A Laddie’s Tale

I honestly don’t remember the first whisky I ever drank. Family legend has it that my grandfather used to dip his finger in his glass of Glenmorangie and rub it on my gums to quieten me down as a teething baby. I know I used to swipe random blends from the back of cupboard to take to parties as a teenager but given that they were usually mixed with Irn-Bru, I clearly wasn’t paying too much attention to what I was drinking. What I do remember is the first time I was given a dram I knew was special. My Dad handed me a glass of Bruichladdich 15 year old on my 16th birthday and said ‘That is the best whisky in the world, but some daft b*stard closed the distillery so you won’t be getting any more’. Even allowing for my limited experience to that point, it was certainly the best whisky I had ever tasted and the fresh, creamy, honeyed, malty sweetness carved a place in my heart for the distillery nestled by between the rocky hills of the Rhinns and the shimmering blue of Loch Indaal.

A couple of years later, I was working in a whisky bar and heard a rumour that Bruichladdich was back, purchased by a group of local investors and a London based wine merchant. New releases based on the old stocks began to emerge, first as a trickle then as a deluge as the investors desperately tried to raise the funds needed to keep the distillery going while they waited for their new spirit to mature. This explosion of limited editions might have been dizzying to try and keep up with (and a nightmare for shops like Luvians who simply didn’t have the shelf space to stock them all), but it contained lots of absolute gems as many older whiskies were re-racked into a range of funky wine casks, gaining Bruichladdich a growing and enthusiastic cult following. The additions of smoky variants, Port Charlotte and Octomore, only broadened the appeal of the spirit as it aged.

Bruichladdich has always had a bit of a split personality (if you believe in omens you might put it down to the fact that the Harvey brothers, who built the distillery back in 1881, fell out so spectacularly during construction that they never spoke again). It is a distillery in the heartland of smoky whisky whose main release is unpeated. A company whose motto is ‘Progressive Hebridean Distillers’ but are based in a building that has been referred to a ‘working museum distillery’ – the joke goes that everything in the distillery was cutting edge in 19th century and they haven’t seen a reason to replace anything since. A whisky company with almost 130 years of history that these days is arguably more famous for their gin, The Botanist, than their whiskies. These seeming contradictions are on glorious display in the latest special release, Black Art 7.1. Distilled in 1994, the final year before the closure my Dad so lamented, only 12,000 bottles of this stunning 25 year old exist. Unlike every other release in the range, where cask types & even the fields from which the barley was harvested are shared in exhaustive detail, there isn’t even a hint at the casks Head Distiller Adam Hannett used to construct this delicious dram – even progressive distillers like to keep some secrets!

There is no such subterfuge with the latest releases of Octomore – the 5-year-old 10.1, which sets the benchmark for the series with rich, intense smoke, allowed to shine through relatively unencumbered by any major cask influence, and the 10.3, a 6-year-old made entirely from Concerto barley grown on Islay at Octomore farm. Both whiskies use almost identical casks and warehousing, so the distinctly spicier note of the 10.3 is evidence of the different character provided by Islay grown barley compared to that brought to the island from the mainland.

So let me raise a glass of Port Charlotte 10, one of the great value peat monsters around, to the rebels, experimenters, tinkerers and visionaries who have made Bruichladdich one of the most exciting distilleries in Scotland, and with that in mind, over to you Abi…

A Lassie’s Tale

Hey Abi, who are you and what do you do at Bruichladdich – or to borrow one of the distillery’s favourite terms, what’s your provenance?

Hello, I am the Brand Ambassador for the UK for all PHD brands. I have worked for Bruichladdich now for about four and half years, and my background is in the hospitality world. I have worked in the food and drinks world since I was about 13 – as soon as I was old enough I began on the bar, and have been a bartender ever since.

Describe a typical day both out on the road and when you get the chance to get back to the distillery.

I think the reason I love my job so much is that there isn’t really a typical day. On the road it can really be anything from whisky tastings, to bar takeovers, to foraging walks. I am really lucky with my job – I go back to the distillery all the time. It kicks off with the whisky festival, and because of my cocktail background I work on the Botanist bar, in which we pick all the ingredients and make 4000 cocktails for the thirsty festival goers. I also host visitors that can range from camping and fishing with Michelin star chefs, to bartenders, to buyers. Basically, just sharing the progressive Bruichladdich philosophy with whoever will listen!

What is your favourite Bruichladdich dram?

I genuinely don’t have an all-time favourite dram, especially as our range goes from unpeated all the way through to the world’s most heavily peated. There is a dram for every occasion – saying that, I have been drinking a lot of the Port Charlotte MRC:01 this year as it’s one of my favourite whiskies. There is so much going on in that dram, and as it’s limited release, it’s best to have it while I can. Redder Still has a great memory for me, as I was trying to taste it for ages and finally managed to in the Ballygrant Inn. The Event Horizon Feis bottling Octomore this year was unreal too. There’s too many!

What is your favourite non-Bruichladdich dram? Please don’t say Port Charlotte or Octomore?

Hmmm, I drink a lot of different whiskies depending on my mood really. Compass Box generally has a dram I really enjoy.

When you aren’t having a whisky what is your go to drink?

Well I obviously drink a fair amount of The Botanist, but outside of our distillery, I just love learning about how alcohol is made. I LOVE Agave spirits, Tequila in particular. I also love Sherry – especially a dry or Palo Cortado. Every time I go on holiday, I generally go to places where they make booze I enjoy, then spend some time working in the production. Oh, and Champagne, I love that too.

If you could share a dram with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?

Amy Winehouse.

Islay is a famously tight knit community – what’s the most Ileach thing you’ve ever encountered at the distillery?

One of the best things to remember at the distillery is that everything works on Islay time so it’s a really nice, slow pace of life, especially if you’ve come straight from London. Oh, and on my first day Lynne McEwan (wife of previous master distiller Jim McEwan) told me that if the cows are at the beach, it’s going to be good weather. You know what? It’s not failed so far!

Finally, we have over 1000 different whiskies on our shelves, why should people grab a bottle from Bruichladdich over all the others?

At Bruichladdich our main aim is to make the most natural, thought provoking, intellectually stimulating and most importantly delicious spirit we can. We focus massively on raw ingredients, only using Scottish barley, a lot of which we grow with farmers on the island. We believe in the connection of flavour and land, and the effect different terroirs and barley varietal can have on the end spirit. We are very experimental and forward thinking in our approach, but we still use our old Victorian equipment in production. We still champion the skill of the artisan over computerisation. We also mature all of our whisky on site, giving it that salty citrus tang, and also ensuring we can monitor it until it goes into the bottle with our Islay spring water.  There are also three peating levels at Bruichladdich, meaning there will generally be a Laddie for any occasion.