(This distillery write-up was written by Toronto Whisky Society member Stephen Sheps. Another big thanks to him for sharing the experiences he had visiting Islay back in 2019!)
Part 3 of my Islay Journey is a bit of out chronological order, but it was so good that it needed to be saved for last – Bruichladdich. I should probably preface this review with 2 caveats:
- Laddie is my favourite distillery. I love the one-offs, weird finishes and experimental maturations they do, I love the lactic, funky weirdness of their base malt, I love the way their peat and red wine tends to interact. I love the packaging, both old and new across the lines. I love that Octomore aggressively disrupts the notion that age = quality, but doesn’t succumb to the temptation to go NAS, even with the recently released 3 year 10.4 (it’s quite tasty and doesn’t taste that young). I love that they’re just doing weird stuff their own way and tend to not care about what others think.
- I am also a private client of the distillery; Mary the private client manager is the sweetest person on the island if not all of Scotland. If one could choose to adopt a grandmother, I would adopt her, full stop.
So with this in mind, I want to tell you about our trip to Bruichladdich, a visit that was unlike any whisky experience I have ever had and just about the perfect afternoon. When we arrived, Mary was waiting in the visitor centre to greet us, along with another Laddie employee, David, who happened to run our warehouse tasting 18 months prior. Before scurrying back to the office for a few minutes, Mary told us to make ourselves at home and had the bartender in the visitor centre pour us each a dram of the two distillery valinch bottles they had available at the time; a Bruichladdich (unpeated) aged just shy of 12 years in an ex-Madeira barrel and 12 year Port Charlotte matured in an ex-Rioja red wine cask. Both were very good and separate reviews will come a bit later in this write-up. While Rioja is one of my favourite wine regions and Port Charlotte + red wine = love and happiness, I opted to purchase the Madeira because it was just a bit weird and because I already have 3 other wine-matured Port Charlotte Valinch expressions, so I wanted to mix things up. And besides, I was able to secure a sample of the Rioja for future drinking anyway.
After we finished our drams and milled about the visitor centre for a few more minutes, Mary and David both came back, told us to get our coats and follow them out to the parking lot because we were going for a drive, not something you normally hear when you’re expecting to take a casual stroll to a warehouse for a tasting. We knew something special was about to happen but didn’t realize just how special it would be.
We piled into the distillery’s sprinter van and went to the other side of the grounds, stopped outside of a small building and were told to go inside and find some Wellies (Wellington rubber boots) because our next stop was going to get muddy. From there, it was back into the van. I saw Mary also quietly place an Octomore shaped bottle into our backpack, which meant a bit of off-site drinking was in our future. A few minutes later and we stopped at the side of the road, got out of the van and proceeded to look out on the horizon to the majesty that is Islay in the fall – oh, and the barley field known as James Brown’s Octomore farm. Now I started to get a sense of why we needed the Wellies. We walked down a muddy path to a slightly less muddy staircase leading down a path towards a creek, the water supply Bruichladdich uses for Octomore, which happens to also run through the farm and acts as the water supply to the grain as well.
At the bottom of the stairs and a few feet further down the path was a small wooden shack containing a well. Naturally we went inside and hung out for a little while.
Dave happened to have a few copita style glasses with him, dipped each glass into the well and let us try the Octomore water while looking out into the Octomore field. As far as water goes, I’d give it a 92. Not quite as pure as some glacier water I’ve tasted from the rockies, but better than most.
At that point, Mary reached into the bag and revealed a bottle of the brand new Octomore 10.3, the most recent expression that contained water from this very creek and grain harvested 6 years ago from that very field. It’s impossible to provide an objective assessment of that dram – the experience alone, being there in that space and sharing that dram with those people makes the 10.3 an expression I will always look back on with total awe and delight, but I don’t think I could ever truly assign a number rating to the dram because my memory association will always take me back to that place, that moment, that first sip. This is why I drink whisky and why I write about it. This is how my career as a sociologist can mix with the hobby I love so much – it reaffirmed my long-held belief that whisky is as much about stories, about memories, about shared experiences as it is about the art of distilling, aging and maturing the liquid in the glass. We didn’t need to have another dram and the day would have already been perfect, but there was still even more of our tour and tasting to go.
Eventually we had to leave the water supply and make our way back up to the distillery (by way of returning the Wellies to their proper home). But rather than going back the usual way, Mary had us take the long way around, via Warehouses 9-12 – an area she jokingly refers to as ‘the Vatican’ (where the vattings take place)
and the cathedral (Warehouses 11 & 12) with huge racks many feet high, containing 80,000 barrels. It’s called the cathedral because… well.. have a look at the pictures below.
Haunting, beautiful. It’s my favourite of the warehouses, even including warehouse 5 where we eventually did the tasting. Mary pointed out several incredible casks that were either waiting to be filled or already aging, and took us to her ‘personal’ barrel – a First Fill ex-Buffalo Trace bourbon barrel containing unpeated Laddie spirit.
She’ll tell Adam when it’s ready, she said… Mary’s the best. She also told us to each take a ‘bung’ home with us as a souvenir – I framed mine.
Eventually, after going through the remainder of the distillery, seeing the stills and wash-backs
and had a conversation about the expansion plans, new warehouse construction and bringing floor malting back to Bruichladdich in the next couple of years (it’s happening, a matter of when not if!), we finally made it to Warehouse 5 were we were treated to 3 incredible whiskies straight from the barrel. And as an added treat, Mary gave the valinch to each of us – one barrel per person – so we could actually pour our own straight from the barrel (and they were very, very stiff pours).
I’ll save the reviews for the end, but the drams we tried included the very first Bruichladdich spirit from the relaunch, originally distilled on Sept. 11/2001 (an ominous date, but they didn’t know that at the time). When bottled, it was called the “Renaissance” and was released just shy of 10 years after the original distillation for Feis Ile 2011. Mostly and due to an accident with the malting company they were using at the time, this spirit was very lightly peated (approx. 10ppm). What we tried could be best described as “Renaissance +8). Given the significance of the distillation date, when the crew was given an opportunity to try it, they made sure to have a moment of silence for those impacted by the events of Sept. 11th, knowing the legacy and the importance of the day. Mary was there herself and hearing her tell the tale, it was obvious how strongly she felt about both the whisky in the barrel and the connection to the day. The second dram from the warehouse was a Port Charlotte, my favourite line from Bruichladdich’s trio. It was just shy of 15 years old and aged in ex-bourbon for 8 years before moving to a Premier Cru Sauternes barrel in July 2012. The last dram of the warehouse was another very special dram – a remnant of the Octomore 6.3, with the added benefit of 5 additional years in the barrel. The last time we were there, we also had a remnant of the legendary 4.2. Seeing as that stuff is either long gone or entirely too expensive to find, I wouldn’t ever be able to do a side-by-side; the 6.3 however is sitting on my brother’s shelf, opened only in the last month. As I saved rather full ‘driver’s drams’ of each of these, I intend to bring my leftover 6.3+5 when I visit him to do a proper comparison.
After we finished up in the warehouse, we went back into the visitor centre to make some decisions about what we were collectively shipping home, at which point the nice people in the visitor area let us try essentially whatever we wanted. Eventually we found ourselves back in the actual office area and were treated to the (at that point unreleased) Octomore 10.4 (3 years in virgin oak) and the X4+10 OBA concept release as well as a couple of other drams. I genuinely can’t remember what they were. By that point in the day we’d already been to Bunnahbhain and had so many drams at Bruichladdich that it was all beginning to blur together. All I can say for certain is that the tour and experience we had at Bruichladdich was a truly special one. Mary was so kind to us and allowed us a glimpse into their world none of us ever thought we would see – including Mary herself! Although She’s worked at the distillery since 2001, she had never visited the water supply and rarely made it out to the farms. The excitement we all felt was mirrored back to us from a long time employee and lifelong Islay resident. It was a day that none of us will soon forget.
Ok, on to the Warehouse 5 reviews:
Bruichladdich ‘The Renaissance + 8’. Distilled Sept. 11/01, drank October 17th, 2019
Vitals: Aged 18 years in ex-Bourbon, accidentally lightly peated to 10PPM, and came out at 60.1% ABV.
Nose: Melon, toffee, brine, gentle peat smoke, light cream.
Mouthfeel: Thick, creamy.
Taste: Ash, gentle peat, caramilk bar, honeydew melon, grass.
Finish: Long, smouldering, remains creamy. The ash note becomes more prevalent.
Overall: Because of the peat, this dram feels like a prototype for what was to come later with Port Charlotte, but actually resembles a Caol Ila a bit more, especially due to the ashy note. Somehow the ash works extremely well with the lactic qualities of Laddie’s base spirit. Really interesting and unique. Delicious.
Port Charlotte 14 Year Old (2004 Vintage)
Dumped in 2004, spent just shy of 8 years in ex-Bourbon before transferring to an ex-Sauternes cask on July 21/2012. Came out at 58% ABV.
Nose: Peaches and cream, brown sugar, vanilla, honey.
Taste: Brown butter, peach cobbler, raisin toast, elderflower honey.
Finish: Almost no peat at all, juicy, lactic, clean, sweet.
Overall: Water added both peat and caramel to the surface, taking away from the fruit & wine sweetness a little, but adding more balance, depth and texture to the dram. In other words, it takes water well! This was very good, but probably the weakest of the 3. It was just a touch too sweet for my tastes, but it was the clear winner for one of the others in the group.
Octomore 6.3 + 5
Distilled from 100% Islay-grown barley from Lorgba Field at Octomore Farm. Aged for 10 years in American ex-Bourbon oak. The barley was peated to 258PPM at the time, but we all know that some of the intensity fades with age… or does it??? This was tried at 61% ABV (down from the 64% the original was bottled at).
Nose: Peat! Yup, that’s an Octomore alright. Black tea, sea salt, heather, a hint of vanilla.
Mouthfeel: Oily, chewy.
Taste: Butter braised Ribeye, salted caramel, earl grey tea, mesquite embers, a much softer peat than the nose suggested.
Finish: Bergamot, white pepper, oak tannins, gentle peat, melon, toffee, chocolate milk, embers.
Overall: To the surprise of nobody, this was an outstanding dram. The extra maturation time has softened the edges of the usual Octomore ‘assault all of your sense with peat’ experience, allowing the depth of the spirit to actually take over. Sure it was a smoky, grilled meat and campfire type of dram, but that’s not all there was here – there was an added dimension of both sweet, salt and just the right kind of bitterness that works so well with the lactic character of all 3 Bruichladdich expressions. I can’t wait to do the side-by-side with the original next month. Should be a fun comparison.
Thanks for reading!