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.
The story of modern day Bruichladdich is straight out of a movie montage, linking together facilities and equipment of the Victorian past with very modern, non-traditional approaches to making and marketing single malt whisky. Established in 1881, the distillery experienced many rough patches in its history and apparently never went through any sort of comprehensive modernization. In 2000 it was purchased by a group of investors led by Mark Reynier of Murray McDavid, an independent bottler of Scotch whisky. Interestingly, the primary reason for the purchase was Bruichladdich’s maturing whisky stocks, rather than the antiquated distillery itself, which had been shuttered in 1994.
Sensing an opportunity, Mark’s team restarted the distillery on a shoestring budget, keeping much of the original equipment, including its grain mill, mash tuns, and most of the stills. Additional stills were scavenged from another distillery about to be demolished. In short order, the Bruichladdich brand established a reputation for being highly experimental, creating dozens of small, one-time releases based on a particular local grain, a special occasion (such as a local festival), or some other unique twist. Their motto: Progressive Hebridean Distillers.
In addition to the namesake Bruichladdich non-peated single malt, the distillery also makes the peated Port Charlotte brands, the nuclear peat-bomb Octomore series, and Botanist gin — more on the gin later. In a controversial 2012 decision, enough other investors voted against Reynier, forcing Bruichladdich’s sale to the French spirit giant Remy Cointreau for a hefty sum around $95m, U.S. Don’t feel too sorry for Mark though. He’s already off in his next venture–Waterford, a very newish Irish whiskey distillery purchased from Diageo.
Although Mark no longer wanders the Bruichladdich facility, a bit of that short, glorious era still remains with Carl Reavey, Bruichladdich’s head of public relations, who greets us shortly after we step into the warm and cozy visitor center, away from the gale force winds.
Before diving into our private tour, we share a few wee drams — practically a legal requirement upon arrival at a Scotch whisky distillery. Carl tells of the early days of bootstrapping the once-dormant distillery – he was there for much of it. Carl came to the Bruichladdich via an interesting path. After an early start in writing and audio electronics, Carl and his wife took over renovating and then running the Port Charlotte Hotel in 1995, during which he became acquainted with the Bruichladdich investors, eventually becoming part of the team himself. These days, Carl’s duties include content creation for Bruichladdich and regaling visiting whisky wonks like me with stories about the distillery.
Properly fortified with whisky (or gin, in Mrs. Wonk’s case, since she has an on-again, off-again relationship with peat smoke), we braved the buffeting winds to travel across the courtyard to our first stop. Along the way, we spy a tanker truck, painted in the aquamarine with white lettering of the well-known classic Laddie bottle– no mistaking where that tanker’s from! After gawking for a moment (it’s cold after all) we reach the grain building.
In some single malt distillery tours, you might feel privileged to simply see the giant grain bins, looming twenty feet high or taller and filled with barley ready to be ground up and mashed. But here at Bruichladdich, Carl indulges us, taking us up a steep, narrow, and mildly treacherous set of open-steel stairs to an elevated walkway running along a row of bins—roughly the size of a schoolbus– and affording easy access to the top. A small hole in each allows us to peer in and see that some are completely filled with malt.
Part of the ethos of Bruichladdich is its fanaticism for local barley and releasing certain expressions made from the grain production of just a single local farm. That is, terroir to an extreme. Unlike many of the Islay distilleries who malt at Port Ellen Maltings, Bruichladdich’s maltings (even of Islay Barley) is done in Saladin boxes at Bairds of Inverness, in the Speyside region of the Scottish mainland.
The bottom of the grain bins funnel into a lengthy square box that carries grain away to the mill room. Bruichladdich’s mill is a sight to behold! Here, you won’t find the de rigueur, electric driven, tank-like Porteus malt mill found all over Scotland. Instead, step back into time, practically pre-electricity. The room is filled with wooden boxes and chutes, oversized drive wheels and wide and narrow belts connecting it all. The mill itself, made by Robert Boby, is driven by these belts. At one point, Carl throws a switch to bring the operation to life. It was loud, and it was glorious! Truly a peek back into how it was like before servo motors and computers became commonplace in distillery operations.
In an adjoining building and up another set of steel stairs is the mash tun, where the milled barely is combined with water and cooked. This is no ordinary stainless steel, flying saucer-like mash tun though! Peering into the huge open-top tank, it’s hard to take your eyes of the collection of curved rakes, armored with dozens of malevolent looking tines. Each rake is connected to a shaft driven around the circumference of the tun by gears straight out of an old-time cartoon. Had such things as Victorian horror films existed, this contraption would have been featured prominently. It appears to be ruthlessly efficient at churning the water and milled barley into mash, something we experienced firsthand when the mash man turned it on for a bit.
While gawking at the mash rake, hot water poured into the tun from a large pipe above. Carl led us over to the console where the operator can quickly see exactly how full the tun is by perhaps the world’s most homespun gauge: a long, vertical plank of wood with hand lettered ruled markings. Exposed cables connect to the top and bottom of a red arrow that floats up and down according to the fill level of the tank. Talk about old school!
Still on the elevated platform, we move to the next room where six enormous and tall fermentation vats, aka wash backs, are lined up. Because we’re on a platform, we can look directly into the tanks, some of which are busy bubbling away. Mark tells us that they’re made of Oregon pine (a common material in such tanks) and regales us with a story of watching a new tank being assembled in place from giant wooden slats. We also learn that Bruichladdich’s fermentation is roughly twice the traditional duration, but uses less yeast.
Past the stills and through another doorway, we come face to face with Ugly Betty. No, not America Ferrera from the American TV series, but a squat, tank-like still that at first glance looks to be made out of spare parts from a truck junkyard. Unlike the breathtaking, swanlike curves of a normal whisky still, Ugly Betty is covered with seams and rivets. The top of the neck doesn’t transform into a gracefully sloping line arm. No, her top is flat and functional. The one humorous nod is along the topmost section. The name plate includes an image of a voluptuous, white-stockinged woman–the aforementioned Betty–luxuriating in a seductive pose.
Ugly Betty was rescued from the aforementioned nearby distillery which was about to be be bulldozed. Today at Bruichladdich it makes the Botanist Gin. As part of Bruichladdich’s desire to source as much as possible locally, a team of retired botanists scour the Islay countryside collecting the botanicals used in the Botanist infusion. Between the Islay-local flavors and beautiful bottle, Mrs. Wonk is a fan!
Wash & Spirit Stills
Just beyond Ugly Betty is the money shot at Bruichladdich – the two wash stills and two spirit stills used to make Bruichladdich, Port Charlotte, and Octomore. Viewing them from above, it’s hard not to immediately rush down the stairs to the platform that spans between them, covering most of the still body. From that platform below, it’s easy to lean over and peek through the porthole into the interior.
The wash stills are around 17,300 liters, while the spirits stills are 12,275 liters. Carl tells us that the base of one of the wash stills dates back to the founding of the distillery in 1881. A pair of comparatively tiny spirit safes sits between each pair of stills. Heading down a final set of stairs to ground level, we get a great view of the brick bases of all four stills clustered together. At one point Bruichladdich’s stills were direct fired and used a rummager chain, but today they’re all steam fired, and the telltale pipes are easy to spot.
From the warmth of the stillhouse, we plunge through the waning sunlight of the cold, blustery day, crossing the courtyard and heading toward the back of the property, where the aging warehouses stand guard on a slight rise. Carl unlocks one heavy wooden door and leads us through the fluorescent lit interior, barrels stacked on their sides, three-high, row after row. Overhead, the curved metal roof gives the impression of an exceedingly large Quonset hut. Glancing at a few labels on the barrel ends, it’s clear we’re in the presence of some seriously old whisky. Mark pops the bung on a few barrels, and we taste, and taste, and taste. Sharing any more would just be cruel to you, dear reader, but it was an afternoon to remember.
The Final Dram
With one final dash across the compound we’re back in the toasty confines of the visitor’s center. Taking a closer look around, we spot hundreds of different bottles lined along the high ceiling, each bearing a different label. Some of these releases are from existing stock that predates Mark Reynier’s acquisition. Beyond the mainstay products like the Laddie, with its iconic aquamarine bottle, the distillery has also launched hundreds of small batch releases over its roughly fifteen year of restarted operations—each represented with a bottle here.
Distillery guests have the chance to acquire several of these rare expressions, including bottling and labeling their own bottles. These single-cask expressions are known as the Valinch bottlings. In the visitor’s center that day are two barrels making up the current Valinch offerings — one holding a peated Port Charlotte, the other with unpeated Bruichladdich. I obviously didn’t pass up the opportunity and bottled both to bring home: A ten-year aged Port Charlotte and a twenty-five year Bruichladdich, distilled in 1990 and aged for 25 years in a sherry hogshead.
We left Bruichladdich with smiles on our faces, our hearts warmed by whisky and gratitude for all that Carl Reavey had shared with us. Our time at Islay was sadly drawing to a close. Awaking the next morning, we had no idea if our ferry off the Island had been canceled, thanks to storm Gertrude which caused all manner of planes, trains, and automobiles (and ferries) all over the country to be canceled far and wide. Although we made it off Islay (to our huge surprise), we wouldn’t have been terribly sad had it been canceled, letting use our additional day to soak up even more of the magical island. Even as I type this, I’m wistful for our time there and plotting our return. Meanwhile, dear reader, our single malt distillery posts now move to Speyside, starting with the legendary Glenfiddich. Stay tuned!