The Islay Series – Distillery #8: Bruichladdich

The 8th and final distillery in my series focuses on Bruichladdich, which as previously mentioned is a highly celebrated distillery with quite an interesting history and has produced some stellar bottlings old and new.

Bruichladdich is located on the South-Western side of Islay in an area known as the Rhinns. The distillery itself is located across the bay from Bowmore and its closest neighbour is Kilchoman a few miles down the road. It draws its primary source of water from the nearby Bruichladdich River and is also located close to the shore of Loch Indaal.

The term Bruichladdich is Gaelic in origin and roughly translates as ‘Rocky lee shore’ and is pronounced as Brook-La-Dee. The distillery has historically produced unpeated single malt whisky but in recent years has focused on a wide range of unpeated and peated expressions as well as artisanal gin.

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.

The distillery was founded in 1881 by Barnett Harvey, who constructed it with funds left by his brother William III to his three sons. Upon the formation of Bruichladdich Distillery Company Limited in 1886, the distillery was reconstructed in order to expand production capacity.

Control of the distillery passed on to Barnett Harvey’s nephew, William IV in 1889 and he became the manager of the distillery till his death in 1937. During William’s tenure as Distillery Manager, Bruichladdich was mothballed for a period of 7 years between 1929 and 1936.

The year after William’s death, the distillery was acquired by a consortium of investors through the company Train & McIntyre. The acquisition by the consortium facilitated the move of the distillery operations to another company by the name of Associated Scottish Distillers.

The distillery changed hands twice more before coming under the control of Invergordon Distillers in 1968. In the intervening period, Bruichladdich ceased malting its own barley in house and resorted to acquiring its malted barley requirements from the Port Ellen maltings facility across the island.

Invergordon Distillers proceeded with further expanding the production capacity of the distillery by adding another pair of stills in 1975 to cope with the increased demand for whisky for blending purposes. This continued until 1983, when the oversupply of whisky (or ‘whisky loch’ as it is commonly known as) due to the decline in consumption caused distilleries around Scotland to either scale back production or close entirely.

Bruichladdich was one of the casualties of this decline and was mothballed for a second time for a period of 10 years until 1993 when it was reopened after Invergordon Distillers was purchased by Whyte & Mackay. However, this was but a reprieve and the distillery was mothballed once again from 1995 to 2000, with a small window of production which lasted a few months in 1998.

During the 5 years of relative silence, the future of the distillery was cast into doubt on many occasions, with fans and locals alike wondering if the distillery was about to follow the likes of Port Ellen into the pages of history. However, one man saw the potential of the distillery and set his sights on acquiring it. That man’s name is Mark Reynier.

In the video above, Mark Reynier explains how he saw the potential of the distillery and had approached White & Mackay on countless occasions in order to find out if the distillery was up for sale, only to be rebuffed. It was only in late 2000 when Whyte & Mackay (through their JBB Greater Europe subsidiary) agreed to sell the distillery, but they demanded a sum of £6.5 million in order to do so.

Reynier then scrambled to find enough investors who were willing to part with their money in order for the distillery to be purchased and after some tense moments, he was able to put together the sum required and took control of the distillery through his company Murray McDavid in December 2000.

It was also during this period of time when Reynier was thinking about who would be suitable to run the operations at Bruichladdich. His attention turned to Jim McEwan, who had been the Master Distiller at Bowmore for many years. He decided to give Jim a call and enquired if he was interested in leading the revival of the distillery. Jim knew in his heart that it was something he wanted to do and gave his consent.

Both Mark Reynier and Jim McEwan knew that a lot of work was needed in order to bring the distillery back into working order and so they spent a few months doing the necessary maintenance and refurbishment before distillation could once again commence.

On the 29th of May 2001, the first distillation (what was to become part of the Port Charlotte core range) ran down the line at Bruichladdich, with the first distillation of spirit which was to become part of the Bruichladdich core range following suit in July.

In the video above, Jim McEwan talks about the series of events which led to the creation of the whiskies that represented the revival of the distillery. He also highlights the difficulties they faced in those early days with regard to producing the type of spirit that they desired for whisky.

As the distillation process continued, both Mark and Jim knew that they had to generate revenue in order to continue production. Thankfully, the deal for the distillery also included the stocks of maturing whisky in the warehouses and so they were able to release bottlings in order to generate the necessary revenue.

In September 2001, the first bottlings of the old casks were released with 10 Year, 15 Year and 20 Year expressions forming the core of the first release. However, these releases were unpeated in nature and Jim knew that the lack of peated whisky was a serious issue which needed to be addressed.

Jim therefore decided to experiment beyond the initial Port Charlotte distillations and subsequently produced what was to become the most heavily peated spirit in the world at that time. The first distillation of spirit that was to form the basis of the Octomore range was conducted on the 23rd of October 2002 and it was produced with a phenol specification of 80 ppm.

As the years progressed, the distillery began experimenting with different types of casks and barley varietals in order to deduce if the flavour nuances produced were suitable for release. 2006 saw the first release from the Port Charlotte range (PC5), which spawned further yearly releases which have continued to this day.

The same can be said for the Octomore range, with the first bottlings being released in 2008 (Octomore First Edition 1.1). This also resulted in a series of 3 bottlings per year, each exhibiting a different and increasing level of phenol specifications. To date, the record for the most heavily peated whisky in the world is held by Octomore 6.3, which was peated to a staggering phenol specification of 258 ppm.

The distillery remained under Mark Reynier’s (and by extension Murray McDavid’s) control until 2012, when it was sold to French spirits conglomerate Remy Cointreau for a sum of £58 million. This represented a staggering return on investment for Reynier and was financed with a mixture of cash, stock and debt.

The open mash tun at Bruichladdich with rakes to move the mash around.
The open mash tun at Bruichladdich with rakes to move the mash around.

In terms of equipment, the distillery sports a 7 tonne cast iron open mash tun which was originally put in place back in 1881. As such, the spare parts needed have to be custom made as it is impossible to source for them. The distillery also sports 6 washbacks made of Oregon pine, 2 wash stills and 2 spirit stills.

The grain silos where the malted barley is stored prior to mashing.
The grain silos where the malted barley is stored prior to mashing.
The Porteous mill used at the distillery dates back to 1881, as does most of the other equipment.
The Porteous mill used at the distillery dates back to 1881, as does most of the other equipment.
The barley display bin showcases the different types of products which go into the mash tun.
The barley display bin showcases the different types of barley (Unpeated – Bruichladdich, Heavily Peated – Port Charlotte, Super-Heavily Peated – Octomore) used in the production process.
The water storage tanks which feed water of different temperatures into the mash tun.
The water storage tanks which feed water of different temperatures into the mash tun.

The malted barley which ends up in the mash tun is soaked three times with water of different temperatures in order to extract the optimum amount of sugar from the barley. The resulting wort is then transferred to the underback for temporary storage before it is sent into the specified washback for fermentation. The leftover barley, or draff, it processed into cattle feed and sold to the neighbouring farmers.

Some of the washbacks at the distillery.
Some of the washbacks at the distillery.
The view of the wash being fermented inside one of the washbacks.
The view of the wash being fermented inside one of the washbacks.

The wort which ends up in the washback is then mixed with different types of yeast and left to ferment for a specific number of hours. The distillery observes a short fermentation time of 60 hours and a long fermentation time of 106 hours in order to produce the specific type of character that they desire. The resulting fermented liquid, or wash, tends to exhibit an alcohol strength of 6-7% abv.

One of the stills at the distillery.
One of the wash stills at the distillery.
A better look at one of the stills at the distillery.
One of the spirit stills.

The wash is then transferred to the wash stills, each of which can hold up to 17275 litres of wash. However, as a rule the distillery prefers to keep the wash stills only partially filled and in this case they fill the stills to 69% of their capacity. The distillation run for the wash stills is approximately 5 hours long and produces low wines with an alcohol strength of 22.5% abv.

The spirit stills are capable of holding up to 12274 litres each of low wines from the wash still, but they too are only filled up to a certain capacity, in this case 58%. The foreshot run takes approximately 40 minutes and the middle cut or heart of the spirit is collected between 71-76% abv in terms of alcohol strength, which is the highest of all the distilleries on the island.

In order to get the necessary character for their spirits, the lyne arms of both the wash and spirit stills are gently descending to produce a more robust and full flavoured spirit. The spirit is then filled into casks and brought to their respective warehouses for maturation to commence.

Ex-wine casks from some of the famous French vineyards!
Ex-wine casks from some of the famous French vineyards!
Casks from the Rivesaltes vineyards.
Casks from the Rivesaltes vineyards.
Mouvedre Syrah casks.
Mouvedre Syrah casks.
And of course, Chateau d'Yquem.
And of course, Chateau d’Yquem.

The distillery’s production capacity is currently running at maximum strength, churning out 1.5 million litres of spirit on an annual basis. With the injection of investment from new owners Remy Cointreau, there are plans to add two more stills and several new washbacks in order to substantially increase production.

Bruichladdich prides itself on its Islay heritage and all its produce is sourced from the island while the cask filling, maturation and bottling processes are all conducted in-house at the distillery itself. There are also plans to build seven new warehouses to the West of the distillery in order to cope with the increase in production while committing to keeping the Islay traditions alive.

The distillery is also the largest employer on the island, with approximately 65 employees working in various sectors ranging from on-site distillery options to online services. It also employs personnel at its solely-owned distribution company in Glasgow, which distributes the whisky and gin produced by the distillery to various markets across the world.

One of the only functioning Lomond stills in Scotland, currently being used by Bruichladdich to make The Botanist gin.
One of the only functioning Lomond stills in Scotland, currently being used by Bruichladdich to make The Botanist gin.

To further exhibit the distillery’s commitment to Islay and its unique terroir, the owners acquired one of the only functioning Lomond stills from the now defunct Inverleven distillery in order to produce their own brand of gin. The gin, which uses an additional 22 varietals unique to Islay, is known as The Botanist and is aimed at the premium spirits market.

The core range of whiskies from the distillery cover the three major brands: Bruichladdich, Port Charlotte and Octomore. While the Port Charlotte and Octomore ranges focus on multiple yearly peated core releases, the Bruichladdich range forms the backbone of the distillery’s unpeated core releases.

The Bruichladdich core range is as follows:

– The Classic Laddie Scottish Barley
– The Laddie 10
– Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2007 Rockside Farm
– Bruichladdich Black Art 4 1990

All releases from the distillery are un-chill filtered and bottled without any additional colouring. This is due to Jim’s commitment to ensuring that consumers are treated to the real taste and character of the whiskies that the distillery produces. Jim particularly despises the use of colouring in the whisky industry and thinks of it as an inherently dishonest practice which is designed to provide consistency and disguise the use of inferior casks.

As I previously mentioned in detail during my earlier posts, my visit to the distillery was a truly unforgettable experience and I managed to try a multitude of wonderful and rare whiskies thanks to Mr Jim McEwan as well as Mary and Chloe at the distillery shop.

The reviews for the whiskies can be found at the following link: https://whiskymate.wordpress.com/2015/06/01/whisky-review-8-bruichladdich/

Overall, I believe that I have saved the best for last and it was an absolute pleasure to have met Mr Jim McEwan at the distillery and to have been treated to such wonderful hospitality as well as amazing whiskies. Considering that he will retire on the 23rd of July, I consider myself fortunate to have gotten the chance to meet him and I wish him the very best for his retirement.

Thank you, Jim.

Slainte!

Brendan

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