In early 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I trekked across Islay and Speyside in Scotland, visiting as many single malt Scotch whisky distilleries as time allowed during our all too brief ten-day stay. In a series of posts, I’m documenting our experiences, one distillery at a time with tons of photos. If you’re not familiar with how single malt Scotch whisky is made, I highly suggest first reading my prologue post, Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit. What follows is our visit to the Bruichladdich distillery on the island of Islay.
While on Islay, you’d be hard-pressed to skip visiting or at least not drive through scenic Port Charlotte, home of one of the nicest hotels on the island. Heading southwest on the A847 toward town, you have to work to keep your eyes on the road rather than gawk at the roving bands of sheep and splendorous views over Loch Indall to your left, just a few dozen yards away. Passing a cluster of white painted houses perched on the right side of the road, you might think you’re on the outskirts of Port Charlotte. Except that, blink once, you’ve passed by a white, two-story stone-walled compound. This is your first encounter with Bruichladdich– an Islay distillery vastly different than Laphroaig and Lagavulin, who get the lion’s share of this small island’s attention.
Our arrival at Bruichladdich coincides with a slight break in Storm Gertrude, which hammered Scotland with high winds exceeding 100 miles perhour at times—thankfully not while we were crossing open water in our car ferry two evenings before. During a short lunch break between our morning Bowmore tour and Bruichladdich, we stopped at infamous Bowmore round church for a quick peek at the grounds and found ourselves—hardly wee people, we sturdy Americans–barely able to stay upright as wind gusts hurled us around. So it was with great relief that we pulled into the protected courtyard of Bruichladdich, sheltering walls on all four sides.
We all know that the finer things in life require a bit of care and upkeep from time to time. Got a nice car? You’re probably keeping it under cover, having it waxed, and changing the oil regularly. Love rare vinyl? You’re probably keeping those records carefully sleeved and in a spot that that’s not too warm or too chilly. Even something as basic as your iPhone gets protected by a case and screen film. In each of these scenarios, exposure to the elements has a negative effect over time.
If your experience with spirits is just buying a few bottles for mixing in cocktails, and regularly replacing a bottle when you’ve emptied it, this article might have little to offer. However, if you’re wonky enough about spirits to have a nice collection of whisk(e)y, rum, or mezcal that’s growing faster than you can reasonably (or healthfully) consume it, read on!
Think for a moment about your vehicle. Or if you don’t drive, picture the nicest car you’ve ever been in. What would you answer to someone who asked what it kind of car it was? Odds are you wouldn’t answer “Red” or “Purple.” It’s also a safe bet you wouldn’t reply, “An aluminum frame, two door, four cylinder front-mounted-engine car.” And as oddly specific as that sounds, it still may not convey what it is – after all, you might be talking about a Mini Cooper or a compact pickup truck.
Even specifying a brand doesn’t help. Simply by naming Chevrolet or BMW, you could be referring to a super sporty race car like a Corvette, or a sport utility. We’re used to using all sorts of categories for vehicles (color, manufacturer, size, country of origin, intended use), and we instinctively use the right category to describe the situation at hand. When watching for our Uber to arrive, we care more about the color– not whether it was made in Japan versus Brazil. But when it’s time to register that vehicle, the make and model are paramount.
What does all this have to do with spirits? Well, the world of rum shares many close similarities to the vehicle classifications above: The community instinctively talks about “white,” “Jamaican,” “column stilled,” “English style,” and “overproof” rums. We instinctively understand and use many different rum classification systems, although we may not overtly think of them as such.
The problem with these long-standing rum designations is that we lump vastly different spirits into ill-defined and often flat out meaningless categories – they convey little or no useful information. That in turns leads to broad misunderstandings about rum, which holds it back from greater acceptance in the world of distilled spirits. Rum is a noble spirit, on par with the finest Scotch whisky, Cognac, or Bourbon. But pervasive talk about “silver rum,” for example, makes that acceptance by a wider audience much more difficult.