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There are some people and some places that have a certain magic to them. If you are lucky enough to encounter the magic people in the magic places, then things get turned around, upside down and put back to centre inside you – in a way that means you cannot leave unchanged. Bruichladdich is like that for me, a distillery on the edge of Islay looking across Loch Indaal.
“As I step, I see feather after feather along my way. There is an old legend that says when you see those small white feathers appearing around you, it’s a sign that someone is watching over you, thinking of you. I have found those feathers in the back country of Kentucky, the suburbs of Tennessee, the steps of St Pauls in London and here, in Islay – in the hallway of the Port Charlotte Hotel, on the foreshore of the Singing Seas and on the steps of Bruichladdich Distillery. Perhaps my Scottish ancestors are smiling that I’ve returned to the land of my forefathers and to this island of most famous malts. It’s remarkable that one small island of eight remaining distilleries can have such an impact on the world whisky stage. Islay malt is a thing of legend.”
This excerpt from my story The Sun Came Out on Islay gives you a glimpse of the magic.
This gorgeous print is from Kate McLelland and you can view more of her work here.
Look to the centre of the map and you’ll see Bowmore, settled in the apex of Loch Indaal. Directly opposite to the left or thereabouts, sits Bruichladdich and the distillery village that has been built around her. One or two stores and two roads, one leading around the coast and the inland to farmland.
It pays to know the ‘ch’ in Bruichladdich is silent. If you’re clever, you’ll ask which ‘ch’.. it’s the one at the end, the first is said in that Scottish brogue that sounds like the earth rolling over itself.
If you’ve spent anytime on the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky or even in some of the larger Scottish distilleries, you might be under the impression that a distillery is all nameless and faceless until they roll the big guns out for annual festivities, but it’s not like that at all on Islay, let alone at Bruichladdich. There’s no such email address as store – at – bruichladdich dot com. It’s Mary you’ll meet most days and so it’s Mary you can email to arrange your distillery tour.
And it’s worth visiting, just like I did, in the slightly off-season before the hub-bub and madness of Fèis Ìle. In the gentle Spring sun, Mary took me on a more personal tour – albeit, I was the only one hanging around. Her immediate ancestors built and worked in the distillery, so it’s in her blood. It was a little of the magic of people and place I talked about. Here’s a glimpse of Bruichladdich as I saw her.
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There are plenty of distilleries who talk about and deliver on experimental finishes and trying new things – certainly there are many who have bigger marketing budgets and personalities like Dr. Bill Lumsden. But there is something wonderfully understated in how Bruichladdich have been going about proving their brand as Progressive Hebridean Distillers; more than the vibrant teal and distinctly modern typography on their bottles alone.
The oldest history, old history and the new history
You can read more about the beginnings of Bruichladdich (practice it with me… brew-achk – lahdee) here. Bruichladdich started as a family business thanks to the Harvey brothers in 1881 and by the time Mark Reynier and his investors completed purchase of the distillery in 2000, the distillery found itself in the hands of an owner who prized the Victorian equipment and the family-owned and run mentality of distilling. Careful restoration meant almost all of the original equipment in still in use for production today, although the distillery is closed in June 2017 for annual repairs and maintenance. Even the grainhopper is nearly 150 years old!
Let’s skip ahead to when I first tasted Bruichladdich in 2006. The iconic squat bottle and bright teal caught my eye, almost as much as the discovery of Bruichladdich as Islay’s unpeated malt. This was in fact older malt that was being released from stock but by the time they released their first ‘new make’ spirit in 2011, there were already moves afoot to purchase Bruichladdich from Reynier by French giant Rémy Cointreau. Part of Bruichladdich’s success was the migration of Jim McEwan from Bowmore to Bruichladdich, where he took up the role of distillery manager and influenced the evolution of Bruichladdich’s ‘progressive approach’. The sale went ahead in the summer of 2012 but since then, Mary and others will tell you they’ve been able to maintain a family-run approach. When Jim retired in 2015, it was Adam Hannett who stepped into the role of Head Distiller, having learned from Jim. And outside of a few changes to production rates and the backing and resources of a global giant to hand, not too much has changed.
Geography and tasting
Bruichladdich takes water directly from the spring so it doesn’t run through the peat beds as it does at Ardbeg, Lagavulin or many of the other southern distilleries. This limited peat contact and the use of un-peated barley the resulting whisky is much milder and lighter than what people traditionally think of as an Islay malt. In general terms, the flavour profile is appropriately opposite to Speyside whiskies (opposite coasts!). Think dry finishes and spice notes that sit behind the smoke. These gentler Islay spirits are greener moss and grass influenced (rather than peat) with a touch of seaweed, tending towards a roundness of nuts and a dry finish. In the case of Bruichladdich, the unpeated malt is floral and complex. It’s a lighter spirit but it’s not simple. The flagship bottling (The Classic Laddie Ten) was first released in 2011, exactly ten years from when the restored stills first ran through to the spirit safe on September 9, 2001.
Progressive means what?
In their own words, Bruichladdich ‘respects the past but doesn’t live in its shadow’. When you visit the distillery, you’ll see cask explorations that are only available there as the head distiller picks and chooses casks from Rémy Cointreau’s stocks around the globe. That day at the distillery, Cask Exploration No.7 is classic Bruichladdich spirit finished in a Rivesaltes wine cask. Rivesaltes is a little-known wine appellation in French Catalonia – a sweet wine. In this expression, the balance of the classic malt profile is sweetened and rounded by the wine finish. Bruichladdich release Black Art (now in it’s 5.1 edition which is solely Adam’s profile and on his own admittance, he’s changed McEwan’s recipe quite drastically) semi-regularly, a more general release of these wine cask explorations.
But there’s more to it than wine finishes. Bruichladdich leapt into making malt using barley grown from the Octomore farm behind the site of Port Charlotte. From these threads of history, Bruichladdich created both the Port Charlotte, a peated version of their spirit, a 100% Scottish version and the Octomore, the most heavily peated of all the Islay whiskies.
|DISTILLERY||MALT PHENOLS (ppm)||NEW MAKE PHENOLS (ppm)||MIDDLE CUT ABV|
|Octomore||129 (in 2003)||46 (in 2003)|
|Bunnahabhain||1-2 (peated malt 38)||
|Highland Park||35-40 (and unpeated malt used together)||2||70 and then 2h40min|
Phenol-levels of malts and new-makes in different distilleries and the ABV of the middle cut.
(modified from Misako Udo: The Scottish Whisky Distilleries)
It’s this ability to play at all ends of the spectrum that I most love about Bruichladdich and then there is the spirit of the place when you arrive. More likely to be greeted like family because, in many respects they are just that. A slightly-extended, whisky-making, award-winning family.
While you may not make it to the shores of Bruichladdich anytime soon, can I highly recommend you take a tastebud journey?
Start with the Laddie Ten and then try it alongside the Port Charlotte to really get a sense of this wonderful place.