Malt Mileage interviews Bruichladdich about its whisky

1.    Do you think that your products are distinctive? If so, what makes them distinctive from other Scotch and Islay whiskies on the market?
I would suggest that Bruichladdich is distinctive in a number of different ways.  We make a very wide range of whiskies.  These are presented under three different brand names, unpeated Bruichladdich, heavily peated Port Charlotte, and the super-heavily peated Octomore.  We have a history of celebrating the extremely diverse range of styles possible within the single malt genre rather than homogenizing.
We do not make whisky for blending.  Everything we do goes into single malts. 
We have developed a style of presentation which is considered to be quite radical with our aqua coloured bottles and minimalist, modernist styling.    Our aim is to make the most thought-provoking whiskies possible.
2.    From what I have read, Jim McEwan (Bruichladdich’s Master Distiller), worked at Bowmore since he was 15! Does Jim remember the first whisky he bottled as a distiller? How did it turn out? 
Jim was apprenticed as a cooper at Bowmore from the age of 15, steadily developing his skills in all different areas of the business.  This included invaluable experience at the Roseburn Bonding Co in Glasgow’s Bridgeton as a trainee Blender and his subsequent promotion to  manager of The Tannochside Bonding Co in January 1978, a large blending facility owned by Bowmore.  Jim has a great admiration for Bowmore whiskies.
The first new spirit Jim distilled was at Bowmore in 1968.  His first blend was one that was designed for South Africa in c1978.  It is called Three Ships and the brand is still available, although Jim does not know whether the style remains the same.
Jim still has a bottle of Three Ships in his house – and recalls it as being a good quality Speyside-style blend of comprising around 75% grain and 25% malts.  He describes it as medium bodied with a fair amount of age to it.
3.    Bruichladdich regards itself as “progressive hebridean distillers”. Why is there a need to be “progressive”? What progress are you trying to make?
This is a précis of our company philosophy….  It has been published before in various forms, but I cannot really improve on it…
We are proudly non-conformist.  We believe the whisky industry has been stifled by industrialisation and self-interest – huge organisations have developed that require a stable status quo to ensure that their industrial processes can run to maximum efficiency, producing the maximum “product” with the minimum input and variation, all to the lowest unit price.
We reject this.  We believe that whisky should have character; an authenticity derived from where it is distilled and the philosophies of those who distil it – a sense of place, of terroir that speaks of the land, of the raw ingredients from which it was made.
We believe in variety.  We believe the world needs an antidote to homogeneity and blandness.
Our raw ingredients are paramount. We use 100% Scottish barley – we believe it’s called “Scotch” for a reason. We are the major distiller of organic barley in Scotland and have been instrumental in support for organic farming in the single malt category.  In 2010 we released the first single malt whisky to be made purely from Islay Barley, probably the first in the island’s history.
We believe our spirit should speak of where it comes from and where it is matured – Bruichladdich is the only major distiller to distil, mature and bottle all its whisky on Islay.
We passionately believe in terroir – in authenticity, place and provenance, in ultimate traceability. We seek to produce the most natural, thought-provoking, intellectually stimulating & enjoyable spirit possible. Obsessive? Probably – but if all you want is a whisky, the world is awash with the stuff.
4.    What do you think of age statements?
We do not reject age statements, but feel they have made the industry a bit lazy.  A 10 year old must be better than a five, but not as good as a fifteen etc. etc.   This is not necessarily the case.  We accept that age is important – but we don’t’ believe that it is necessarily as important as the quality of ingredients or the cask or the method of distillation.   Age is just one of the myriad variables that are brought into play when creating a whisky, and it is not necessarily a reliable indicator of quality. Leaving whisky in old tired wood will result in old tired whisky.
5.    Bruichladdich make it clear that 100% of the barley you use is from Scotland. Why is it important to use barley from Scotland and Islay?
Essentially, we are fascinated by the qualities and variety imparted by provenance.  We start with the premise that Scotch whisky should be made from Scottish ingredients.  We believe it is called Scotch for a reason.    As a reasonable analogy, we would also suggest that a product calling itself “Australian wine” ought to be made from grapes grown in Australia.
There are also good technical reasons as to why Scottish barley is particularly appropriate for distilling, relating to the growing season and soil types. 
And then we have set out to explore the variety possible under the Scottish barley umbrella.  We are fascinated by the qualitative differences extant between barley crops from different places.  The analogy with wine is strong here. Wine has developed a hierarchical classification based on perceived quality that has developed over centuries.  The exploration of terroir in wine can be extremely complex and challenging to appreciate.
We  are not there yet – we have only been doing this for twelve years and that is nowhere near long enough but it is a fascinating journey.  We are excited by our demonstrating that different barley varieties  produce demonstrably different new make spirit.  And also by the demonstrable fact that the same barley varieties, planted in different places, also produce subtle variations.  Exactly as you would expect with fine wines.
We are a long way from being able to quantify these differences, or grade them, but we have literally set out on a journey of discovery and an absolutely fascinating portfolio is emerging.
6.    Bruichladdich offers organic Scotch whisky which is made from organic barley. What exactly is meant by “organic whisky”? Do you think that organic whisky offers anything different in terms of aroma, taste and finish?
In the UK, organic certification is regulated by Government, [sic]  The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and our suppliers and farmers have to meet the criteria set.    As do we. 
Does whisky made from organically grown barley taste different to that distilled from conventionally grown barley?  Yes, but we have never conducted a properly controlled experiment to test the hypothesis.  Our central belief is that barley varies from place to place, so we would need to grow barley conventionally alongside an organic crop (on the same farm in exactly similar terroir)  and treat it in the same way.  We have never done that, and are unlikely to do so.  It is very easy to demonstrate the difference between our organic spirit and conventional spirit, but we do not know what causes those differences.  Is it the farm, or the way the grain is grown?  Or the climate?
We are also interested in the ethical/environmental implications of organic farming, and do what we can to support the principles it enshrines.
7.    How do you select your oak casks? How do you prepare them before maturing whisky?
All our warehouses sit on or above the shores of Lochindaal – the sea loch that defines the westerly Rhinns of Islay.  The effect of this Islay-maritime environment on our suite of casks is very significant.  To Bruichladdich, this is fundamental and non-negotiable.  We will not mature our casks of whisky anywhere else.
Combining extensive wine experience, hands-on barrel coopering, and decades of whisky knowledge, we have a unique understanding of the complex interaction of wood, air and spirit – and cwe ontinue to explore it keenly.
We are intrigued by the effects of oak from America and Europe’s greatest forests on the flavour of Bruichladdich malt; over the years American white oak (Quercus Alba) imparts lush, vanillin flavours, whereas the influence of French oak (Quercus Robur, Quercus Petraea) is more subtle and fine.

The finest oak is a raw material just as important as barley or spring water. We are uncompromising in our choice of cask; we can work with the best, so we do. The proportion of ex-American bourbon casks to casks from other sources that we use varies over time, although we always use a significant majority of bourbon, again from a wide range of sources.  We are privileged to have relationships with some of Europe’s greatest wine-makers and their estates; from Rioja and Jerez in Spain, to Bordeaux, the Languedoc, the Loire and Alsace in France, to the Neusiedler See in Austria we have access to the finest oak casks that have previously contained the world’s greatest wines. The complexity and subtlety of the effect these casks have on maturing whisky are fascinating, and for us when our single malt is put into cask this is the start of a journey of discovery, not a final resting place.
No two casks of spirit are the same or mature at the same rate or in the same way. So it is essential that we are here, on the ground, watching our maturing malt with a hawk’s eye. Not only is that required for quality, but every now and then the whisky gods surprise us and give us something rare, capricious and unexpected – the difference between artisanal craft and commercial production.
The maintenance of cask quality involves continual monitoring, tasting, and the ruthless rejection of casks which are not performing as expected.  The best indicator of this is the huge piles of reject casks that build up!
8.     Is there a flavour profile that you aim to achieve when malting, mashing, fermenting, distilling and maturing?
Yes, very much so, but it is impossible to write down.  It is very carefully and constantly monitored by all the stillmen, and by our master distiller Jim McEwan, distillery manager Allan Logan and his assistant Adam Hannett.
9.    Why did you offer an unpeated whisky from Islay? Do you think maturing this whisky on Islay allows it to develop a different character to whiskies that have matured elsewhere in Scotland?
I believe that Bruichladdich was designed and built in 1881 by the Harvey Brothers to produce unpeated spirit.  The best evidence for this is contained within one of the best respected whisky books ever written, Alfred Barnard’s ‘The Whisky Distilleries of the UK” which specifically describes the malt drying process of every distillery on Islay.  He says that every distillery uses peat – but does not mention peat at Bruichladdich.
10. Why do you think people choose to buy Bruichladdich?
Because they are interested, inspired, curious and like to be challenged.
11. What three words do you want people to associate with Bruichladdich?
Progressive, Terroir, Challenging
12. What is a typical day like at Bruichladdich?
Not long enough.  Extremely varied.  Interesting.  Stimulating.  Challenging.  Spectacular.  Beautiful. 
13. Do you have a favourite whisky? 
Black Art 4

Thank you very much for your time. 

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