In Conversation with Bruichladdich

“Bruichladdich is different.  We look different, our ethos is different and so we tend to appeal to people who like to ask questions and think differently. “

 Carl Reavey, Head of Content at Bruichladdich.

 

We wanted to explore the thinking behind Bruichladdich whisky. To get down to what makes them different to other producers and how they use the materials to hand – barley, water, age and wood – to create their whisky.

First. Some history.

Bruichladdich Distillery is near the Rhinns of Islay, a beautiful spot. The rise by the little stoney beach, is what Bruichladdich means in Gaelic.

It was originally built in 1881 by the Harvey Brothers (three of them), who also owned the Yoker and Dundashill distilleries in Glasgow at the time. It changed hands a number of times, until Whyte & Mackay mothballed it in 1993. It was only when it was bought in 2000 by Mark Reynier, owner of independent bottler Murray McDavid, that the place really started to sing again.

He brought a unique vision to what Bruichladdich could be. I guess you could call him a bit of a whisky punk. That same vision still drives the company, even with a change of owners in 2012, when Remy Cointreau bought the company.

So what is the core of the Bruichladdich vision? Why does the distillery stand out? I asked Carl Reavey, their Head of Content, about their approach to whisky making.

Much of the Bruichladdich ethos is about exploration and experimentation, about challenging the conventions that have rather hidebound the Scotch whisky industry. We are fascinated by terroir, by the subtle but significant variations that place and aspect and soils and subsoils and climate have on our raw material.  Barley is the most flavour-complex cereal in the world and it is hardly surprising that these variables, and the way farmers interact with them, have an impact.  Exploring terroir is difficult though.  Terroir is time consuming and complicated.  Which is why very few distilleries are interested – because ‘difficult’ is another word for ‘expensive’ in this business.

This obsession with provenance drives their making process. They only use Scottish barley. They only mature the whisky in Islay and use Islay water when water is needed. Terroir matters to them, something some other distilleries could learn from. They even built a new warehouse rather than mature the whiskies off the island.

So let’s get an idea of what they produce.

They have three different expressions. The Bruichladdich itself is the lightest of the three, sweet citrus and floral. It is unpeated.

The Port Charlotte is a classic Islay – smoke and oil alongside the peat (40ppm). Medicinal notes with a big spice finish.

Finally, the Octomore. A big beast. This is very heavily peated, although a little sweet at the same time. They use the heart of the run to make it, so it’s really quite special.

I’m starting to see why the label ‘mavericks’ is starting to fit (they also produce the Botanist Gin, just in case they didn’t have enough going on). They favour serious experimentation.  They create bold whiskies. They walk their own path and pay attention to each detail. I asked Carl why they arrived at such an offering, with three different brands in effect.

Our experimental ethos meant that it was natural for us to explore different peating levels from the very beginning – and for these experiments to eventually be consolidated in the idea of three different brands; unpeated Bruichladdich, heavily peated Port Charlotte and super-heavily peated Octomore.  I guess the “What-if” philosophy runs deep here…

Serious Bruichladdich-ists were worried when the company was bought by Remy Cointreau. There was some worry that new owners would insist on a massive increase in output. But the team saw the old equipment to be at the heart of their whisky. So instead of ditching all the old Victorian equipment in order to increase output, they rebuilt.

If you are interested in buying a bottle of Bruichladdich then check out our current stock, alternatively, if you are interested in completing your collection with your very own cask of Bruichladdich then check out this page on creating your dream dram.

 

The old equipment at Bruichladdich allows a genuine connection between the spirit and the people who make it.  As Adam Hannett says: “We are conscious of everything at every moment, always tasting, nosing, feeling. There is an almost musical rhythm to the place. We can sense when something is out of tune, when a discordant note is sounding or the time signature lost.”  An automated system will never give you that.

I wanted to ask about two other key things which go towards the flavour – the casks and age. How do Bruichladdich consider and harness these variables?

We have casks from around three hundred different sources in our warehouses.  Casks from virtually every wine and spirit making region in the world.  Our pioneering “Transparency” programme with The Classic Laddie and Port Charlotte Scottish Barley is an innovation that we are really proud of. This really highlights the complexity of our cask management programme even with these multi-vintage cuvees.  There are many other examples too.  Our range is full of them, with more being released all the time.

Some of their whiskies are so in demand that some of the Bruichladdich “Laddies” are only available direct from the distillery. One particularly interesting expression of the Port Charlotte was matured in Cognac casks.

What about age? There’s no doubt that age contributes greatly to the flavour of a whisky. But has age become a shorthand for distillers to point towards the quality of the whisky? As customers become more informed, and with a large number of new and young whiskies coming onto the market, is our view of age changing? Carl says:

The age thing is complicated.  Many of the folk who come into contact with the House of Bruichladdich are very well informed indeed.  They know that a simple age statement is not always the best indicator of quality.  At one time, that was enough of a reason to justify the existence of what has become known as the NAS category.  These days however, the NAS category has been hijacked by the unscrupulous.  We are therefore moving in the opposite direction if anything – hence our “Transparency” programme, and our use of specific whisky vintages as well as the introduction of drams such as ‘The Laddie Eight’.  We are always happy to buck any trend at Bruichladdich.  Even if we helped start the trend in the first place…

I have a feeling that Master Distiller Adam Hannett is going to continue to deliver in future. But I was interested to ask Carl how he could see the company develop further.

I see a much greater appreciation of terroir in the future – which puts us in a great place at Bruichladdich because our warehouses are full of uber-provenance spirit that dates back to the renaissance of the distillery in 2001.  I am also really looking forward to the development of our own malting floor at the distillery.  That will enable us to malt our Islay-grown barley here on the island – and that is a really exciting prospect…

They’ve got history, but also a yearning to bring this old expertise into thoroughly modern and exciting whiskies. With Bruichladdich, you know exactly what you’re getting – Islay, through and through.

Here is a link to the Bruichladdich website – www.bruichladdich.com

If you are interested in buying a bottle of Bruichladdich then check out our current stock, alternatively, if you are interested in completing your collection with your very own cask of Bruichladdich then check out this page on creating your dream dram.

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