Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Johnnie Does Bruichladdich

Thursday 21 August 2014 - 2:00pm

Price: £30.00

Six distilleries down, two to go and next on the menu was the whisky geek's favourite, Bruichladdich. Still reeling from the morning's mammoth tasting in the Lagavulin warehouse, I fortified myself with a bite to eat from a small establishment in Port Charlotte. Part-shop, part-cafe, part living room; it was an absolute godsend.


As I sat outside at one of the picnic tables, bathed in early afternoon sunshine and head swimming, my saviour marched out of the shop towards me with a plate full of cheesy, toasty goodness. Far from being the dyed-in-the-wool Ileach I'd expected, his accent was about as Scottish as mine. Clearly, we're infiltrating the island at an alarming rate. Expect a coup any day now. Head clear and belly full, I marched on Bruichladdich.

Not sure how they heat it

I've often mentioned how I feel like I came into the whisky game too late. I was completely oblivious to the Mark Reynier Bruichladdich revolution. By the time I knew my glass from my Glenmo', The Laddie Ten had already been released and I'd missed the plethora of series' and releases that delighted and frustrated collectors in equal measure. That's not to say I'm unaware of just how good the distillery's releases can be. While I found the Laddies 10, 16 and 22 all high in quality but low in 'wow', the Port Charlotte and, to a slightly lesser extent, Octomore releases I've tried have all rang my bell in no small way. Additionally, the Black Art and Cuvee releases have been hugely entertaining. It's fair to say that this was going to be educational.

The Tour

Blue anchor
I remember a certain member of the #whiskyfabric once remarking on Bruichladdich's hiring policy. Baffled at the time, I must say that I instantly caught his drift the moment I walked through the doors. If you're not following me, I'd urge you to visit the distillery and see for yourself. 

The experience we booked was a two part affair, the tasting being tacked on to the end of the standard tour. As with most standard tours in August, the group was rather large, rather boisterous and a mix of nationalities. The result was a cacophony of laughing old men, sons and daughters translating rather loudly and the poor tour guide trying to be heard above it all. To make things more difficult, the mill was in full swing at the start of the tour. Who'd be a guide, eh?

I snigger every time
The tour started with a potted history of the distillery, although the previously mentioned issue made it nigh-on impossible to hear most of it. We managed to catch snippets like "Original dresser from 1881" and "Last belt-driven mill in Scotland". There was an interesting anecdote about the new Bruichladdich blue being the colour of the sea opposite the distillery the day Mr Reynier bought the place. Having looked at the sea opposite the distillery, I can only assume that either a container ship ran aground that day and spilled a cargo of paint, or that this is utter bollocks. 50/50 I reckon.

Some gymnastics required
We were led into a somewhat quieter area and up some stairs to look at the mash tun. A number of us had to duck under some pipework and file round to accommodate everyone on the platform but we all made it in one piece. Open topped and cast iron, we were told that this was the original from 1881 (later contradicted by the chaps at Bunnahabhain who stated that they gave it over to Bruichladdich towards the latter part of the last century, but that's a story for another day) and that, as a result of the heat loss from being open-topped, they run four cycles of water through the barley, as opposed to the industry-standard three.

Jimmy needed to work on his tan
The distillery houses six washbacks, all made from Oregon Pine and of varying ages. Unlike some other distilleries which use blades to cut the foam produced by fermentation, or Kilchoman's space-age 'oil-in-a-bucket' technique, Bruichladdich cunningly manages to overcome the problem by filling their washbacks to 36,000 litres, some way short of their 60,000 litre capacity.

Not sure if really small or just hidden
I probably would
The distillery uses five stills; two wash stills from 1881, two spirit stills from 1971 and one refurbished Lomond still, lovingly named 'Ugly Betty', from which Bruichladdich distils their Botanist Gin.

Safe, yeah?
The spirit safe dates back to the 70's and keeps the new-make spirit out of general circulation, allowing HMRC to sleep at night. That being said, our gracious host pulled a bottle of, presumably taxed, new-make from out of a shelf and allowed us all to take a sip before whisking us away to the warehouse, home of Bruichladdich's famous/infamous ACEing experiments.

No chootanoofydoofypoopy?
ACE I'm reliably informed, stands for Additional Cask Enhancement. Some whisky drinkers will swear on their mothers' graves that Bruichladdich are just ahead of the curve when it comes to cask experimentation; the owners had the foresight to note that with the rising sherry cask prices, wine finishes were the way forward. Others will tell you that Mr Reynier was saddled with a warehouse full of crap whisky and it was the only way he could get rid of it. 

I personally like to think that on the day he bought Bruichladdich, the sea across from the distillery was the colour of a recycled Tokaji cask. Whatever your belief, there's no denying that Bruichladdich doesn't shy away from the unusual.

After a quick trip to the bottling plant and a dip into the distillery shop for a complimentary dram, it was time to head off to another of the warehouses for a closer look at a few of their casks.

The Tasting

Three of the best
As mentioned earlier, the tasting was an additional element you could tack on to the standard tour, As a result I found myself in a group of three people, one of which was my wife, intently listening to our new host (same hiring policy though). It was an altogether more intimate affair and our host was engaging, funny and informative. We got to draw and sample from three casks - one Bruichladdich, one Port Charlotte and one Octomore. All were of excellent quality, we weren't rushed in any way and after the hustle and bustle of the main tour, it was just what the doctor ordered.

Well deserved, let me tell you
Afterwards, it was back to the shop for a few souvenirs and the sad realisation that we only had one distillery to go.

To be concluded..........


The Tour: C
Our guide was knowledgeable and friendly, although the whole thing seemed a little 'by-the-numbers' and I feel the group was probably too large and boisterous for there to be any real rapport between the guide and guests.

The Drams: A
Bruichladdich Bere Barley 2006 50%
Bruichladdich 1989 Warehouse Cask #45 53.5%
Port Charlotte (Grenache Finish) 2006 Warehouse Cask #1586 61.8%
Octomore (Chateau D'Yquem) 2002 Warehouse Cask #1115 56.4%
PLUS a free Glencairn glass.

Four drams and a glass may pale in comparison to some of the experiences offered by Islay distilleries, however, the shop dram was tasty and the three whiskies at the tasting were all straight from the cask, all generously poured and, most importantly, all spankingly good quality. I can't fault it.

The Shop: B+
Hampered somewhat by Remy Cointreau's decimation of the core range, although still displaying a fair amount of choice. A hand-fill cask was available; one of Bruichladdich's 'Valinch' Series from 1989 and ACEd in a Rioja barrel.

The shop also sported a large range of non-whisky items; souvenirs, glasses, nik-naks and clothes.

Overall: B
I'm a fan of Bruichladdich and while I can't quite work out if this fixation on terroir is just a load of arse to cover up a switch to younger bottlings, the product still tastes good and they still know how to finish a whisky. The thinking behind their hiring policy is quite evident but somehow fits in nicely with the sans-serif font and the jazzy, blue/green paint. Definitely worth a visit.

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