Islay’s Ninth Distillery – The Strange Tale of Gartbreck and Ardnahoe

Since Kilchoman was founded in 2005 (an event for which I will ever be grateful) there have been a great many people interested in who might come next. The ability to stamp the word ‘Islay’ proud and clear on your bottle is an incredible draw, one which can overcome any issues surrounding isolating your distillery on a barren rock in the Hebrides where all but about 100 yards of the road is single track. And for a while it seemed like the ninth distillery on Islay might be named Gartbreck.

Gartbreck was a project founded by Jean Donnay, the owner of Glann ar Mor distillery in Brittany. The plan was to produce a peated spirit using direct-fired stills, as at Glann ar Mor, as well as build maltings on-site to supply a portion of the peated malt the distillery would require. Planning permission was granted around the beginning of 2014, and things seemed to be rolling along fairly smoothly.

Credit to www.islay.org.uk

Gartbreck takes Islay isolation to a new level

In 2015, Donnay began talking with independent bottler Hunter Laing about selling the project to them, with Donnay to remain on the project as a consultant. This is where controversy starts to arise, and I honestly don’t know enough about the specifics to apportion responsibility to either party. Hunter Laing undertook work to demolish existing farm buildings on the plot and to prepare the land for the building of a distillery. And then Donnay pulled out of the deal. Thus far in the story I’m starting to side with Hunter Laing (which is great, because I love their bottlings).

However, it transpired that before the agreement had been broken off, Hunter Laing had purchased a plot of land adjacent to the existing site, which was necessary for the distillery to be completed as planned. Pushed off this project, Hunter Laing commenced plans to build their own distillery, located at Ardnahoe between Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain distilleries. Furthermore, they weren’t going to make it easy for Donnay or his partners to buy the land back off them. Now I feel like the moral high ground is rapidly being sacrificed – there don’t seem to be many interpretations of a refusal to sell what is an otherwise unusable piece of land other than a deliberate ploy to block the building of a rival distillery. On the other hand, it would be reasonable for Hunter Laing to demand a price for the land that amounted to not just its value but to the value they feel they lost through their investment in the project. Clearly there is bad blood between the two parties, and I can understand why Hunter Laing might feel justified in making sure Ardnahoe is built first if they see themselves as having been cheated and misled originally. A key point that would influence my opinion is whether Hunter Laing purchased the land in question before or after the deal fell apart, and on that front each side is telling the story that supports their own position.

As of now, it seems like the Gartbreck project has been shelved indefinitely, with whispers that if an agreement can happen between the two parties things might get back on track. What seems certain though is that the ninth distillery to be built on Islay will be Ardnahoe.

Ardnahoe site

The Ardnahoe site under construction, as taken from their Twitter feed

Situated on the north-east coast, Ardnahoe will run at a capacity of 500,000 litres a year, though will start things off producing half of that. It will be a first step into the world of distilling for Hunter Laing and founder Stewart Laing, and seemingly one they have been looking to take since splitting from Douglas Laing in 2013. The most exciting part of the project for me is the involvement of Jim McEwan, former master distiller of Bruichladdich and a man for whom my worship is well-known. He will be coming out of retirement to take up the position of production director, overseeing the design, construction and early days of the distillery, as well as teaching his trade to Stewart’s sons Andrew and Scott, who are slated to take up the helm if all goes well. The distillery is scheduled to begin distilling in summer 2018, and is sure to meet with a good deal of excitement.

In a way, I don’t want to know the truth of the Gartbreck situation, because I worry that it’s Hunter Laing who are heavily at fault. I have a great deal of respect for them, but I don’t think it could survive that revelation. My hope is that they are just delaying the sale of the land to spite a business partner who let them down in an industry where good faith has always been valued, and that before the decade is out we will be wondering what the 11th Islay distillery might be.

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