Allow me to start with a digression. Not only are there significant differences between the characters of the different Islay whiskies, there is also quite a variety on how to react to a request of a simple whisky blogger like me for talking to someone from the distillery about some questions that go a bit beyond the regular visitors tour.
Most responses ranged from pure ignorance to “let’s see what we can do”. Not so at Bruichladdich. Here I was offered an appointment with CEO Mark Reynier after being asked to introduce me and my blog a bit more in depth than in my original e-mail. And they even picked me up a my Bed & Breakfast place to give me a lift to the distillery. Makes you wonder why some distilleries reject the chance of geeting a small boost in public relations more or less for free.
In the end, Mark Reynier sacrificed three hours to talk to me and show me around the distillery. And it turned out to be not so much an interview but a very enlightening talk about many aspects of whisky going far beyond the coverage of Bruichladdich distillery.
A Special Distillery
Bruichladdich is something special. To understand this distillery you have to know that they have a vision: Turning whisky from an industrial, mass produced commodity back to where it came from – a regional craft product rooted on the talent of local people. The key element is their striving for total enrepreneurial independence to get full control of all aspects of whisky making. And this is done not so much to reach perfection but to be able to have the freedom of trying out unusal things and pushing the limits by experimentation without risking to cause headaches in the 23rd floor of a corporate headquarters.
For Mark Reynier the acquisition of Bruichladdich distillery by Murray McDavid is also a logical extension of the operation of the independent bottler. Before that time, they could only “play around” with the maturation of spirit made by others. Now they have the full set of whisky making parameters at their hands that they can tweak to their hearts’ content.
This approach is illustrated by the fact that Bruichladdich seems to take the selection of barley varieties much more seriously than others. They disclose eight different varieties that are used for their spirits, a large proportion thereof grown locally. Most distilleries don’t seem to care much about barley. But just as there are hundreds or grape varieties that will give many very distinctive characteristics to wine, different barley types result in different spirits. Regarding a malt as something like a cuvée – from the selection of barley to the vatting of batches to be bottled – is one of the many moments where Mark Reynier’s background in the wine business is shining through.
Another thing that sets Bruichladdich apart from other distilleries is their deliberate prolongment of fermentation. They use only half the usual amount of yeast which doubles fermentation time but results in a more richly flavoured beer.
Up to today, distillation has been pretty straightforward. But Bruichladdich currently is installing a Lomond still hat they lovingly call Ugly Betty which they hope to bring into operation this summer. It will be be fitted with new neck piece specially designed by Jim McEwan. Not to my surprise, Mark Reynier confirmed that they plan to take full advantage of the capabilities of the still, even though the maintenance of a Lomond still is not exactly easy. The Lomond still adds yet another tweakable parameter to the exisisting set, now giving the distillery even more control of the character of its spirit. In several years time we can certainly expect some very interesting experimental bottlings by Bruichladdich.
The majority of the stock is matured in bourbon barrels, but also many other cask types are used. Bruichladdich has come up with a very interersting alternative to sherry casks by using old Rivesaltes casks. Rivesaltes is a fortified red wine from southern France that has similar characteristics to sweet sherry. As true solera sherry casks are harder and harder to find, they prefer to go this way instead of using “pseudo sherry casks” that have only been wetted by sherry for a short time.
A very special sight is the on-site bottling line. Unlike the equipment for the production of the whisky which is decidedly traditional, this facility is state of the art, any nostalgia here would do nothing to improve the whisky anymore anyway.
The Product Range
Of course we talked about the distillery bottlings and the criticism that the abundance of expressions since the re-opening of the distillery has caused. Mark Reynier explained that the one and only reason for this was to make the best of the existing Bruichladdich stock. Fair enough, generation of cash flow is vital for a newly re-opened distillery before the new product range is fully installed.
Mark Reynier outlined to me the final product range of twelve malts that will have been installed by 2012. Not all slots seem to be definitively filled in, but the core will be a traditional age statement range of 10, 15, 18 and 21 years. There will be the Rocks as entry level NAS and the Infinity as premium NAS expression. The Octomore and X4 will continue to be produced as well as the Laddie Classic. The Organic and the Black Art will form a special pair of malts, Organic is traceable “to the inner leg measurement of the farmer” while Black Art is a secret concoction by Jim McEwan the exact composition of which even Mark claims to be uninformed of. The Port Charlotte will be bottled as 10yo at a strength of 46%. The Bruichladdich branded range will be unpeated, Port Charlotte and Octomore will be the only peated expressions.
Speaking of Port Charlotte, the plans to re-open the distillery in Port Charlotte will not imply that the PC whisky will be distilled there in the future. The distillery will be named Lochindaal, like it was originally called. To avoid confusion, the Bruichladich provenience will be visible on the label more clearly.
Putting it all together, Bruichladdich is without a doubt the most innovative distillery, not only on Islay but in all of Scotland. Of course this does not automatically guarantee commercial success. But if you consider that Bruichladdich tops Ardbeg in sales figures with a five-digit marketing budget that must be ridiculously low compared to the LVMH marketing machinery running at full throttle, it seems that they are on the right path.
Side Note: Because of a problem with the memory card of my camera, I lost quite a few pictures of the distillery, sorry about that.