Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Bruichen Down. March 9th. Kilchoman and Bruichladdich

As I said in the first of my Islay series posts, this trip was very much the ‘luxury’ leg of the pilgrimage. Hotel, cooked breakfasts and beds that fit the dictionary’s definition of the word. In Canterbury Tales terms this is the Knight’s pilgrimage, albeit neither I nor my father have taken part in any genocidal massacres to the best of my recollection. (See Chaucer’s work for clarification if you can be bothered. You’ll also need to do some pretty in-depth reading up on historical background. All in all maybe just nod, smile and carry on leading a normal life.) Point is, this was the ‘no complications pilgrimage.’ The ‘everything according to plan pilgrimage.’ Right. The celestial mirth must have been deafening. 

Good spirits at the start of the day though. As became my strictly adhered-to morning tradition I talked about how tempted I was by the kippers before ordering the Full English. (Sorry Scotland, but ‘tattie scones’ are an abomination.) The sky was bright and blue,
Loch Indall’s mirror-shine glimmered through the windows, and we had two superb distilleries lined up and booked.

We’d driven past Kilchoman after our visit to Bunnahabhain the other day, as my father had rightly been keen to show me Machir Bay. Hadn’t lingered for a look though, on the basis we’d be back for the tour. We were booked for 11, so after a leisurely start we hopped into the car and were on our way along the winding single-track road. The vast puddle of Loch Gorm stretched ahead of us to the right, and huge flocks of migrated geese from chilly(er) Northern climes honked and hissed in the flanking fields. 

I don’t think I’ve mentioned these geese previously, but they’re worth a swift aside. It turns out that Islay is something of a holiday hotspot for them; seemingly everywhere we looked was another flock of long-necked fat-fodder. Unlike my father and uncle I’m no
ornithological expert. I know which part of the turkey I like on Christmas Day, I know (through gruesome experience) not to leave my car parked under a tree, and I know that a duck weighs as much as a witch, but beyond that I’m relatively clueless, and as far as I was concerned all of these geese were created equal. We did meet one chap though to whom some geese were more equal than others. Like us he was touring a distillery or two, but he was primarily on Islay for the birds, and it transpired that there was one goose he was particularly after. Let me elucidate that statement. He wasn’t after one sort of goose. He wasn’t after one particular flock. One goose. One single, specific Anatidaen face amongst this vast winged horde. Well, to each their own. Maybe it owed him money or something.

Several blind summits and corners later the long Kilchoman driveway stretched out before us, to the small cluster of buildings nestled beneath a low hill. I read an interesting comment from a charming chap on tripadvisor ranting about how the rocky nature of the road didn’t meet with his standards, on which grounds he would never again grace the distillery with his presence. I mean, fair enough, it’s bumpy, but this feels a bit extreme. Thankfully our
machine was more than equal to the challenging topography. But then the 2011 model Vauxhall Corsa excite 1.2 litre is noted by automotive experts as the vehicular apex of all-terrain performance. Possibly the other chap just had some half-arsed German 4x4...    

Kilchoman’s owners don’t really need to worry too much about rough tracks impeding their machines; being a working farm they tend to use tractors. It’s a distillery with a fair few USPs is Kilchoman, but the fact that they’re a working farm is central to most of them, and to the Kilchoman style and ethos as a whole. They are, by an enormous margin, Islay’s smallest distillery, creating less than a fifth of what Ardbeg, the next smallest, produces. Having fully purchased Rockside Farm, on which they are located, they are now also the only distillery in Scotland who perform everything from the growing of the barley to the bottling of the whisky on site. (Though they only do a portion of their own
malting.) It does also occur to me that Bruichladdich used to use Rockside as a provider for their ‘Islay Barley’ expressions. Whether that’s changed on not in the wake of Kilchoman’s purchase I’ve no idea. Kilchoman is additionally the only inland Islay distillery, the first new distillery on the Island for 125 years, and until Abhainn Dearg got going on Lewis they were the most Westerly Scottish distillery too.

So there’s been a lot of buzz about this little newcomer since it filled its first barrel in 2005, and not least because the quality of its whisky has proven to be more than equal to the daunting task of living up to Islay’s hallowed standards. I’ve only tried it a couple of times prior to my visit – in both cases its flagship expression the ‘Machir Bay,’ and it made for very tasty drinking indeed. Delicious in fact. 

And yet I have a gripe.

I don’t mean to use my pilgrimage pieces to go down the road of ‘opinion piece criticism.’ That’s what my general waffle pieces are meant to be for, for the entertainment of those with too much free time who kindly choose to read them. But I do want to mention this particular gripe, because as a consumer it represents one of my
biggest worries where the whisky industry - particularly Scotch whisky - is concerned. 

Kilchoman’s ‘Machir Bay’ is unquestionably magnificent. When I led a tasting recently and needed a peaty whisky it was to Kilchoman that I turned. It is both a distillery and a whisky I admire, and one which I would love to point my friends towards more. Except for the price. The absolute cheapest that I can find Machir Bay for online is £40. Which means that by the skin of its teeth it would have qualified for my 40 under £40 article. More realistically however the price is £42-£45. And that’s for the flagship. In other words, the lowest priced whisky they make. Beyond that things get a little bit inflated. Sanaig, the new member of the core range, is about £50 on average. Moving beyond that, their 100% Islay is £65+, and beyond that you have their various single barrels and special editions. And this is for a whisky whose distillery only last year celebrated its 10th birthday.

Believe me, when a whisky is good, really good, as Kilchoman is, I have no issue with youth whatsoever. In fact I’m of the opinion that youth does a lot of Islays, especially the peatier numbers, a lot of good in showcasing the character of the malt. And I know the
simple answer to my gripes is that demand is equal to, or greater than, Kilchoman’s very limited supply. It’s also true that Ardbeg 10 starts at about £45, Bruichladdich at about £40 and Lagavulin at about £47. But what I’m seeing, and my reason for bringing this up around Kilchoman, is huge numbers of similarly tiny distilleries opening up, releasing their whisky young and early and charging a similar figure. In 2016 we’ve already seen Ailsa Bay at about £55 and Wolfburn at £45. The vast majority of the vast number of distilleries opening or being planned at the moment operate far below the 1,000,000 litres per year mark, are aimed at the romanticised Single Malt market and, I expect, will rarely cost under £50 from the moment they are first bottled.

Whether a market which is, after all, propped up by blends, will be able to sustain so many small-production Single Malts long-term we will no doubt discover in 10-15 years or so. Whatever may be the case, it saddens me that so many distilleries are being created in the knowledge that their product will be out of reach of the average purse. I suspect that words like ‘craft’ will be used with even more abandon, and that numerous back-labels will describe the ‘small batch’ nature of their production as hearkening back to the days of
whisky yore. The inconvenient truth however is that in those sepia-tinged years whisky was an inclusive drink; what you might call ‘a drink of the people, made for the people’. Small batches and Special Editions, by their very nature, are not. This isn’t something to blame Kilchoman for, of course. They simply created a working model – as well as outstanding whisky – and others have followed where they led. But the world, as I have said before, has changed. And to me, at least, there is a part of that change that is saddening.

But before I get too melancholy, or start storming Winter Palaces with hammers and sickles, on to brighter things. Because Kilchoman is a distillery I’ve been massively looking forward to touring. Pilgrim snr, who had not realised the extent to which Kilchoman is a farm distillery, was quite distracted by the sight of cows in a barn next to the main building. Demonstrating a deplorable lack of agricultural interest I largely ignored them, and made  my way into the visitor centre.

Which is a cracking building actually – very spacious and well laid out, with oak beams overhead and a café at the far end. We were greeted the moment we arrived, and the lady behind the counter came straight out to us to chat, asking where we’d come from, and
telling us about the distillery. As we waited for our tour my eye was drawn to a map of closed Islay distilleries, of which there are many. Malt Mill and Port Ellen I recognised, of course, but Newton? Mullindry? Scarrabus? Even Octomore and Port Charlotte live on in the 21st Century only as expressions of Bruichladdich. A cautionary tale for future small-scale distilleries? I hope not.

Alas, no ‘Wells only’ tour this morning – there’s a whole other individual person in the group led round by Eva, our guide. Second Malt Floor of the trip is an early highlight – hurrah. Though no actual malt on it. Muted hurrah. With the purchase of Rockside Farm Kilchoman will be looking to increase the quantity of their own malting from 25% of their requirements to 45%. So hopefully next time I’m back – soon! – there’ll be some malt down. I realise early on that my use of the adjective ‘tiny’ is becoming a little repetitive, and that I should probably just assume until proven otherwise that everything is going to be ‘to scale.’ (Or invest in a thesaurus. ‘Lilliputian’ would have been a solid synonym.) The stills in particular stand out relative to most others I’ve seen. I’m put in mind of the pair of new pot stills I’ve seen at Penderyn. For a slightly more specific sense of scale, the mash tun at Kilchoman is a tenth the size of the one employed at Islay’s biggest distillery, Caol Ila.  

I’ve not seen a bottling line for a while now – not since English
Whisky co. I think – and it has my father somewhat transfixed. It’s always interesting to watch whisky being bottled – but I’m actually more interested in the equipment and storage room. Huge, towering piles of boxes full of corks from Portugal and glass from Germany (I think it was Germany...) Vast plastic containers full of whisky freshly drained from barrel, and in the corner the two great vats from which the whisky is piped for bottling.

And then back to the sterling visitor’s centre for a dram. First up is the 100% Islay, which I absolutely love. It’s made from the barley malted onsite, which is peated to about half the ppm of the malt from Port Ellen – and shows it in the tasting. The aromas and flavours are exactly my cup of tea, and if I had the money I’d buy a bottle on the spot. We move on to the Machir Bay, and since I have to write this one up I wander off a bit to find a table (in this case a barrel) to lean on, whilst my father chats to Eva and the chap who came round with us.

Kilchoman Machir Bay – Deep, earthy and sweet. Rather appropriately there’s something farmyard about the nose – nice balance of sweet and savoury with the barley really allowed to express itself. Bonfire ashes the first thing to hit you on the palate – very different to nose. Again, very sweet and – surprisingly given youth and ABV – not much burn. Oily mouthfeel – very oily – and again more about barley than about cask. Tiny bits of fruit and vanilla in the background, but those notes aren’t the headline. 46%ABV

As it turns out my father has been talking about my blog whilst I’ve been scribbling away, and Eva very kindly comes over with a glass of Sanaig for me to try. Unfortunately Kilchoman don’t currently have facilities to do takeaway drams – cheers tax man – so no tasting for Pilgrim snr. He’ll have to do with a drink at the hotel bar later. But I gladly hoover up the Sanaig, which is more sherry focussed, and another which I now covet a bottle of greatly. Our timing's perfect actually - 3 days earlier and the Sanaig wouldn't have been available. Love a new release. The nice man who went round with us asks for my blog address, which I jot down on his card. If you’re reading this – hope you enjoyed the tour and tasting as much as we did!

We take the long and scenic route to Bruichladdich, as we’ve no
shortage of time before the tour at half past two. Another Atlantic beach is explored in the form of the awesome Saligo Bay, and then we drive to Loch Gruinart and up its Eastern shore in vain search for seals. Hope the tripadvisor bloke didn’t do the same thing when he was here – he definitely wouldn’t have been keen on the road surface. We eat our lunch whilst watching the invisible seals, then drive in the direction of distillery number two, making a stop to walk down a spit of gravel beach that spears into the North of Loch Indaal. The sea is gleaming, the sun is shining. On my left flank are the white walls of Bowmore, whilst Bruichladdich nestles to my right. Life is good.

We get back in the car. Life becomes not good. The Corsa, not noted for its powers of acceleration, has developed even more pronounced lethargy. More disturbing still, an untoward symbol has
appeared on the display. I alert Pilgrim snr, who dismisses it. ‘I’ve seen that before,’ he says, ‘it’ll go away in a moment.’ 

My concerns are not assuaged. Untoward symbols, I protest, do not pop up on displays of their own volition. Pains-in-the-hole Vauxhall Corsas may be, but self-determining they are not. My worries are even less alleviated when, moments later, the symbol has duly not gone away. In fact it has started flashing. Someone in a car behind us is less than impressed with the speed we’re achieving too. I didn’t really look, but any money says he was behind the wheel of an Audi or a BMW. Probably the former. When did all the maniacs trade in their BMWs for Audis? Vorsprung dick technik as Mark puts it in Peep Show.

We nurse the car to just outside Bruichladdich, by which short time my ‘being concerned’ has evolved into what honesty forces me to describe as ‘having a strop.’ The symbol, whose meaning neither of us can decipher, is still smugly blinking away, and to the best of my non-existent mechanical know-how, the translation of a smugly blinking light on a car display is ‘haha, I’m about to make your life miserable.’

Patiently my father makes the reasonable point that we’re now at Bruichladdich anyway, so we might as well deal with things after the tour. I am in no mood for reasonable points and patience, and I permit myself the luxury of extending my childish huff for a few minutes as we make our way through the Bruichladdich gates and into the visitor centre.

Which was silly of me, because my petulance slightly marred what should have been an arrival of moment and significance. When I asked Pilgrim snr a few evenings beforehand which his favourite distillery was the jury was out between Lagavulin and Bruichladdich, with Lagavulin possibly having the edge on the basis that Lagavulin is what’s currently open at home. As for me? Gun to my head I've no idea which Islay I'd plump for. But I know I'd have to give Bruich serious consideration.

Because they’re just so interesting. It’s sixteen years now since Mark Reynier salvaged the distillery from the unloved doldrums of its Whyte & Mackay existence and, with Jim McEwan, created one of the most exciting whiskies in the world. No, sorry. Three of the most exciting whiskies in the world. I always find it strange how
much fellow whisky-lovers tend to underpraise unpeated Bruichladdich in favour of its brawny, smoky brothers. I know that there’s a school of thought that only whiskies with a lick of peat can be elevated to the top tier of complexity, but I have to disagree. What I love about Bruichladdich is that it proves you can make whisky with teeth and claws and a proper Islay snarl without needing to burn dirt. That being said, I can’t get enough of Port Charlotte, and I’ve never turned down an Octomore yet. Maybe I’m more of a peat-head than I thought...

Love, love, love Bruichladdich’s visitor centre. It’s got a proper dark, maritime, driftwood-style look going on. Feels a bit like the Highland Park visitor centre actually, though with a more storm-tossed impression. There is also, and I feel almost blasphemous saying this, more personality to the Bruichladdich centre. Not just from the more ‘full’ nature of the room, but from the personalised fill-your-own Barrels, each with a Bruichladdich staff-member depicted on them, from the long rows of past bottles overhead, and from the sit-down tasting tables right by the entrance, rather than tucked away at the back. More ‘substance over style’ if I wanted to talk in really critical terms. These are the sort of weird things that pop into your head when your distillery tally’s closing in on 40 in seven months!

Our guide today is Mary, who is just fantastic. Without doubt one of the friendliest guides I’ve come across in my wanderings – and
one of the most knowledgeable. Unsurprisingly, given the concentration of distilleries relative to population density on Islay, you come across a fair few people whose ties to a distillery go a long way back, but I’d be impressed to meet someone closer to a distillery than Mary is to Bruichladdich. Quite apart from her own role with the distillery, her father used to work there, as did her grandfather before him, and before that her great-grandfather helped build it. Not sure quite how you can top that unless there’s a great-great-grandfather sniffing around somewhere involved with scribbling the blueprints!

But then Bruichladdich is the sort of place that inspires ties like that. It’s currently the single biggest independent employer on Islay, with a workforce of over 80. Believe me, for a distillery, that’s massive. Most distilleries cite the ‘people are the fourth ingredient line,’ and in fairness it’s pretty much always true. But nowhere more so than here. What Mark Reynier resurrected and created here is something truly incredible and truly inspiring, which makes it all the more sad that in 2012 he was outvoted by the rest of the board, and the distillery was sold to Remy Cointreau. Happily business
has been allowed to continue as normal after the acquisition, and even more happily Mr Reynier has a new distillery – Waterford, in Ireland, where he is undertaking what, for this observer, is the most potentially exciting and innovative project in the whisky world today. On a personal note, Mr Reynier was very kind and giving of his time in answering some crudely-thought-out questions I sent him purely to satisfy my own curiosity recently. 

Back to Bruichladdich. We’re joined on this tour by a group who are celebrating the 50th birthday of one of their members by visiting all the Islay distilleries. They’re even wearing custom-made tour shirts, with the names of the distilleries picked out in the shape of a bottle of whisky, alongside the birthday boy’s name. (Happy Birthday Keith, in the outrageously unlikely instance you might read this. Hope you had a wonderful week!)

Can’t really talk about Bruichladdich without mentioning their ethos of ‘terroir.’ I’ve written on the subject before, and I’m not going to go into too much detail, but essentially it comes down to the notion of taste being derived through every aspect of where the barley is grown. It requires the barley to take centre stage so far as the flavour of the bottled whisky is concerned, and whilst it is an irrefutable concept in wine, it is not without its sceptics when it
comes to matured spirit. My own opinion is that a barley’s terroir can be an aspect of the whisky, if not the most predominant one, but that whisky is unquestionably a spirit of ‘place,’ and that perhaps we simply need a different word for a different industry. But feel free to disagree. What’s irrefutable is that Bruichladdich’s ‘Islay Barley’ whiskies taste very different to their ‘Scottish Barley’ counterparts, though detractors might suggest that this largely comes down to casks. Who knows? Onwards.

Mary takes us through the welcome speech and a brief history (mostly detailed above!) and then we’re into the distillery. The signature Bruichladdich colour is pretty prevalent in their decoration. I’d have described it as ‘blue,’ but apparently it’s intended to be ‘sea-green.’ Maybe I’m just colour blind...

A few notable standouts of the Bruichladdich tour. Firstly the open mash-tun, one of only three in the industry. I’ve seen another at Deanston, but I’m curious as to the location of the third. Mary wasn’t sure, and neither was another chap she asked. Bit embarrassing if it turns out I actually have seen it already...

The second curiosity is the Lomond still used in the production of the delicious Botanist Gin Bruichladich makes. ‘Ugly Betty’ as it’s labelled. Certainly stood out next to the more conventional whisky pot stills. Not the first Lomond still I’ve seen – there’s one used in whisky production at Scapa, but it is the first that hasn’t been altered, as Scapa’s has been adjusted for production of malt whisky as opposed to grain.

The third aspect that stood out – and it really did stand out – was
the Bruichladdich warehouse, which is an absolute cave of wonders. Busybody that I am I wandered about inside, and a few names on barrels caused a raised eyebrow or two. Don’t know how many of my readers are into their wines, but three names that stood out were ‘Petrus,’ ‘Mouton-Rothschild’ and ‘Y’Quem.’ The first two are four-figure per bottle red wines from Bordeaux and the third a sweet Sauternes of equal critical standing, and similar price. Needless to say I haven’t been lucky enough to try any of them, but as a wine obsessive they are all bottles for which I’d sell my soul – though I doubt I’d get the requisite price. An Adam Wells soul is probably more Echo Falls money territory.

Another cask of particular interest contained quadruple-distilled whisky; Bruichladdich’s attempt at usquebaugh-baul, the ‘perilous spirit,’ last heard of circa 1695. A couple of quadruple-distilled Bruichladdichs/PCs/Octomores have been released, though only for those with serious wallets – but a portion of it was used by Oz Clarke and James May to cause a supercar to accelerate faster than it would on petrol. Comes off the last distillation at 89%ABV. They drank strong stuff in the 17th Century.

We’re still drinking pretty strong stuff now though, and lots of it if the end-of-tour tasting that Mary laid out is anything to go by. The selection presented is – and bear in mind this was the basic tour – Classic Laddie, Classic Laddie Islay Barley, Laddie Valinch (distillery exclusive), Port Charlotte Valinch (distillery exclusive) and Octomore 6.3; at an immense 258ppm the most peated malt ever distilled and put in bottle. (Though there’s some 300+ppm lurking in casks in those warehouses somewhere.)

Bruichladdich ‘The Classic Laddie’ (Scottish Barley) - Anyone who says proper Islay character needs to involve peat ought to try some of this. Real blast of savoury, uncompromising barley. Little bit of tropical stonefruit, little bit of oak and vanilla and then just waves and waves of malt. More malt on the palate, and a little heightened tropical sweetness that quickly dries into a lingering salinity. 50%ABV

Our hotel is just down the road from Bruichladdich, and with the light still revelling in Machiavellian flash we arrive, phone a mechanic, and arrange for the car to be seen tomorrow. I'm still fretting; in all likelihood we'll have to reschedule the distillery tours planned, and we've left the 'big three' until last, which I certainly don't want to miss out on.

Except are they the big three? And do I really consider them as such? Somehow in my head the Kildalton trio have always occupied a special tier when I consider Islay malts, and I certainly know people for whom they are the be-all-and-end-all. But here, in this moment, I'm thinking of Islay, and I'm thinking of Kilchoman and of Bruichladdich. I realise, with something of a shock, that for the first time I'm thinking of terroir and it really does make sense. Yes, I have my price gripes - and Bruichladdich is just as expensive as Kilchoman even at entry-level, but for a pure expression of place
I'm struggling to think of more eloquent whisky. Right now, if that gun was to my head, it would be Bruichladdich and Kilchoman I'd consider most seriously. Because they're not just made on Islay - they're made of Islay. They're what the island tastes like, and that's the whisky I want to drink.

Might change my mind again tomorrow mind you.


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