Not only is Colin Hay a prominent figure in the history of the Ardbeg distillery, but also in the history and success of Islay whisky.
He began working at the distillery in the 1840’s. This was during the period when the business was managed by Alexander McDougall, the founder’s son, and all was not well. A report in 1846 stated that Alexander was ‘paralytic and constantly confined to his chair and consequently not able to look after his affairs’. The exciseman that wrote the report believed that workers at the distillery were making the most of their lacklustre, intoxicated boss and were stealing spirit from the worm.
Alexanders sisters Margaret and Flora took on the bulk of the responsibility and appointed Hay as the manager of the distillery in 1853, after their brother’s death. Flora died in 1857 which is when the major creditors took a look at the books. They made for grim reading. Lawyers had been paid in whisky as opposed to cash and customers had taken casks without any record of them paying. These two issues combined left a huge hole in the Ardbeg stock. As well as the stock issues, personal expenses had been taken to the extreme and put through the company’s book which were non-recoverable.
Buchanan, Wilson & Co stepped in and provided a financial injection to save the distillery and chose Colin Hay to play the lead role in the recovery of the distillery. Colin Hay was joint business partner of Margaret McDougall and once she died in 1865, he became the sole owner. In 1872 Colin Hay joined forces with Alexander Buchanan and in turn swapped the debt to Buchanan, Wilson & Co for equity which provided some stability after years of financial turmoil for the Ardbeg distillery.
In the mid 19th century Ardbeg’s produce was in high demand all over the world. Blenders took a large amount of their scotch, but their single malt was in high demand as well in the UK, US, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina. At one time a merchant’s advert stated that it was ‘decidedly the best whisky made in Scotland’.
On the back of Ardbeg’s success and increased demand, Hay oversaw huge developments at the distillery. He installed larger stills and bigger warehouses in order to increase production and storage capacity. Hay also worked non-stop to build a deep-water quay which would allow for barley, coal and other production essentials to be delivered to the distillery doorstep. The quay also helped to ship greater quantities of whisky to the mainland at a far cheaper cost. In 1883 the water wheel could no longer provide the power required for the bigger distillery, so Hay installed a steam engine.
At this stage the distillery employed around 60 workers and the production capacity had risen to 250,000 gallons per year which was 25 times the amount on the 1820’s.
Colin Hay was a pillar of society in the Islay region. He was a parish councillor, a Justice of The Peace and a farmer of over 2000 acres which provided for the whole island. He was also a big supporter of Gaelic education and influenced the revival of Gaelic literary traditions. Due to the success of the Ardbeg distillery the town of Ardbeg had grown to 200 members and had a school built.
Hay retired in 1897 and at this time the Ardbeg distillery was the largest and most successful on the island if Islay.