Super cool, old mechanical machinery, fabulously expensive barrels, and a taste of a whisky no longer produced.
Bruichladdich has had an interesting story - a bit of mess of acquisitions and almost buy-outs, closed down for a few years, before finally being acquired in 2000 by a group of private investors. Its modern history, thus, begins as of May 29, 2001, with the commencement of distilling following months of restoration work on the facilities. From that mess comes now a distillery that, some might say, is one of the most well-known and well-distributed Islay whiskys. From a marketing perspective, Bruichladdich follows a philosophy of (extreme) portfolio diversification, well-designed hospitality packages, and an embrace of modern branding. How so? It all became apparent as we wandered through the distillery, making our way to the cellar for a very special tasting ...
Let's start with the hospitality. Most distilleries/wineries/breweries follow the typical itinerary: we'll take you on a tour around the facility, we'll do a tasting, and then it's your turn to buy shit. But why not shake things up? What not offer visitors tiered packages to choose from? Bruichladdich offers this - a tasting in their cellar from cask of some of their rarest whiskys, followed by a more conventional tasting in their visitor's centre. How could I say no? Especially when they even offer to let you handle the wooden pipette to draw out samples yourself. A different, memorable experience indeed.
The portfolio diversification. Unlike many (most) other distilleries, Bruichladdich isn't too considered about producing a legacy bottling (10 yr, 12 yr, 16 yr, etc. bottlings). That may be due to a simple lack of sufficient stock due to those decades of mismanagement and mothballing of the distillery leading up to its acquisition in 2000. Why not take what you're given - a low inventory and a cellar full of random casks - and shape your entire production/marketing strategy around it? You take what casks you have, offer limited quantity bottlings, and market a product that's not particularly 'fine' or 'typical', but simply rare and different. That's the strategy many New World wineries take ('Reserve' and 'Single-Vineyard' bottlings), and it remains to be seen whether it's prudent long-term, but in the meantime, the bottles are selling. These companies understand the modern consumer, who in many ways, no longer has taste, judgement, or patience, but instead demand novelty as a misguided notion of connoisseurship. The other perspective, I suppose, is the spirit of experimentation being exhibited by the distillery, which should be commended. The cellar is full of used casks from some of the most famous (and expensive) estates of Bordeaux - all the First Growths, including Yquem. They also do vintage, single-cask bottlings, which is very rare for Scotch (and rather meaningless in terms of quality, as we were to taste). They even dusted off an old still, and now produce a gin.
And finally, branding. In a sea of dark bottles and embossed, grand-looking labels, Bruichladdich has certainly adopted a unique look. Not much more to say, really, but that the next time you visit a liquor shop, stand at a distance in front of the Scotch display. Which bottle do you notice first?
I enjoyed the visit, I really did, despite a pair of truly obnoxious American tourists who joined the tasting. Relative to the other distilleries we visited, however, Bruichladdich seems so ... slick. Is that a bad thing? Maybe not, but as a marketing professional and whisky enthusiast, sometimes it's hard to reconcile the two.
1989 cask sample: Unpeated and aged in bourbon casks. 53.5% abv. Sweet, malty characters, complex, light, and fine. Slight salinity, fabulously clean mineral aromas. Alcohol hidden, despite its strength. Good texture - long, intense, spicy finish.
Port Charlotte (2005 cask sample): Aged in Spanish garnacha casks. At 61% abv, the most alcoholic whisky we would taste. Sweet and raisiny, lots of creamy, butterscotch notes. Alcohol very obvious. Slight salinity here as well. Spicy, very dry on the palate - I would nearly say tannic. Very peaty, lots of extract and spice. Powerful is an understatement. A really exciting whisky to taste.
Octomore (2002 cask sample): The most heavily peated whisky, aged in Yquem casks, 56.4% abv. Sweet nose, plenty of butterscotch and caramel notes, underlined by peat. Very saline palate, and yes, peatiness. Extract and grip, with a fabulous malt character.
The Botanist Islay Dry Gin: Resurrecting an old still, this gin is produced with botanicals found on Islay. Lovely aromas, but lacking texture and depth. Alcohol again a touch unbalanced. In a gin tonic, easily overpowered by the sugary mess of a tonic that is UK Schweppes.
Overall, the cask samples were a really wonderful opportunity to taste rare, single barrel, and vintage-dated whiskys. But could they be bottled as is? I don't think so - to me, they seem to lack the 'completeness' of good whisky. Each one had an element that would elevate it, whether it was complexity in the aroma, texture, or balance. While cask-strength whiskys are currently in vogue, there's a reason why most distilleries bring the strength down to the low 40's abv. More than anything, this tasting was a lesson in the importance of blending.