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Friday, 4 July 2008

Head's up! new "10 minute dram with..." series kicks off.

‘The 10-minute dram with’…. Michael ‘Mickey’ Heads, distillery manager of Ardbeg:

A first- here; in a new series we interview some of the stars behind the stars, or the men/women behind the great whiskies we all know and love. We caught up with Michael Heads, distillery manager at Ardbeg, before a busy Feis Ile open day needed his attention!!

What does the festival mean to you as distillery manager and as an islander?

Well Feis' time is a big pull for all the distilleries and the islanders, which has now been going in this format for around 10 years. It has grown to a level where the Island is full of whisky enthusiasts and allows the distilleries to open up the doors and do things a little bit differently from the day to day business. It’s a 2 way process which allows whisky fans to come and talk to us – they’re all brand ambassadors and every year people return with new fans, so word of mouth is a great thing for the distillery.

What’s your background in the distillery business?

I’m in my 29th year now, starting out at Laphroaig in 1979, cutting peats and doing odd jobs for 10 years at the distillery. In 1989 I was made assistant brewer at the distillery, which I did for a further 10 years. I moved to Jura as the distillery manager in 1999 and then from there to Ardbeg in 2007.

What has been the biggest impact to the whisky business over your career so far?

Well the period of the early 1980s had produced the most change, where it was really crunch time for distilleries, especially on Islay where production slowed down and distilleries closed. It was the late 1980’s where there was more of a focus towards single malt, especially on Islay and its been growing steadily over the last 7 years with the distinctive flavour making a real connection with fans. In a recent report we’re seeing that Islay production has been growing faster than that of the other regions across Scotland. At Ardbeg, about 75% of our whisky now goes towards single malt, the other 25% directly into blending, for instance the Chivas blends.

Is there a good camaraderie between the Islay distilleries?

We know everyone in the business based on the island as it’s such a small community and have always helped one another out when there’s problems – if there’s parts that distilleries need to keep going we’ll exchange them etc. [the recent water shortage in the lochs being prime example of all distilleries being affected by bigger problems] In the end it’s always about the whisky that we make and are involved with that’s the best bit [he says with a smile!].

It’s interesting to see the old technology that goes into the manufacture of great whisky, prime example being the antiquated Robert Bobe Mill still used by Ardbeg...

It dates from about 1913 and works as well today as it ever has- it mills around 2 tonnes an hour still. They last a long time if you look after them – that’ll be here for another hundred years hopefully! [It is interesting to note that the Bobe company actually went out of business because their machines were so well made, no one needed any spares!!]

How have you found working with a bigger organisation (Glenmorangie) with regard to your traditional approaches? Have they perhaps been diminished or encouraged as a result?

I think we’ve really been encouraged to carry on with what we’re doing, we’ve got a really good product and we’ve got a great company in Glenmorangie that’s invested money into the plant. We have a good wood policy, which mirrors that of Glenmorangie who are recognised for their excellence and innovation. It’s great for our staff to see the growth of the distillery from what it used to be into somewhere that’s flourishing so well for the future.

Will you be capitalising on the emerging markets and developing more expressions- especially in the Far East and Eastern Europe?

Well in addition to the core range with the 10 year old, Uigeadail and Airigh Nam Beist we’re always looking for new products- the Ardbeg Committee in particular drives this; we get one new bottling out and we’re always asked when and what the next is going to be. We’re in the fortunate position at Ardbeg where we can sell more than we can supply at the minute, which can be good and bad at the same time! But certainly people are always keen on the mythical aura surrounding it and its reputation is spreading around the world. The 10 year old was this year voted Best whisky in the world in ‘Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible’ and people are now wanting to know more about the other bottlings in the range- from the limited edition single casks to anticipation about what’s coming next.

How much do you get involved in the creative aspects when a new expression is released?

Our master distiller Bill Lumsden has the final say in the creation of new products but we get encouraged to look for new ideas. We do a lot of the background work like getting the samples over to Bill and highlight anything extra special. Our warehouses are like an Aladdins cave of great casks and sometimes you don’t know what you’re going to find- it’s great to discover something really special or get an idea when something is going to be perfectly matured, that’s one of the most interesting things about the job.

Finally, your ‘all time favourite’ drams of choice?

Honestly, when you’ve worked in places for so long you obviously forge strong connections, so from my 20 years at Laphroaig, I’d have to say the 10 year old cask strength is a great whisky. Also from the Isle of Jura because of my career there I’d also have to say the original bottling of the 21 year old is a drink that I really love and at Ardbeg either the 10 year old, Uigeadail or if I can find one the 1977 release! (Caskstrength’s favourite bottling too- yeaaaah!!)

And on that meeting of minds and palates, we leave Michael to make the final preparations for the all-important open day and his very special ‘Managers Tasting’, which allows the public to share in his passion and taste some truly great whiskies at the same time.
Slainte,  Mickey!!