Sunday, March 1, 2015

Progressive Hebridean Distillers

Bands of gold

BRUICHLADDICH have gotten themselves something of a maverick reputation in the whisky industry...

Rescued in 2001 by an independent group of investors, the distillery was rebooted and has spent the last fifteen years endeavouring to produce thought-provoking whisky that captures the essence of Islay and its people.

Bought by Remy-Cointreau in 2012, the folks from the shores of Loch Indaal continue to shake things up. Renowned for experimentation, putting out a lot of limited expressions, unusual cask selections, and going against the grain of the industry expectations (please, forgive my puns...).

Joining Us...

Joining us for the tasting we have "The Bruichlassies", Joanne Brown and Kate Hannett, both Ileachs with a passion for the Isle of Islay; and, we're also joined by Brian Copeland - Remy Cointreau's "Man In The North" (is it just me, or does that sound like a title from Game of Thrones...?).

Left to right: Jo, Kate, and Brian.

Up first on stage is Jo, a brand ambassador for Bruichladdich, whose job it is to travel the world selling whisky. Hard life, but someone has to do it! We're given a lesson in pronounciation - it's "eye-luh", not "izzlay", or "eye-lay"; and it's "bruck-laddie", not "bruch-lad-ditch" or "bruckladdock".

Growing up on Islay, she's been immersed in whisky since she was a child. In fact, at the tender age of five her school sent her class on a trip to the Bowmore distillery. That's pretty rock-and-roll; when I was at school they sent us to visit a cardboard box factory -_-


1. Bruichladdich Scottish Barley, "The Classic Laddie"

Jo introduces the first dram of the evening, the vibrant aquamarine bottle of Bruichladdich Scottish Barley, "The Classic Laddie". The story goes that, when Mark Reynier (one of the band of independent investors) first visited the distillery this is what colour the sea water was in Loch Indaal.

This is a multi-vintage whisky (a.k.a. No Age Statement, or NAS) but Jo's happy to tell us it's around 5/6 years old. When it comes to their whisky, Bruichladdich don't keep many secrets.

Produced in a mixture of American oak ex bourbon casks, and European oak ex fino sherry casks, the whisky is unpeated and bottle at 50% ABV. All the distillery's bottlings are non chill filtered and free from colouring.

Nose: Salty, earthy and grassy with limes and bananas. Slightly rubbery with a strong mineral smell.

Palate: Salty custard with limes and cinnamon. After sitting in the glass a while, vanilla sponge cake.

Finish: Oily walnuts, sultanas.

Deceptively simple at first but reveals more character with each sip. Very approachable and smooth at 50%. A solid introduction to the core range of Bruichladdich whiskies.

Jo also talks us through why they avoid chill filtering their whiskies and why they bottle the whisky at 50% - it's all to do with oil.

To demonstrate this, Jo pours a generous measure and then carefully and slowly trickles water into the tilted glass. With a light behind the glass, you can clearly see the "band of gold" form at the top. This is where the oil and the water have separated out, leaving the oil floating on top.

Dipping your finger into this, you can feel the oil on your skin - give it a rub on your hands and you can get a lot of the aromatic profile of the barley coming through. Plus, as we're told by Jo and Kate, if you go home reeking of whisky you can explain you were just rubbing it on your skin!

That oil gives the whisky a smooth, buttery mouthfeel. Chill filtering would prevent the whisky from going cloudy at cooler temperatures, but you'd sacrifice that soft, smooth texture in your mouth and most likely a good deal of the flavour imparted by the oils.

The night's certainly shaping up to be an education!

Now we go over to Kate for....

2. Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2006

Kate takes the stage and talks us through the Islay Barley expression.

The barley in this was grown in 2006, distilled in 2007 and matured purely in bourbon casks until it was bottled at 50% ABV. Apparently, the Islay farmers were paid for their barley (at least partially) in whisky!


Nose: Farms, stable-smell of hay and straw, salty again, wet flowers.

Palate: Creamy. Salty porridge with apple. No citrus this time, but a touch of menthol and spicy nutmeg.

Finish: Hazelnuts and a little more salt.

Bruichladdich was rebooted by two wine buffs, and two whisky experts. In France, the concept of "terroir" explains the character of wine, cheese, whisky, brandy etc by considering the place in which it's made. The soil, climate, variety of barley, locality to the coast, location of warehouses, origin of cask, colour of the stillman's underwear (!) all feasibly impart an effect on the flavour and overall character of a whisky.

Many distilleries, due to demand, have to import barley from abroad. This would compromise the terroir of the spirit, so Bruichladdich only use Scottish barley in all their whiskies. For this expression, they've gone one further and made it exclusively with barley grown on Islay. Specifically, at Rockside farm just up the hill where Kilchoman distill their whisky.

Kate talks a bit about growing barley on Islay. From the island to the West you've got very little across the Atlantic until you get to Canada. She explains the climate like this:

"On Islay, everyone has the same hairstyle - whichever way the wind is blowing."

Now - in the words of Monty Python - for something completely different!

3. The Botanist Gin

You're seeing this increasingly - distilleries producing clear spirits in addition to aged spirits. Whisky's a long waiting game, so being able to distill something that can hit the shelves immediately really helps cash flow in a small distillery.

Jim McEwan, the master distiller at Bruichladdich, entered into the task of gin production by sampling different grain alcohols. Typically, a gin is made by buying pure neutral grain alcohol and soaking botanicals in it. This is then re-distilled with a still that filters the vapours through a container holding more botanicals.

Jim went for a 100% wheat alcohol, due to the sweeter flavour. This gets loaded into the Laddie gin still, the fierce lady known affectionately as "Ugly Betty". Betty is an old Lomond-style still, and so is squat and dumpy compared with the tall, slender necked whisky stills. She puts out an 80% ABV gin which is then watered down with spring water to a bottling strength of 46%.

Mary, one of the distillery's "ninja grannies" decided one day to make a cheese cake. To make it more fun, she decided to add some Botanist gin to the recipe. Somehow, she "accidentally" used the concentrated pre-bottling strength gin... and you can guess what kind of an afternoon the staff had at the distillery when she shared it out!

Nose: Mint, juniper, aniseed, cumin, lemon, touch of coconut.

Palate: Very refreshing neat. Tangy salted lemons and bitter citrus peel.

Finish: Slightly drying cloves.

The Botanist contains nine base botanicals which include juniper, cassia bark, angelica, liquorice, and citrus peels.

The condenser box contains twenty-two foraged botanicals from Islay which are infused during distillation - these include three types of mint, bog myrtle, sweet Sicily, heather, and (to my delight) gorse.

Gorse is that yellow flower you see growing on knarled clifftop bushes by the coast. At the right time of year, they smell of coconuts - a bit like the smell of some sun cream, or maybe even a PiƱa Colada.

A History Lesson

It's the halfway point for this evening's drams... time for some history!

The Victorian still house at Bruichladdich
Bruichladdich was founded in 1881 by a family from Glasgow. They brought their engineering and business acumen to Islay and built what was considered a state-of-the-art distillery at the time with tall, slim neck stills to produce a lighter, more delicate spirit.

There have been many changes of ownership over the years. Jim Beam shut it down in 1994 until it was rescued in 2001 by a group of independent investors. It was bought for £6.5 million and around £5 million of that price was to pay for the existing stock of between 6,000 and 8,000 casks. The stock was potholed with gaps, which is one reason the distillery have produced so many limited release expressions and experimental finishes.

Jim McEwan was brought in from Bowmore distillery as the master distiller. He started age 15 as a cooper and has now clocked up over 50 years working with whisky. He's something of a rock star in the whisky industry, well known for his passion and humour.

Jim "Springsteen" McEwan
The distillery and all its stock was sold to Remy Couintreau in 2012 for £58 million. Not a bad little profit on the original £6.5 million! All the members of staff had shares, so their hard work over the years paid off nicely, though Jo made a point to discourage us from buying Lamborghinis as she says they're pretty terrible to drive!

Today, the distillery employs 71 full time members of staff and still uses the original Victorian equipment with no computers in sight except for book-keeping and running the webcams.

Enough history - time for the second half!

4. Bruichladdich Black Art 4th Release

Now things get serious... Here's the 4th release of the Bruichladdich Black art, a 23-year old mystery expression whose secret recipe is known only to Jim McEwan himself.

Lot's of interesting occult iconography on the bottle too...

It's bottled at 49.2%ABV, most likely has a sherry influence, and that's about all we know. People have pondered over the years whether it's port, sauternes, shiraz, fino, PX, oloroso, rum... we're told it's likely around 6 different casks.

Nose: Icing sugar, slight smoke, dates, sweet tobacco, custard powder.

Palate: Golden malt, rich and oily with spices. Green apples, then sticky figs, soft dates, chocolate, Brazil nuts, and banana bread.

Finish: Long, chewy, oaky finish with wafts of fruit coming through.

Jim mixes up every release of Black Art, so each one has different characteristics. I enjoyed the 3rd release very much, and this one's just as appealing. Given time, it yields a lot of different flavours...

Kate tells us now about the hairy, gruff apprentice that Jim is training up to take over when (or if) he eventually retires. Adam, Kate's brother, started 9 years ago at Bruichladdich and has been involved with many of the releases. The latest Port Charlotte release in the PC range is named with a nod to Adam.

5. Port Charlotte Islay Barley

Now we get onto the peated section of our tasting! Port Charlotte has been a huge success over the last few years, with many proclaiming it as the epitome of a modern Islay whisky.

The barley was grown on six different farms on Islay and the spirit was matured in a mix of American and European oak and bottled at 50% ABV.

Nose: A walk on the clifftops. Muddy boots, beeswax, lavender, wet flowers, with dusty icing sugar, barley sugar, salty sand, pear skin and a little tropical papaya.

Palate: Sweet and salty, with a rich and buttery maltiness. Grassy notes with honey and lemon throat sweets, ripe pears and a rising crisp dry peat smoke.

Finish: Toasted oak, black tea.

Port Charlotte whisky gets its name from the village just down the road from the distillery. There was once a real working distillery down in Port Charlotte operating from 1829 until 1929, whereupon it became an early casualty of the Wall Street crash.

The last bottle of whisky distilled at the Port Charlotte distillery was drunk at a funeral on Islay, we're told by Kate. As you can imagine, funerals on Islay involve a large number of the residents and there's a tradition that the whisky is opened and poured while the grieving friends and relatives are at the graveyard.

Not long ago, all coffins were carried by hand from the settled areas of the island to the church as a mark of respect. The men would shoulder the burden and the walk to the church could take a day or two. As sustenance, the men would take with them oat cakes, cheese, and some liquid refreshment in the form of whisky.

At least on one occasion, the men arrived rowdy and merry at the church before realising that not one of them knew any longer where the coffin was...

6. Octomore 06.3 Islay Barley

Oooh yes - it's Octomore time! The barley in this was exclusively produced on Octomore Farm, where there was once an old illicit distillery that eventually closed in the 1840s.

It's quite dark in the glass for a five-year-old. Thick line of oil sticks on swirling. At 64% ABV, this is serious stuff. Matured in a mixture of European and American oak and watered down to 64% with a little spring water from Octomore Farm.

Nose: Savoury, cooked meats, sweet Summer hay, sea spray, thyme and lavender. Quite grassy, and nowhere near as phenolic as you’d expect for such an intensely peated malt.

Palate: Very malty to start. Intense medicinal rush, calms down to reveal a little barbecued banana. Lots of deep, earthy, vegetal and herby notes among the peat. There are sweeter, raisiny, chocolatey, coffee notes in there too.

Finish: Salty butter on toast, liquorice root, smoked cheese. Long – very long. Lip-smacking ages after it’s gone.

Phwoar. This is going down beautifully… It’s comforting, but fierce. Earthy, but sweet too. So many outdoor notes of herbal vegetation – you can nose it for hours and still find more character appearing.

Octomore Farm is now owned and run by Farmer James Brown, "The Godfather of Soil". Turns out he's also Godfather of Joanne - fancy that! This is the ultimate in Islay provenance. All the barley to make this release came from a single field on James' farm. It doesn't get much more local than that...

Releases of Octomore always push the limit when it comes to peating levels but this is a whopper even compared to others in the range. Typical peating levels are 167 parts of phenol per million – this release weighs in at 258PPPM!

A typical peated malt has its barley smoked for a few hours. The barley used in Octomore can take up to seven days continuous smoking at the Inverness maltings!

Thoughts provoked?

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say I'm known (with good reason) in the club as a bit of a fanboy when it comes to Bruichladdich. I've got shelves of the stuff at home, been to the distillery, done the warehouse tasting tour, and I do literally own the T shirt. So you might want to take my opinion with a pinch of salt here and forgive the gush.

What Jo and Kate have shown us during their tasting is the humour, warmth, passion and spirit of Islay. The brand has been steeped in this since the reboot and it comes across in every aspect of how the business works and presents itself. These are real people, with amazing stories to tell. They're honest, proud, self-deprecating and confident.

People often overlook this, but whisky-drinking is a very emotive, passionate experience. That olfactory connection goes way down deep into your subconscious (and, if you're so inclined, your soul).

Bruichladdich get that. You feel it when you look at the bottles, when you visit the distillery, when you speak to the staff, and when you drink the whisky. The tradition of language, humour, storytelling and character comes through every step of the way.

And the whisky's bloody cracking too.

Thanks again to Jo, Kate, and Brian - hope to see you all again in Manchester soon!

Posted by Sean Handley

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