Ardbeg is releasing not one, but two once-in-a-lifetime whiskies this week—an extraordinary set that defines two of the distillery’s most dramatic years, 1981 and 1989. For 100,000 euros, collectors will have the privilege of tasting Ardbeg The Rollercoaster, a set of two whiskies that represent the near-demise and revival of this legendary brand.
It wasn’t always happy days for Ardbeg—which may come as a surprise to the legions of devoted fans who know it as one of the world’s most highly awarded smoky single malt whiskies. After 166 years of continuous production, the distillery closed its doors in 1981—suffering from the twin problems of overproduction and lack of demand. Most production at that time was going into blended expressions, so very few casks were set aside to be matured as single malt. Ardbeg produced precious few single expressions that year, and it was seriously debated as to whether the distillery would ever open its doors again. So it was that a lone cask of 1981’s final production was set aside to await its fate.
Years later, Glenmorangie purchased the distillery and took stock of things. During the recovery period, they explored the existing stock, trying to find the jewels in the crown. The precious cask from 1981 was one of them. Resuscitating the nearly extinct distillery was a years-long distraction, and in the interim, the lone cask continued to sit. Recalls the chairperson of the Ardbeg Committee, Jackie Thomson, “The distillery was in a sorry state held together with glue and tack.” With the focus being on getting the distillery back in working order, 1989 ended up very much like 1981—a very small production year.
Now, 1981 and 1989 are having their moment. “Together,” explains Gillian Macdonald Glenmorangie’s master blender and head of whisky, “the two whiskies embody a critical time in Ardbeg’s storied history. It’s been such a privilege to be able to taste them and taste the story of Ardbeg.” Created just two weeks before the distillery’s closure, The Rollercoaster’s first whisky is from the very last cask remaining from the stock of 1981. The 42-year-old bottling is very lightly peated in character.
The second whisky is one of the distillery’s final casks left from 1989. Distilled on December 6, just weeks after production restarted, the 33-year-old Ardbeg was matured in bourbon casks, then transferred into a single-refill bourbon cask to enhance its subtle peated style. Says Macdonald, “When we sought a whisky to give a contrast to the 1981, one that would truly reflect the dramatic events of the 1980s and the literal roller coaster of doom and hope, the 1989 was the perfect candidate. It represented the year Ardbeg reopened and, because it had been transferred into bourbon barrels in 1999, it made it a marvelous palate contrast to the 1981.”
Macdonald suggests that upon first tasting them, be sure to just pour, sip and take them as they are. “No need to add water, they aren’t massively strong. Just enjoy. This is irreplaceable, unrepeatable whisky; once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Each €100,000 set comes packaged in a handmade Scottish oak box accented with copper (a nod to the distilling method) designed by renowned designer John Galvin. Ardbeg The Rollercoaster’s 143 sets will be offered to collectors and connoisseurs through the Moët Hennessy Private Client channel.