as it often does with other big brand companies. And it hasn’t raised the prices either. I think the consistency in quality and price in expressions like the Uigeadail are more important to customers ultimately. 

Mickey: There’s been a large demand for new special releases like the Alligator—one of my favorites—and the Ardbog. Going forward, there’s been a gradual increase in production, but we can’t just go and put more new whiskies out there. We’re still planning for down the line. We’re laying down whisky now for the next ten or twenty years, which should help to create more exciting projects down the line. 

David: Has your job become more stressful and challenging due to the increased demand?

Mickey: I enjoy every minute of it. I think it’s great for the place. Way back when I started—I’m going on thirty-six years here and can remember Ardbeg in the late 80s and the 90s—I worked at Laphroaig and we owned both sites, so I was going up and down between the two places. I remember Ardbeg when it was pretty much on its knees. Obviously back then it was a different time. There wasn’t the same level of popularity with single malt. But now the Islay style has grown in popularity, over the last twenty-five years, so to see it as it is now….I just really love the job. 

David: Just makin’ whisky, day in and day out.

Mickey: The production is what I do; the whisky making. Just trying to ensure that everything is as good as it can be. It’s a challenge, but it’s a good challenge. I don’t ever get fed up coming to work. Seeing other people loving what we do, I never dreamed we’d be where we are now ten years ago. 

David: You’re kind of like a celebrity chef, never thinking he’d have his own TV show when he got started.

Mickey: I don’t think I’ve ever signed as many whisky bottles in my life as I have this year! (laughs). I never thought I’d be doing that.

David: Who knew the drinks business would create its own cult of the celebrity? But that goes back to people enjoying what you do, Mickey.

Mickey: It’s part of telling the story. People are coming from all over the world to see what we do here. I think coming to Islay and getting a feeling for the place is really important. You get the atmosphere, you talk to the people who work here, and it all really comes together. I live basically 200 meters from where I’m sitting at the moment, and I look out over the Mull of Kintyre and the Atlantic. It changes every day, but I never get tired of it. 

David: So you obviously can’t be here tomorrow to greet all the Ardbeg lovers who will come to view the space exhibit, but what would you tell them about the space project if you could?

Mickey: Just enjoy the experience and see how things change. The project is about finding out what happens when you travel to different places—you see how things develop, how they change, and you’re trying to learn more about why they do. That’s the message behind it. It creates a bit of excitement, I think. The learning excites me. Seeing what can happen.

David: You guys are always pushing the boundaries over at Ardbeg—figuratively and literally.

Mickey: Hopefully we can keep going.

David: Boldly going…where no man has gone before?

Mickey: Well…keep doing what people enjoy. Hopefully in twenty years time people will say it’s as good as it ever was.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll