October 10, 2012

Bruichladdich - the innovative Islay distillery

The good folks at Bruichladdich distillery proudly describe themselves as hard-working, curious, passionate and a bit  roguish. Add innovative, clever and kindly to that list and you'll be part way to understanding the group of people, who in the last 12 years, have masterminded and executed the most recent re-incarnation of Bruichladdich, and a successful one at that. Successful how? According to Alan Logan, Bruichladdich's Distillery Manager, who proudly showed me around the distillery and patiently answered my questions, production levels at the distillery were 150,000 litres 10 years ago, 750,000 litres last year and will be 1,500,000 litres next year. That seems successful!
But the intent at Bruichladdich is certainly not aimed at churning out volume. Rather, the emphasis is on producing unique and interesting whiskies with a sense of place, aided by careful experimentation with barley, peat levels, cask selection and nurturing.  I'm jumping ahead here, but near the end of my wander around the distillery with Alan, I tasted some whisky from an ex Chateau d'Yquem cask. The contents had matured for about 18 years in an ex-Bourbon cask, but had spent the last few years in the Sauternes cask. If forced to, I would have to say that it was my favourite whisky tasted  in the entire week on Islay. After my tasting in the dunnage warehouse, I talked to Jim McEwan, Production Director at Bruichladdich, (a title which doesn't even begin to describe his iconic status in the industry or his many roles at Bruichladdich) and it turned out that he shares my love of that cask. He checks it often and is nurturing it to the moment of perfection, although I would be amazed if the contents become any more sublime. Jim apologizes for his romanticism, but he calls this cask his Diana, reflecting his admiration for the late Princess. The distillery admirably matures all of its whisky on Islay and I don't imagine that every cask has a name, but I'm pretty sure that they're all lovingly nurtured. One of the warehouses in Port Charlotte was actually built from the remains of Lochindaal distillery, knocked down in 1934.
"But to our tale", to quote from Tam O'Shanter.......... .When Bruichladdich distillery was built in 1881, it was both innovative and intelligently designed, making clever use of gravity to move the different elements through the production stages. From 1937 to 1995 it had frequent ownership changes, with all the resulting ups and downs, and was then mothballed in 1995. In 2000, it was bought by a local consortium, including Jim McEwan - a consortium that had the skills, imagination, drive and financial means to restore the equipment, restart production and create the Bruichladdich renaissance. Much of the well-designed 1881 innovation is still in place, and one of the wash stills, the oldest in Scotland, in fact,  dates from that time.The distillery mill, shown here, is 99 years old. Fermentation is deliberately slow and takes place in five lovely Oregon pine and one Douglas fir washback. The four copper stills have elegant long necks, in contrast to Ugly Betty, the quirky gin still which creates the increasingly popular Botanist Gin - a tasty concoction  using 31 botanicals, 22 of them native to Islay.
The new owners, and the local team they employed, did a remarkable job of re-building interest in and demand for Bruichladdich, despite minimal existing stocks and the necessity to wait for the new spirit to mature. Colourful and creative packaging and inspired marketing of various new and young products helped the process. With no corporate watchdog to stifle creativity, innovation bloomed. A credo to employ locally and use local product led to experimentation with local, heritage and organic barley and different peat levels. Currently, 35 to 40% of the barley used is local and about 50% is organic. Although the Classic house style is sweet, elegant, floral and unpeated, the peated line includes Octomore  - off the chart at 140ppm (phenols per million) and rather tasty if you like peat. Within the consortium, there is much in depth wine and wine cask knowledge, which prompted a desire to find special casks to further mature the whisky. According to Alan, about 90% of the casks used at Bruichladdich are American bourbon first fill casks, but there are many casks to be seen bearing the name of great wine chateaux, port houses and the like. Bruichladdich coined the phrase Additional Cask Enhancement (ACE) to define the process of a second maturation of whisky in a different cask. Generally on Islay, I found that distillery folk didn't like the term "finishing" anymore, preferring instead "double maturation" -  a term that's become a bit confusing to the consumer. ACE seems to fit the bill quite nicely.
The folks at Bruichladdich have a way with words. One of their special bottlings (no longer available) was called DNA_1:The 36.This rare and expensive whisky was created by Jim with specially selected casks which had some ACE time in barrels previously containing Pomerol Chateau Le Pin.
At the spirit safe, Alan had me taste some new make Octomore. It was quite nice - sweet, with the phenols kicking in afterwards. I find that I'm developing a palate for new make spirit! By the way, to conform with Scotch whisky legislation, new make spirit cannot be called whisky until it's spent 3 years in an oak cask.
Before going off to taste a few gems in the warehouse, we stopped in at the bottling hall, built in 2002. It's rare in the industry for distilleries to do their own bottling, but it made perfect sense to the Bruichladdich team, and means that they dilute to bottling strength with local water, have control over their own bottling timing, and add to the local employment. Splendid!
Currently there are about 36,000 Bruichladdich casks on Islay. Alan took me into one of the warehouses on site to taste a few worthies. Apart from the aforementioned fabulous Sauternes ACE, I tasted a great 22 year old whisky, where the additional ACE was Calvados. I couldn't guess that one, partially because I didn't expect it, but it was quite delicious, elegant and multi-layered. Next up was a 66% ABV Octomore that had spent 3 years in virgin American oak, not often used in the industry for that length of time. Wow! It was dark and meaty and conjured up visions of barbecued pulled pork. I tried a couple of examples of similarly made, young unpeated whisky from two different strains of local barley. They were a little different in age, which would obviously have some influence, but the differences in character, nose and palate were quite noticeable.
I have to admit that I was a little star-struck by Jim McEwan, and not just because he gave me a big hug and a bottle of Bruichladdich! He's a knowledgeable, intelligent and very personable man, who has also been in the whisky industry for some 50 years, about 35 of them at Bowmore. He is a whisky creator, an ambassador for the industry and has undoubtedly been involved in every aspect of the Bruichladdich renaissance. I suspect that he also had a hand in the poetic and passionate prose in the Bruichladdich website. Although it's a challenge to read it on its dark background, the writing is a work of art and the content tells a good tale.
Alan suggested The Forbidden Fruit as my bottle of choice. Seemed like an appropriate choice!
Remy Cointreau was very clever to buy Bruichladdich Distillery a few months ago. Their marketing reach and distribution network will increase global demand for the range. Let's hope that nothing much else will change, and that passionate innovation will continue.
Next up - Caol Ila..............