Bruichladdich (and Islay): A Tribute (Part 1)

The 8th and last distillery in my series on the Islay distilleries focuses on the Bruichladdich, which is one of my all-time favourites. It is a highly celebrated distillery with quite an interesting history and has produced some stellar bottlings old and new.

The famous still outside the distillery, as seen in January 2015. It has since been removed and shipped to Ireland for use in a new distillery owned by Mark Reynier.
The famous still outside the distillery, as seen in January 2015. It has since been removed and shipped to Ireland for use in a new distillery owned by Mark Reynier.

In this case, I’ve certainly kept the best for last and have decided to split this piece into multiple parts in order to cover as much as I can remember and have researched. This one will be a journey in itself and I wish to commit it to paper (or electronic paper anyway) so that I never forget.

The reason why it has taken me this long to get to Bruichladdich is due to the chain of events that led me to the distillery itself. When I first heard of the distillery back in 2008, I admit that I didn’t know much about it. In fact, it took me a while before I learned how to spell and pronounce it. But the history fascinated me all the same. But the two things that made me sit up and take notice of Bruichladdich: Mark Reynier’s revival of the distillery in 2001, and his hiring of Mr Jim McEwan.

My sister’s in-laws love whisky probably as much as I do and her mother-in-law was born and raised on Islay before moving to Liverpool and then Melbourne with her husband and children many years ago. Her connection is probably strongest with Bowmore distillery, considering that some her relatives used to work at the distillery many years ago.

She remembers meeting Mr Jim McEwan at the distillery as well as around the village of Bowmore, and she shared this information with me prior to my trip to Islay in January. My sister’s father-in-law is another fan of Bowmore and Bruichladdich and we have spent many an hour sampling drams from both distilleries and speaking volumes about them. He told me about how the distillery was revived in 2001 by Mark Reynier and how he approached Jim to take over as the Master Distiller.

Mr Jim McEwan.
Mr Jim McEwan.

I also remember watching videos on Youtube which showcased Bruichladdich’s revival and how Jim was a fundamental part of the creation of the distillery’s new core range as well as it’s experimentation with different types of barley, casks and provenance.

Jim’s enthusiasm and vision for the distillery and how he saw it through to fruition captured my attention and I made it a point to keep an eye out for news concerning the distillery. In the meantime, I had looked around the various bars in Singapore and Melbourne for bottles of Bruichladdich, which were far harder to source in comparison to Bowmore.

The first expression that I tried from the distillery was in 2012: Bruichladdich Rocks, which is an unpeated, no age statement expression. I didn’t know what to expect prior to sampling it, but upon doing so, I was floored by the complexity and diversity of the flavour profile. It was on that day that my love for the distillery was cemented.

My very first taste of Bruichladdich.
My very first taste of Bruichladdich.

Rocks gave me a glimpse of what the distillery was capable of, and I was hooked. I then proceeded to try other expressions from the core and special ranges in order to further familiarise myself with the different types of whiskies that the distillery produced.

Octomore 4.2 Comus - At one time the peatiest whisky available at 167 ppm phenol.
Octomore 4.2 Comus – At one time the peatiest whisky available at 167 ppm phenol.
Port Charlotte PC 7 - Part of the peated offerings from Bruichladdich.
Port Charlotte PC 7 – Part of the peated offerings from Bruichladdich and peated to 50 ppm phenol.

Later in 2012, I managed to try two of the peated expressions from the Port Charlotte and Octomore ranges of Bruichladdich. The Port Charlotte PC 7 was a robust, intense bottling with a strong phenolic element that I thoroughly enjoyed while the Octomore 4.2 Comus was rather complex and surprisingly sophisticated when you consider that it had a rather staggering phenolic content of 167 ppm.

The most memorable bottling that I had ever tried was the Bruichladdich X4+3, which was a quadruple-distilled, 3 year old cask strength behemoth bottled at 63.5% abv.

Bruichladdich X4+3.
Bruichladdich X4+3.

I had read the reviews about this particular expression and the story behind its creation fascinated me. I therefore decided to purchase a bottle of it as a 25th birthday present to myself. I fondly remember the clean mouthfeel, lemon citrus notes and the green, grassy character of the whisky, which at 3 years old was still slightly rough around the edges but boasted a staggering level of complexity for a whisky so young.

I still retain the empty bottle and tin which once housed the X4+3 and it serves as a reminder to me of how age should ever determine the quality of a whisky. In fact, I believe that this was the whisky which finally ended my prejudice against No Age Statement bottlings.

While I do still lean towards bottlings with age statements, I have a much more relaxed attitude towards the NAS bottlings and have even purchased a few gems along the way. In early 2014, it was becoming increasingly clear that I had to embark on a trip to Islay in order for me to satisfy my curiosity and love for the island and the distilleries on it.

I had been fascinated by the histories of distilleries long gone (Port Ellen) as well as functional (The great 8 distilleries on the island) and decided that I had to make a trip sooner rather than later. It was then that the planning began in earnest. I had worked out that trip needed extensive planning and also realised that it was better to travel with my mates in order for it to be more enjoyable and also cost effective.

After many rounds of discussions, planning, revisions and compromises, my 2 mates and I embarked on a 2 week journey which took in Manchester, Islay, Glasgow and Dublin. When we had initially planned on the trip to be in January, we had absolutely no idea of the kind of weather we were about to face.

The day before we were due to leave Manchester for Glasgow, we had received word that the CalMac ferries heading from Kennacraig to Islay on that day were cancelled and that our ferries the following day were at risk of following suit. We were rather distressed at the news, but decided that it was better to soldier on and take a chance.

That night, we took a bus from Manchester Coach Station to Buchanan Bus Station in Glasgow, where we were scheduled to wait for our bus to Kennacraig 3 hours later. I took the chance to speak to the driver of the 6.35am bus heading to Kennacraig and he informed me that as far as he had heard, there were no ferries running to Islay that day.

But he also mentioned that it was best to phone the CalMac offices for more information and that there was a chance that the ferry service might get reinstated later. Therefore my mates and I waited at the bus station, taking the chance to grab some breakfast (we sampled our very first black puddings during this period, and fell in love with it) while we waited for the CalMac offices to open at 8am.

At 8am, I phoned the CalMac offices and spoke to one of their customer service officers, who informed me that they were assessing weather conditions hourly in order to ascertain whether the ferries were to be run at their designated timeslots. She also mentioned to me that our designated 1pm ferry departure might be brought forward by half an hour, which clashed with our arrival time at the ferry terminal by bus.

I relayed this concern to her and she immediately allayed my fears by promising that if the ferry was running at that time, they would wait for the bus before leaving for Islay. Buoyed by this news, my mates and I waited for our 9.15am bus to arrive.

The bus ride was an experience in itself as we were lashed by torrential rain from all sides. But the view of the coastal areas and the snow-capped mountains along the way more than made up for it and we were treated to some spectacular views.

A memorably mad bus journey from Glasgow to Kennacraig!
A memorably mad bus journey from Glasgow to Kennacraig!

Halfway during our bus journey, we received possibly the best news we’d heard all day: The ferry was running as planned and would wait for the bus to arrive before departing for Islay. When we had reached the ferry terminal, we raced out of the bus, grabbed our luggage, bought our return tickets and boarded the ferry. During that entire time, the rain refused to let up and we were soaked by the time we had boarded the ferry.

The view from aboard The CalMac Hebridean Isles ferry.
The view from aboard The CalMac Hebridean Isles ferry.
Mad sea spray!
Mad sea spray!

We then sat down inside the cafeteria and grabbed some lunch while we waited. Here is where it gets exciting. After lunch, we were discussing out itinerary when I happened to glance to my right and noticed a familiar person sitting down a few seats away from us. I initially had difficulty remembering who he was and was racking my brain in an attempt to place a name to the face. After almost a full minute, it dawned on me that it was Mr Jim McEwan himself.

Part 2:

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