The Future of Islay
We were having lunch at the Ardbeg cafe when Andrew Laing got the call from his dad Stewart. I watched his face for a reaction—good or bad—but I couldn’t read anything from his expression. We’d been waiting all day for this moment; the decision from the Argyll & Bute Planning Committee concerning the future of Ardnahoe distillery on Islay. For more than a year, Stewart and his two sons, Scott and Andrew, have been working to approve what would become the island’s ninth distillery. They’d purchased a piece of land just south of Bunnahabhain and north of Caol Ila, between the two stalwarts along the northeast coast across from Jura. They’d created a design, gathered a list of necessary equipment, and submitted the plans to the council back in January. Since then they’d been working to troubleshoot and tweak the plans to fit with the department’s feedback before the final hearing was scheduled. A yes or no vote was set for 11 AM this morning in Lochgilphead, and we were past midday at this point. While no one was expecting any conflict or issues, the boys were still a bit on edge because the reality of an Ardnahoe distillery would not be (and could not be) official until permission was granted. It was still possible for any potential protesters to file a grievance or air a complaint and now Stewart was calling from the main office with the news. “Hello? Hello?!” Andrew began saying repeatedly after only a few seconds of conversation. His phone had cut out. “The signal on Islay is terrible!” he exclaimed. Apparently the message had not been transmitted. Both Andrew and Scott tried calling back, but there was no service. “We’ll go to Iain’s,” Andrew said. “My dad’s surely called him already.” We paid our tab, rushed to the parking lot, and headed north back towards Port Ellen.
We drove hastily past the former distillery site and along the coast to the home of Iain Hepburn, the architect and designer for the Laing’s Ardnahoe distillery, who coincidentally shares the same last name as the boys’ maternal grandfather. “His car is here,” Scott said as we approached. After a few knocks, Iain answered the door with a huge grin.
“Is it a yes?” Andrew asked half with excitement and the other half shattered nerves.
“It’s a yes!” Iain exulted and with that announcement cheers were immediately shouted, hands were shaken, hugs were given freely, and a bottle of Champagne was quickly produced. We gathered in Iain’s conservatory overlooking the Islay countryside towards the Mull of Oa to celebrate. Andrew popped the Veuve Cliquot, handed us each a glass, and together we toasted the future of Ardnahoe: the first distillery for a historic whisky family, but not the Laing's first thought of ownership. Stewart’s father started the family’s first whisky business in 1949, a blending house that purchased and matured both single malt and grain whiskies from other producers, but the family’s current operation—the Hunter Laing Company—had been considering the purchase of a working site for years. “We realized about eighteen months ago that we were going to have build if we wanted to own a distillery,” Andrew told me as rode the ferry from Kennacraig. “For several reasons, Islay was the clear choice. We have family connections to the island. Our father worked and trained at Bruichladdich in the sixties, and we had relatives living in Bowmore in the 1800s. We vacationed there as kids. It's the only location we ever considered.” Andrew and Scott are also partial to the island’s peated whiskies, which made building on Islay that much more romantic.
After an exhaustive search for the perfect site, the Laings teamed with acclaimed Islay engineer Iain Hepburn to create a vision for the family’s long-held dream. Having designed projects at both Ardbeg and Laphroaig, as well as the beloved pedestrian path from Port Ellen down to the southern distilleries, Iain’s reputation on the island is that of someone who can get things done, and get them done well. “As far as the aesthetic design, we took our lead from him,” Scott told me. “He’s the expert and the one with the experience.” The boys knew they wanted a classic pagoda roof as part of the appearance, but beyond that their goal was to find a design that fit the atmosphere—one that would blend in with and enhance the scenic property. Iain not only provided the design for the distillery, he also engineered it to be as efficient as possible in terms of production. While the logistics were important, his goal from day one was to enhance the visitor experience at Ardnahoe. In spite of the slope on to which the facility would be built, Iain's intent was to put as much of the experience on one main floor so that the vistors wouldn't have to continually walk up and down various flights of stairs, or meander their way through multiple levels. "I wanted it to face northeast and look out on to both Jura and Mull, and beyond towards Skye,” Iain told us when we met him at the group’s planning office yesterday. “It’s an absolutely beautiful location, and it’s a rather dramatic view as you come down over the hill and see the water for the first time.” He walked us through the blueprints and outlined the inner workings of the facility before we made our way out to visit the estate.
The name Ardnahoe comes from the name of the adjacent loch, which will serve as the water source for the distillery. In Gaelic, the name means “height of the hollow,” referring to the site’s dramatic topography. Having access to a natural water source is perhaps the most important aspect of choosing a distillery site, and Ardnahoe will be built directly across from an immensely deep lake of clean, fresh, pure Islay water. Due to the important role that water plays in a whisky’s ultimate flavor, there’s a rich tradition in Scotland of naming a distillery after that vital resource. “The name was an obvious choice,” Scott said as we gazed out over the grey expanse. “We didn’t spend too much time deciding on that.” As I continued to think about Scotland's tradition and heritage of distillation, I realized that—once built—Ardnahoe will become the only Scottish-owned distillery on the island. "We didn't take any outside investors," Andrew said, "because we didn't want anyone else telling us how to do this." A major new distillery free from venture capitalism, a lengthy Kickstarter campaign, or any other attempt to solicit donations from potential whisky drinkers before actual producing a drop of whisky? What a concept in this day and age where monetary investment is considered the burden of others!
Between the main distillery site and the loch of Ardnahoe is an old farmhouse that dates back hundreds of years and currently serves as a makeshift office for the project. While the distillery won’t be open until 2018, the rustic edifice has tasting room written all over it. We all thought it would make a great event destination for Ardnahoe promotional parties in the meantime, imagining a candlelit hall crowded with whisky fans at next year's Feis Ile festival. While the official distillery buildings are still being finalized, the Laings have announced that they intend to make both peated and unseated styles of whisky like their neighbors at Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila respectively. Perhaps the addition of a third distillery on the northeast coast will finally give Islay's heralded south beach a run for its money! I can sense a new rivalry in the making.
After going over the details and the design of the visitor’s center, we waded through the weeds and made our way down to the future home of the distillery. The view from the hill is simply majestic; the mountains of Jura standing stark across the Straight of Islay with the current moving quickly north out to sea. Iain’s design will be classically styled, but with a modern approach in terms of an aesthetic. “We want to honor tradition, but we also want to give people a reason to come out here and see us,” he said as he outlined the vision for us. After almost ten years in this business, I can't say if I've ever been as excited for a new whisky distillery as I am for Ardnahoe, mainly because of the philosophy that the Laings are approaching the project with. As longtime fans and bottlers of whisky, all three men know full well what constitutes a great dram. As veterans of the whisky blending business, they're tailoring that vision from the perspective of the consumer. Plus, I don't believe I've ever met three more level-headed and kind people from one family before. I've known the Laings for about five years at this point, but after spending the last three days with them I can safely say that this is one of the first distillery projects I've witnessed completely free of vanity, ego, or delusion. The Laings don't envision Ardnahoe as an investment to be flipped, or a last ditch attempt to capitalize on a hot whisky market. It's simply the logical next step for a Scotch whisky family that's been part of the industry for over six decades. They've devoted themselves to the single malt community because they believe in its necessity.
As Andrew poured the Champagne and Scott finally began to smile, we all took a deep breath and relaxed into our seats. You could sense that a great weight had been lifted from their shoulders, despite the encouragement and support that the Islay community had emitted over the last few days. Everyone from the Scotch whisky community has been rooting for the Laings since day one, as have consumers in the know. As we rode the ferry back to the mainland, we continued to discuss potential strategies and ideas in the ship's main lounge. A group of Scottish men sitting nearby, who were clearly dedicated whisky fans, happened to overhear our conversation and asked about the progress. Since I knew Andrew and Scott were both too modest to brag a bit on their own behalf, I informed the group that the plans for Ardnahoe had just been approved and that a celebration was in order. Within seconds the men had produced a hip flask and poured a dram for everyone in the group, wishing the boys their very best and promising to stop by the site on their next visit. You could sense the men were just as excited by the idea as the Laings themselves, and why wouldn't they be? A new distillery on Islay is a big deal. It's the spiritual home of single malt whisky, a veritable Mecca for Scotch drinkers. Everywhere we went, the news about Ardnahoe was met with a reaction and congratulatory bliss normally reserved for pregnancy announcements.
In a sense, the Laings are indeed adding on to the family. They've got a few more exciting announcements up their sleeve, to boot. Buckle up, everyone. There's still more to come.