Bruichladdich Luxury Scottish Whisky: A unique sense of place
It is rare, in life, to find a product which speaks so loudly of its surroundings and the people who produced it. One might think of French perfume and the elegant boulevards of Paris perhaps. The finest tailoring is the preserve of the English with London’s gentlemanly Saville Row at its heart, and if you want the most exotic and flamboyant super-cars look no further than stylish Italians. With this in mind, it is naturally the rugged landscape of Scotland that springs to mind whenever the name whisky is uttered. So, when offered the chance to spend a day at the Bruichladdich distillery on the stunningly beautiful Hebridean island of Islay, I naturally jumped at the chance. The Hebrides comprise a widespread and diverse archipelago off the west coast of mainland Scotland, surrounded by fast currents and dangerous skerries, wild winds and Atlantic swells.
Our island adventure began after a quick 40 min hop from Glasgow to the tiny island airport where Kate Hallett, our charming guide to all things Bruichladdich, transported us to the distillery located on the shoreline, further round the island. This seaside proximity apparently delivering a fresh salt tang, from the ozone rich marine air of Loch Indaal, a signature accent of their single malt whiskies. The drive was a lovely experience as the weather was beautiful and the flat bright green fields and coastal scenery were idyllically human-free, although we did encounter the odd sheep who Kate skilfully negotiated in the mini-bus. Once safely arrived in the Victorian courtyard Kate’s brother Adam gave us a tour of the buildings, explaining the process of whisky production including the malting, mashing, fermentation and distillation.
The distillery itself was custom designed by Robert Harvey in 1881, and in its day was a state of the art facility, built to create the purest spirit possible which it did for many years. However in 1994 production closed down under previous owners until being resurrected in 2000 by a team led by Mark Reynier and Simon Coughlin. Their background was as London wine merchants bringing a passion and belief that terroir (the local terrain) matters deeply and an understanding of the role of using fine oak and the nuances of flavour brought by cask origin to the maturation of single malt whisky. They decided to keep all the original equipment, citing it being hard to improve on the traditional gravity-fed process. Although, not forcing for efficiency meant less productivity, and therefore profit, but at Bruichladdich they’re happy for things to take time. This includes using traditional ways of fermentation and sight, sound and smell instead of computerisation and limited human input.
Like fine-wine makers, they believe that that the slower and more gentle the process the purer and better the liquid. This allows the Stillman to more precisely judge the critical ‘Middle-cut’ – the distilling sweet spot. The whisky is bottled naturally, un-chill filtered with no added colour, retaining the vital natural oils which give it the complex flavour profile and mouthfeel. Another key belief was to only use 100% Islay organic barley, for the first time in the Islands history, supporting multiple local farms. They are also, the only major distiller to bottle spirit on the island itself, believing it to be essential for provence and authenticity. Even the beautifully soft water, used to reduce the strength of the spirit at bottling, comes from the well at Octomore farm above the distillery.
This was all very interesting, but what about tasting some of the end product. Adam duly obliged, taking us to the warehouse where the maturing whisky sits in only the highest quality bourbon casks.
They are also experimenting with casks from great wineries of Europe, developing constantly in the pursuit excellence and innovation. We were fortunate to try samples from barrels once containing luminaries such as Lafite, Latour and D’Yquem.
These all amazingly subtly tasting, and smelling (particularly the D’Yquem) of their previous contents, although the predominant flavour being whisky though. A truly fascinating and unique experience, and possibly the closest I’ll ever come to trying Chateau Lafite sadly!
After a wonderful picnic lunch on the beach and tramp up a local viewpoint to asses the lie of the land, we were back inside for more sampling. This time it was Allan Logan, distillery manager, doing the honours of introducing us to all the various Bruichladdich offerings.
My two favourites being the sublime Black Arts, an aged, mystery concoction, the recipe being only known to head distiller Jim McEwan and The Botanist a small-batch artisanal gin they also produce. It uses nine of the classic gin aromas and augments these with twenty-two local botanicals, hand-picked by expert local foraging teams – really delicious.
Sadly, our day was over all too quickly and the we were off back to the mainland all smelling like, well, breweries probably. My lasting impression will be of the quest for honesty and passionate belief in the product of the staff, some 70 or so locals, and their unique connection with the maturing spirit. A relationship with the land and sea that makes it, and that gives it, it’s unique sense of place. Their aim is to create the most thought-provoking whisky possible. I’ll definitely drink to that.
Man about town.