An island unto its own

Bruichladdich spurns tradition with delicious results

If your image of Scotland is that of loyalty mixed with fierce independence then it is Bruichladdich distillery that best embodies that image today. In a country where tradition reigns supreme Scotland’s national drink changed little in the 20th century. But in 2000 this old mothballed distillery (pronounced brook-laddie) was resurrected and a new era was ushered in.

Founded in 1881 Bruichladdich opened and closed its doors a couple of times before falling into the hands of a multinational corporation that slammed the distillery doors shut in 1994 with no intention of reopening. But on December 19 2000 a small group of investors led by Mark Reynier bought the defunct whisky maker on the westernmost point of Islay — the distillery’s luck was about to change.

The new owners had a vision to produce an Islay whisky managed by the people of Islay. The current distilleries on the island were run mostly by foreign interests employing minimal people to oversee a predominantly mechanical process. Bruichladdich however currently employs 40 people and the distillery operates much as it did when it first opened in 1881 (with a few notable exceptions such as the webcams that allow fans to watch their favourite whisky being made).

The philosophy was to become “malt crusaders” — a fiercely independent non-conformist group looking for innovation at every level. It was to be a backlash against an industry increasingly owned by foreign interests and driven by shareholder returns rather than the production of quality whisky. Bruichladdich sought authenticity purity and individuality.

When you pick up a bottle of Bruichladdich you know you have something different in your hands. The squat stubby bottles are sheathed in sleek canisters with bright eye-catching images. In place of the standard age and name of the distillery are names like Rocks Resurrection 3D Infinity Yellow Submarine Golder Still and Waves.

Bruichladdich is not simply marketing genius at work however. There is a real distinction in both the raw materials used and the production. It is the only distillery to exclusively use Scottish barley and is moving toward wholly organic products. It uses 100 per cent Islay spring water at bottling ages the spirits on Islay and bottles the whisky locally.

Bruichladdich uses its original still — the only Victorian still in use today — creating an elegant and delicate style of whisky not exactly what Islay is known for. It is the only distillery on Islay that does not chill-filter any of its whisky — a process that removes essential esters and therefore flavour and texture from the drink creating a more homogenous product. Finally it is the only producer on Islay to release small batch bottlings something that has become its hallmark.

One of Bruichladdich’s most exciting innovations is its use of unique finishing casks — a signature of many of its offerings. When sherry casks started becoming scarce due to the sharp decline in the worldwide popularity of sherry master distiller Jim McEwan had to look elsewhere for barrels to finish off the whisky. Bruichladdich began using old wine casks for many of its bottlings and the result was genius. Not only had it found a new and limitless way to finish off its unique whisky it had a whole new marketing angle to boot. Soon the names of the wine whose barrels it used were appearing on the bottles — indoctrinating a whole new audience to Bruichladdich. Lines of the famous first growth Bordeaux soon followed whiskies finished in rum casks cognac casks Sauternes and Madeira casks. The options were endless. The standard 10- and 12-year bottlings that everyone else was doing started to look pretty stale compared to the dynamic line from Bruichladdich.

The distillery continues to push the envelope with hoards of new lines. Although it was always known as “the elegant Islay whisky” Bruichladdich recently released the most peated whisky ever made. Octomore (the second edition is currently available) is a five-year-old whisky made with a whopping 140 parts per million of peat. If this doesn’t sound like much consider that the previous contenders for peatiest whisky carried about 60 ppm. If you love a big smoky whisky and want to try out the new king of peat you’d be wise to hurry. The Octomore is made in tiny quantities and usually sells out in a matter of weeks.

After 10 years back in production it seems Bruichladdich hasn’t run out of steam. It continues to surprise and elate with new offerings and remarkable innovations. Check out the list of what’s new at Bruichladdich and make sure to check out its website for the full rundown at bruichladdich.com .

Interesting offerings:

• Bruichladdich 1993 Brunello cask finish $70 — Finished in Brunello casks this whisky offers hints of raisins cherry and spice. It’s perfect for after dinner downtime.

• Bruichladdich Sherry edition 1992 Pedro Ximinez $100 — Aromas of sultana figs and Christmas cake make this a rich and wild experience. Get the kids to bed before you tuck into this one.

• Octomore $160 — A five-year-old with 62.5 per cent alcohol and 140 ppm of peat. This will definitely leave a mark.

• Bruichladdich 18-year-old rum cask matured $95 — Exotic flavours and bright floral character. This is party whisky.