I’ve long been a fan of Islay single-malt whiskeys for their complexity, which is often characterized by the distinct smoky aroma and lingering peaty notes unique to whiskies produced in this region of Scotland. So when Moet Hennessey and Ardbeg invited us to an exclusive 3 day #ARDVENTURE, it was clearly an offer that we could simply not refuse. Named after the small village located at the southern coast of Islay (pronounced “Eye-Lah”) where it has been distilled since the 18th century, Ardbeg is the most awarded of all Islay Whiskies. The trip itself was inspired by the rugged hills, swirling mists, fresh-water Lochs, and mysterious Celtic heritage of the region where this fine Scotch was produced.
A ride from downtown Toronto was arranged for us and we were supplied with our very own Ardbeg Adventure survival kit, complete with a personalized wax canvas jacket, rations, and a bottle of Ardbeg 10 Year.
A 3 hour drive up to Cottage County at Manitouwabin Lake ensued and upon arrival, we grabbed our canoes and rowed across the water to a wooden deck with a glorious spread of hors d’oeuvres and refreshments waiting for us. If you enjoy Caesars, try replacing vodka with Ardbeg 10 year instead –the scotch adds a new dimension of flavor to this classic drink. Our host and veteran Bartender, Mike Steele, served up some Ardbeg Margarita to showcase the whiskey’s versatility. We put our feet up and kicked back with a cocktail in hand by the lake while waiting for dinner to commence.
Chef Paul Lampa prepared a family style meal with root vegetables, succulent stuffed zucchinis, walnut crusted lamb-chops, and Ardbeg 10 year maple Dijon glazed salmon. We feasted until sunset and gathered by the camp-fire as the night begun. Rudy, the brand-ambassador for Ardbeg who grew up in the Islay region of Scotland recited Celtic legends and recalled the origins of Ardbeg Whiskey. With its distinct smoky and peaty flavor, it is as if the Whiskey itself was the liquid embodiment of the camp-fire. We sipped Scotch, toasted some s’mores, and shared stories until the burning inferno were reduced to mere smoldering embers.
The next morning we gathered at the dining area of the main estate, which was owned by a corporate client of Moet Hennessey and were cheerfully greeted with a full breakfast spread with croissants, bacon, sausage, and frittatas, which we naturally washed down with some Ardbeg Caesar. Fueled for the day, we set off to the docks for some fishing. We boarded a boat that took us around the lake: the perfect activity after a late night. After we docked, we took the shuttle off to a small town in the region, which was also called “Ardbeg” and made a pit-stop for lunch at a one-stop dining, convenience store and gas station called Loggers Station house. It was like a scene out of Schitt’s Creek.
Following the quick tour to the Ardbeg of Ontario, we drove back to the estate and as if to pay homage to Ardbeg’s Celtic heritage, some Archery was in order. Shooting stations were set up among the hills on the estate with circular Ardbeg logos set up as Bulls-eyes and it was a complete blast. There’s something satisfying about releasing an arrow and watching it hit (or at least get close) to the target. After channeling our inner Robin Hood, we had a moment to freshen up and prepare for the evening’s activities.
We reconvened at the estate’s wine cellar and were greeted with a full sampling of Ardbeg’s current line-up consisting of: The 10 year, Uigeadail, Corryvrackan, and Dark Cove. Each of the four drams were covered with a small glass cap and we were encouraged to warm up the chalice with our palms in order to further capture and release the Scotch’s aroma. The 10 Year-Old was named World Whiskey of the Year in 2008 by Jim Murray, renowned Whiskey expert best known for his annual updated Whiskey Bible, and it’s smoky and peaty complexity makes this the quintessential Islay Scotch. The Uigeadail, named after Ardbeg’s water source: Loch Uigeadail, the lake situated above Ardbeg Distillery itself, is a long-time personal favorite. It’s sweet and smoky finish is a result of careful ageing in Ex-Bourbon Oak and Ex-Oloroso casks. The taste is reminiscent of a sweet caramel pudding counter-balanced by a smoky explosion of spice that lingers on the palate like a fine Cuban cigar…it’s no wonder the Uigaedail is the most highly acclaimed among Ardbeg’s lineup (including World Whiskey of the Year 2009 with a score of 97.5/100, the highest rated in Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible that year). The Corryvreckan, named after the vicious whirlpool situated north of Islay is perhaps the spiciest and savory tasting scotch out of the four. It starts with a peppery kick and ends with an oily texture that evokes the buoyancy of hickory smoked bacon dipped in mocha expresso. Finally, we had a chance to sample Dark Cove, a limited-edition whiskey matured in ex-sherry and ex-bourbon casts. This fine Scotch was surprisingly smooth and easy on the palette: lots of flavor with a sweet and savory blend and a clean tobacco peat finish.
Dinner commenced after the Ardbeg tasting and it was nothing short of exceptional. Chef Lampa started the meal off with a delectable Winter Melon Puree drizzled with maple syrup and pumpkin seeds. Ardbeg soaked cherry smoked Trout topped with crème fraiche and kelp caviar came next. The main entry followed: elk and bison Tourtiere served with browned brussel sprouts, Shropshire blue cheese, toasted walnuts, and sweet roasted corn eradicated any trace of hunger…and if that wasn’t enough, an Ardbeg 10 year Pudding Chomeur took up the remaining space for dessert. Fueled for the evening, it was announced that we would all be competing for a rare bottle of Ardbeg Dark Cove over a friendly competition of ping-pong, air-hockey, and billiards. In the end, it was the owners of The Caledonian, a Scottish Gastropub and Whiskey Bar that took home the grand prize. We reveled and enjoyed dram after dram of the finest Ardbeg had to offer late into the evening.
The next morning, we nursed our hangover with a full breakfast spread featuring Southern Fried Quail and Waffles. The high level of care, attention and execution that went into the planning of this #ARDVenture simply lives up to Ardbeg’s commitment to excellence. If Scotch is an acquired taste, we left the trip thirsty for more.
Photos by Danny Tseng