I don’t quite know what to make of Bruichladdich. I’m really not sure that I ever have. The first time I tasted Bruichladdich’s whisky was back when I began drinking scotch, at a time when I only drank smoky whiskies. Back then, it was all Islay, all the time. In that context, Bruichladdich was completely out of left field. Instead of being oily and smoky, it was light and sweet. I was dumbfounded, and it would be a while before I tried Bruichladdich again.
Over time, as my palate developed and I tried more whiskies, I came to appreciate Bruichladdich more. And I came to understand that the diverse array of bottlings that they were producing was partly due to the distillery’s history. It was purchased by its current owners in 2000, but before that had been shuttered for several years, with uneven production before that. Thus, the stock that the new owners inherited was a mixed bag. Alongside about 10,000 casks of older whisky, the new owners went out and purchased 2,000-3,000 casks of Bruichladdich whisky from blenders. They then turned this uneven collection of whiskies into an asset, and came out with a load of different bottlings, all exhibiting different expressions of Bruichladdich whisky, and scotch more generally.
So this was Bruichladdich’s personality at the time that I was first learning about scotch and tasting their whiskies. But then, they took a wholly different turn and began distilling a series of unique, exciting, challenging, and sometimes controversial whiskies. First came Octomore, then Port Charlotte, then the triple distilled whisky. Since then, I’ve generally lost track of their whiskies, with each new release taking place mostly on the periphery of my awareness. I’ve been lucky enough to try different vintages of Port Charlotte and Octomore, as well as some stunning older bottlings, but I haven’t kept close tabs on them.
And yet, when I heard that they’d released the first ten-year old whisky distilled by the new owners, I couldn’t help but be interested. Anytime a closed distillery has come back to life is an exciting event, and when they release their first ten-year old whisky, that’s about as exciting as it gets. Because a ten-year old whisky is really the baseline bottling for any distillery. How they perform on their ten-year says loads about the distillery (note that for some distilleries, they treat their twelve-year as their ten-year).
Distilled in 2001 and bottled in 2011, this whisky captures Bruichladdich at what I consider its most straightforward and honest. It’s very tasty, very drinkable, and has a subtle personality that grows on you over time.
In the glass, this whisky is light gold in color. The nose is lightly sweet, with notes of hay, wheat, and white grapes. The palate carries a thread of smoke amidst a healthy dose of sweetness, with caramel, kiwi, butter cookies, and almonds. Overall, it’s softly textured with a lively, drying bite. The finish brings lingering notes of marzipan and sugared lemon.
In reading these notes that I’ve written, I think that I make it sound sweeter than it is. In truth, it’s sweet the way a good, dry wine is sweet – more the impression of sweetness than outright sugary sweetness.
I began writing this review a while back, so I no longer know how readily available this whisky is any longer. But it’s a very good everyday whisky, and I’d heartily recommend giving it a place on your shelf if you get the chance.
In my last post about the Society, I discussed my curiosity about why Pip Hills, founder of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, left the organization in 1995, as well as some of the other changes that have taken place within the Society. The post was motivated by two things: 1) my sheer interest in the Society’s history, and in knowing more about its growth and development, and 2) my disappointment at learning that the members’ flats at the Vaults were being closed down. Ultimately, at the core of it all is the fact that I very much enjoy being a member of the Society, and so take a keen interest changes that are introduced, good or bad. I think the fact that I am a member in the U.S. and have not yet had the opportunity to visit the Society’s true home in Edinburgh only heightens this.
So while enjoying a dram or two, it’s not uncommon for me to ponder some of the many questions that I have about the Society. And recently, this speculation has brought my thoughts round to another idea that I’ve had for a while: I think that a comprehensive history of the Society would be fascinating, and that someone should write it. I’m sure that from its inception to the present day, it’s a great story, full of characters, twists, turns, and some good whisky, of course. Its history also parallels, and in many ways reflects, the story of the last three or four decades of Scotch whisky. At the same time that single malt Scotch whisky has grown and prospered, so has the Society grown and changed as well. Writing the history of the Society would mean, in many ways, writing the history of the industry’s this transformative time.
I’ve seen pieces of this history in different places, in Pip Hills’ Scots On Scotch, in a pamphlet handed out by the Society in 2001, and in fragments elsewhere. But my gut feeling is that this story has a lot more depth to it. Particularly in terms of the relationship between the Society and the broader world of Scotch whisky during these past three decades. There’s clearly been interaction both subtle and explicit, all of which is captured by things such as the gradual intersection of the Society’s mission (bottling single-cask, cask-strenth whiskies) with the greater Scotch whisky world, and the relatively recent purchase of the Society by Glenmorangie.
The story of how this small syndicate of folks led by Pip Hills in 1983 rose to be named the 2012 Independent Bottler of the Year by Whisky Magazine is surely a fascinating one, and deserves an ample retelling. In fact, here’s my recommendation: the Society should commission Charles MacLean to write this history for them. Of all the whisky writers out there, there is no question that he’s the one who should write this. No other whisky writer is able to match his ability to spin a great story about Scotch whisky while at the same time exuding such a love of his subject. The Society should commission and publish this history from him.
Here are some of the more particularly interesting questions and topics that I think this history could address:
- The Tasting Panel: How was the Tasting Panel first constructed, who were its initial members, and how has it changed over the years? Who have been the authors of the tasting notes over time? What are some of the more memorable tasting notes that have been written? A chronology of the membership would be especially interesting.
- What are they key moments in the Society’s history? What have been the inflection points where its direction has been changed, and what circuitous path has it followed to where it is today?
- What is the history of its relationships with the various distilleries and distillery owners? What distilleries were initially most receptive to the Society’s mission, and how have relationships evolved over time?
- Who have been the key players in the Society’s history and development? We know well of someone such as Pip Hills, but who else has been a key figure in the Society over time?
- How did Glenmorangie’s purchase of the Society in the early 2000′s impact the Society, and change its culture and direction?
- A pictorial history of the labels and other drawings that Bob Dewar did for the Society while he was their principal artist. His drawings for them were iconic, and many still are. It would excellent to be able to browse through a series of them.
There are a number of other such topics that wend their way through my mind at different times. A thoroughly researched volume by a writer as talented as Charles MacLean would be outstanding.
Scotch whisky distilleries can be famous for many things. For their history, their iconic status, their smokiness. But only one is famous for being the home of one of the most notable invention to ever grace a whisky distillery – the Doig Ventilator (see an example here). Dailuaine, a distillery that you may have never heard of, can lay claim to this honor.
In the early 1890′s, Scottish architect Charles Chree Doig redesigned Dailuaine’s kiln building to include a pagoda roof. The objective of the pagoda was to more efficiently draw heat and smoke out of the building, thereby cooling the malt more quickly, requiring less fuel and producing a less smoky malt. It was Doig’s first design work for a distillery, and he would go on to design 55 more distilleries during his career, with the pagoda roof/Doig Ventilator being his signature mark. To this day, the pagoda roof remains a classic element of Scotch whisky distillery design, and many still feature them even though they haven’t malted their own barley for decades.
Sadly, the pagoda roof at Dailuaine burned down in a fire in 1917, the first of two fires that the distillery experienced (the other happened in 1959). Perhaps more sadly, this distillery’s whisky is practically unknown today, as all but a sliver of its production goes into blends.
Thus, here is another excellent example of the critical role that independent bottlers play. All but 2% of Dailuaine goes into blends (principally Johnnie Walker). As a result, the opportunities to taste it as a single malt are quite rare, especially if you live in the US where we have access to far fewer independent bottlings.
This particular bottle, from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, is particularly unusual in light of its age. Not too many scotch whiskies are bottled at less than 10 years (although, the number seems to be increasing). So a 7-year old whisky is rather rare, and many of the young examples that I’ve tasted are of variable quality.
That being said, this whisky is stunning, and you would never know that it’s so young. It has depth, loads of flavor, plenty of body and presence, and a good, solid finish. It was bottled at 61.4% and given how full-bodied and flavored it is, I have to guess that it’s from a first-fill cask. The Society’s tasting panel named it “Bentley In Zanzibar”.
The whisky is lightly touched with gold, the color of sauvignon blanc. The nose is redolent with notes of toffee, butter cookies, poached pear, and almond cake. The palate is dense and sweet with flavors of marzipan, creme brûlée, shortbread, grapes, brandy, and malt. The finish brings a lingering malty sweetness
Absolutely delicious. Amazing that it’s so young. A true testament to the impact that a good cask can have.
Perhaps the greatest compliment you can pay them, is that the smoky Islay whiskies are nothing but themselves. They are difficult, brash, and challenging to the palate, and they make no bones about it. They brook no compromise. You take and appreciate them for who they are, and they expect no less.
I’m not talking of smoky whiskies tailored for an audience that thinks they’re the exciting next thing. There are a range of recently released whiskies whose goal is little more than to be the smokiest beast of them all, boasting ever higher PPM numbers. But these are not true smoky Islay whiskies. They’re whiskies devised to appeal to a current taste in Scotch and to compete for notoriety. This is very reminiscent of the way that brewers recently went through a spate of competition to see who could create the “hoppiest” IPA. Concerns over balance and drinkability went out the window as brewers succumbed to the lure of IBUs.
But a true smoky Islay whisky is one that seeks simply to express its true self. It is a whisky whose smoke is an aspect of who it is, and not its sole reason for being. What’s more, the smoky element that inhabits each distillery’s product is wholly unique from the island’s other distilleries. And alongside the smoke you’ll find a range of other flavors. What those are will depend on the distillery, and (in the case of a single-cask whisky) the cask that it was aged in. But the flavor profile and the experience will speak of that distillery and its whisky. No two are alike, and someone whose thoroughly immersed themselves in each can readily identify them by their nose alone.
This bottle from Caol Ila perfectly demonstrates this, as it captures the experience and range of flavors so intrinsic to their whisky. I’ve never drunk a Caol Ila without immediately being transported back to my days on the high seas, the spray of seawater all around me, the visceral sense of brine, ocean, seaweed, and salt…or something like that. Anyone who’s spent any time around the coast, salt water, and beaches will recognize that experience in a glass of Caol Ila.
That’s what makes their whisky so unique, and so amazing. Every glass of Caol Ila speaks to its origins in that distillery, is so distinctly and unequivocally a Caol Ila whisky. This is why it’s a special distillery and a big part of why their whisky is so good.
Of course, once you venture into the realm of single-cask whiskies, things can become a bit more dicey. Each cask is so unique, and can oftentimes be a very different expression of what is typically a very consistent whisky*, and in that respect Blackadder has done a good job selecting this cask for bottling. This is one of their Raw Cask series, a range of single-cask whiskies bottled at cask-strength, and with the pretense that the flakes of char in the bottle are from the barrel it was aged in (although I now believe quite firmly that this is not true). Each of the bottlings in this series that I’ve had has been very good, and it’s clear that they choose the casks for it quite seriously.
This particular whisky was distilled in 1996 and aged for 14 years in a refill bourbon hogshead. It was bottled in February 2011 at 60.3%, and produced only 268 bottles.
The whisky has a lemony green hue. The nose has salt, smoke, brine sweeping over the bow, lime sherbet, and charred beach wood – picture yourself standing on the beach, on wet sand, with sea spray all around you, and the charred remains of last night’s bonfire at your feet, while you ponder the bowl of vanilla lime sherbet in front of you.
The palate has a voluptuous mouthfeel, full and viscous, with flavors of smoke, salade frisée, lemon ice, simple sugar, and crispy salt pork. All in all, very smoky and surprisingly sweet, pork ribs, heavily charred and smoky on the outside, giving way to sweet, moist pork on the inside, all flavored with a chili lime marinade.
The finish brings to mind the lingering remnants of a beach bonfire: salt, ash, and seaweed suffusing the air around you.
Blackadder whiskies are top notch, and this one is no exception.
*Note: Single cask whiskies are often very different from the typical bottlings released by distilleries, given how different one cask can be from another. This is why distilleries initially insisted that the Scotch Malt Whisky Society could only bottle their whiskies if they refrained from naming the distillery on the label. This is where the Society’s unique numbering system came from.
Choosing your favorite Islay distillery can be a difficult proposition. With the exception of Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain they are all so clearly related to one another in style that the differences between them often come down to nuances – how much and what character of smoke the whisky displays, how sweet or dry the palate, how much ocean comes through in the finished whisky. Choosing your Islay whisky may come down to knowing whether you are someone who relishes the experience of a good beach bonfire or a smoldering backyard grill.
Bowmore, Caol Ila, Laphraiog, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg are special whiskies, no doubt about it. They were intensely smoky before smoky became hip.
Today, I lean towards Ardbeg as my preferred Islay whisky. There’s something about its smokiness that really calls to me, and if you ever have the chance to taste it paired with a sherry cask, you’ll find the mixture to be utterly sublime. And with its deep roots in history – founded in 1794 (as an illicit distillery), or 1815 (as a legal distillery) – there is a lot to ponder while enjoying a dram of it.
Since its purchase by Glenmorangie in 1997, Ardbeg has released a handful of whiskies that represent variations on the distillery’s typical character. First came the series of young Ardbeg releases leading up to the new owner’s first 10-year old whisky (Very Young, Still Young, Almost There), then Supernova (the very heavily peated whisky, even for Ardbeg), Blasda (very lightly peated), Corryvreckan, Airigh Nam Beist, etc. All of these were interesting whiskies, and each was clearly a variation on a theme, with the classic character of Ardbeg coming through in each of them.
Ardbeg Alligator is another in this range, differentiated by the casks in which it was aged, and that it gets its name from. In 2000 they laid down some whisky to age in casks that had been charred to an unusually high level, referred to as “alligator charring” by Bill Lumsden. You can see why in the photo below.
After 10 years, this whisky was vatted with some of the regular 10-year old, set down to marry for a while in refill casks, and then bottled at cask strength. The result was released in 2011 as Ardbeg Alligator.
Alligator was bottled at cask-strength, at 51.2%. This dram is from a 3cl sample from Master of Malt.
The color of the whisky is soft gold. The nose brings a warming blend of custard, sugar cookies, and smoke. The palate is far, far smokier than the nose, with pungent smoke bursting through every sip. The velvety texture delivers an initial burst of intense smoke that quickly transitions to deep, warmly sweet flavors of shortbread and vanilla, with some interesting notes of bay leaf and clove thrown in for good measure. The lingering notes of smoke are subtle, with custardy sweetness most prominent. The finish is long and gradually tapers off to a sense of youthful, vibrant, sweet whisky.
Tasty whisky. Lots of sweetness delivered by those alligator casks, nicely offsetting its brash smokiness.
*This sample was graciously provided by Drinks By The Dram by Master of Malt.