It is quite possible that Bruichladdich is my favorite distillery. Though not the force behind my absolute favorite malts, they are responsible for many – and I mean many – that I absolutely adore. The diversity of spirit produced and expansive cask selection allows for a palette (not to be confused with palate) of broad and stunning spectrum. Armed with an arsenal of tools (great stills, brilliant wood and exceptionally clean spirit) and an unmatched artistic flare, Bruichladdich has managed to carve out an impressive niche and done so in the purest of fashions. The distillery drives the local economy and community in way that puts the industry giants to shame (a topic I intentionally steered clear of in this chat). They bottle at 46% or higher, never chill-filter and continually push the boundaries in searching for the next creative outlet. And all of this has all been accomplished in a fiercely independent and uniquely Islay manner.
Several months back I spent an hour or so with Mark Reynier, managing director, in his office at the distillery. We spoke of his path to ownership of the distillery, life on Islay, expressions en route (at the time Mark was writing up the latest Organic notes), reporting in the industry and much, much more. Since that time Mark and I have shared a few email chats and his opinions and thoughts have always been something I look forward to.
Undoubtedly one of my favorite industry personalities,
ATW: Your trials leading to the purchase Bruichladdich are not secret, but do have more of an impact coming from the source. Can you share some of the history that led you to Bruichladdich?
MR: Check out this film made by Crowsnest Films which I think captures it all pretty well: http://www.vimeo.com/15662396
ATW: You take exception to the currently accepted translation of ‘Bruichladdich’. When last we spoke you gave a much more romantic translation and spoke to how it reflects more closely the character of the distillery and whisky. What is your take on the true meaning of ‘Bruichladdich’?
MR: Bruichladdich is listed as one of the fifty most unpronounceable names in Scotland (Scottish Miscellany).
Most Hebridean names derived from either the Gaelic, Norse or Anglicised equivalents denoting a precise geographical location. Bruichladdich is derived from two Gaelic words brudhach and chladdich. Brudhach a Chladdaich. It is usually translated as meaning ‘brae by the shore’.
‘Brae’ is a Lowland Scots word derived from the Old Norse, breiðr, meaning a broad hillside, or ‘a gentle slope to the sea’. Since names were originally given as specific location markers for navigation, neither meaning is pertinent to this location.
There is a steep bank at Bruichladdich, a raised beach of post-glacial marine deposits; trouble is that it runs for 8 miles along the north side of Lochindaal and so is not terribly precise as a locator, like saying ‘1st Avenue and 1st to 60th street’.
The confusion perhaps comes from Brudhach or bruthach. According to Dwelly’s 1901 dictionary, is a rather general term in steepness from an ascent, hill-side, brae, to a steep acclivity, and precipice. Chladach or cladach means a shore, beach, coast, or more specifically, a stony beach. Interestingly, though obsolete by 1901, it also means a lee shore, a dangerous coast for sailing ships in a prevailing wind.
This specific part of Lochindaal in front of the distillery, is shallow and peppered with exposed rocks up to 50 metres offshore rather than ubiquitous sand of the loch. With only a metre of tide to cover it, this is a deceptive and dangerous piece of the loch in the prevailing wind to ships either landing or at anchor – even today. In the days of sail, a lee shore with sharp rocks waiting for an unsuspecting ship would indeed be worthy of specifying it’s location.
We can be fairly sure that Brudhach refers to the the raised beach, but specifically ‘a Chladdaich’, at the place of the dangerous rocky shore: Steep Bank at the Rocky Lee Shore would seem a more useful and accurate, if not so romantic, translation.
Brudhach, pronounced ‘brew-ac(h)k’ – with the ‘ack’ heavily aspirated and Chladdich, here on Islay, is a softer ‘kladd-ie’. So we get ‘brew-ahk-ah-kladd-ie’, which with the ending of the first word and the beginning of the second, eliding over time became ‘brew-ah-kladdie’, or ‘brook-laddie’ as it became in the nineteenth century.
ATW: Your history in the wine spheres have given you a profoundly unique approach to whisky maturation and finishing. What do you feel has been the most successful marriage of Bruichladdich whisky and wine cask to date?
MR: The 125 bottling. 1970 vintage in “selection de grains nobles” casks from Olivier Zind Humbrecht, the famous biodynamic wine grower from Alsace. They had contained Pinot gris grapes from the Clos Jebsal vineyard, late-picked for über sweetness. The “magic casks”, as Olivier calls them, were made by Dominic Laurent in Burgundy. The quality of the oak casks was simply exceptional. Combined with the richness of the wine and the vanilla of the spirit it was sensational. It is a profound bottling, a landmark I would go so far as to say, though some people just did not get it: the whisky either scored 99% or 70% – there was nothing in between. We have learnt an enormous amount. Jim is a cooper by trade, from the age of 15, and I was a wine merchant trawling the cellars and vineyards of France from the age of 18. Together that makes a powerful combination. I have been able to introduce types of oak that Jim had only dreamed about. His unparralleled, hands-on knowledge of whisky and wood means that we have been able to achieve some extraordinary results. You wait till you see the follow on to Octomore Orpheus, the Ocotmore 4:2, released this autumn… Boy – a real mindXXXX! Of course the loudest critics at the outset, industry players, have to a man made miraculous Damascene conversions. But for us this work that takes place on a daily basis is no marketing wheeze, dreamt up by some PR department in London, Paris, Tokyo or New York; it is inquisitiveness. Besides, we reckon a mix of oaks is more interesting but that’s for another time.
ATW: I can only assume with your experimental nature that the Renegade rum line, and the forthcoming gin (which is exceptional!), are your ideas. What triggered the decision for an Islay whisky distillery to branch out in these directions, and can we expect more innovations beyond whisky?
MR: There are many similarities between the rum and Scotch whisky industries. They are, after all, pretty much owned by the same players. In my view, the rum industry is in an even more parlous state than the Scotch whisky was when I started to get involved.
Unlike rhum agricole, British rum has always been a by-product of sugar manufacture; it was generally blended away with other rums. Its success was consequently inextricably linked to the that of sugar and commerce. But most of the Caribbean single estate distilleries, many created in the seventeenth century, have now disappeared leaving a small number of mega-plants. This situation was created, more or less, by fatal cocktail of post-colonial independence, capitalist amalgamation, and socialist nationalisation.
The odd barrel of these defunct distilleries’ rums still exist, bottling them naturally like our single malts – single estate rum – wasn’t therefore exactly rocket science. We wanted to demonstrate the individuality rather than conformity. As well as honouring these estates, we were curious. There is a dearth of knowledge out there apart from the mega brands.
The same big guys dominate the rum industry as they do whisky: volume is king – the rum equivalent of blended whisky. I fear the reality is, sadly, that what we have is a last-gasp, end of an era thing. There are, though, one or two small estates doing well, but when you see the old derelict distilleries lying there in ivy-covered ruins it is a damming, desolate sight. And remember, the single malt category, a tiresome, fiddly sector for those big players, very nearly did not happen at all. It may be just too late for authentic, single estate rum. We’ll see.
Botanist gin came about because we are curious about distilling. For us it is not a question of merely pushing buttons, we like to test our distilling skills, we are intrigued. With Trestaraig and X4 we have explored triple and quadruple distillation, so with a Lomond still that we had liberated from Inverleven in 2003, we were wondering how to use it. It was an experimental still, the first of its kind and now the last.
ATW: Bruichladdich has released a couple of organic expressions to date. Do you believe the Organic was a success in terms of both flavor profile and as a viable product to move forward with?
MR: Yes. The first was a very limited, flag-in-the-sand bottling at high strength from the 2003 vintage. The second, perhaps more representative, is a full scale bottling at 46%. It has extraordinary definition and intensity which some will get, others won’t. Scottish organic barley now represents almost 50% of our requirements (depending on harvest) with the other 50% + coming from Islay itself. It is a definitive, unparalleled, tangible proof of our desire to rediscover traceability, authenticity and provenance all of which, we feel, have been surrendered for conformity. We are going to distil some 100 tons of biodynamically grown barley, as far as we are aware this über organic barley has never been used for whisky.
ATW: At some point in the future to you intend to malt at least a portion of your barley (be it organic or otherwise) on site?
MR: Possibly, but it is not a priority as it is unlikely to add quality. Malting is a very precise art which in my view is best left to the experts – and we have a very good relationship with Bairds who bend over backwards to help us with the 26 different farms’s barley that we use, keeping each separate from field to fermentation.
Malting is fine to play about with on a small scale – and we do – but with 2,200 tons (almost 50% organic) it is different. Sure, some play at it for the tourists, but I am unaware of anyone that malts that volume themselves on site for their own use. We have looked at it, done a little ourselves, and it is certainly something that we could consider in the future; but it would be an economic consideration primarily – all or nothing – not an emotive one.
ATW: Bruichladdich’s flood of expressions is one of the things that has made collectors and connoisseurs both groan and drool. On the one hand, there are countless new expressions to try. On the other, there are countless new expressions to buy. How do you respond to criticism regarding claims there are simply too many expressions?
MR: No one is forcing anyone to buy them.
ATW: I guess the follow-up question would logically be about a core range. Though your independent, small batch style doesn’t necessarily lend itself well to the idea of a consistent core line-up, are there thoughts of establishing a more traditional ‘age statement’ type structure at some point or is the goal to get people bought in to the “spirit” of BL as opposed to specific standardized products?
MR: The distillery was shut between 1994 and 2001 – apart from a period in 1998 – and the older stocks erratic in both ages and volumes. And with a cost price of December 2000. This influenced our sales strategy which was based, basically, on the independent bottler format – small volume, limited editions. As we approach our 10 years, our own stocks are coming on line, and we have been able to evolve that strategy which we have been doing over the last three or four years. Our portfolio is now based around 10 specific Bruichladdich subsets from work that we have been doing over this period, each with its own intrinsic raison d’être:
Rocks, Classic, 10, Organic, Islay Grown (out in 2011), 18, Black Art, Infinity, PC, Octomore
As well as the first team line-up there will be one or two special, limited editions like PC 9 &10, Octomore 4, and 4:2, DNA, Micro Provenanace, and of course the odd intriguing vintage or two…
There are, for example, a brace of web and shop-only bottlings we are finalising to celebrate our 10 years of opening the distillery which coincides with our exciting new web site on 31st March.
ATW: The Bruichladdich approach has resulted in an interesting and eclectic collection of whiskies…I have to assume that with this level of experimentation there has been many surprises along the way. Any huge surprises (or humorous mishaps) you’d care to share with the readers?
MR: The 125 bottling – grab it if you can find one – sort of encapsulated what we have been doing; for some whisky producers on the Ford production programme, the ‘any colour you like as long as it is black’ brigade, it is abhorrent to have any more than one single distillery bottling; that was how it was when we started – now even the most staid of distilleries has three or four bottlings on the go. What is wrong with variety? Choice?
We are not navel gazing, we want to attract new consumers to single malt rather than the died-in-the-wool ‘traditionalist’ (shall we politely say) that complain we have too many syllables let alone bottlings. Our bottlings are unashamedly aimed at sophisticated consumers, wine drinkers, the unblinkered, the inquisitive of mind, those prepared to try real things, to learn, enjoy to savour the flavour. They want to to know the Scotch was made with Scottish barley, that Islay single malt was made – from barley to barrel to bottle – from Islay barley. Bruichladdich consumers want integrity, provenance, authenticity.
Humorous mishap? An enormously fat woman falling through the first floor of a warehouse – between the joists no less – almost on top of a freaked-out warehouse worker beneath; unfortunately she was a health and safety officer on holiday.
ATW: Can you speak to the working relationship you and Jim McEwan have? Obviously you are both individuals with well-developed noses / palates, and I would assume strong opinions.
MR: Culturally, and age, you could not get two more different people if you tried: one a metropolitan, small company, privately-educated, wine trade, English upbringing, pragmatic, Catholic, rugby fan; the other an islander, large company, protestant, whisky industry, Rangers supporting, superstitious Celt. I first met Jim in 1989 outside Bowmore and remember being amazed at the enthusiasm of the man who I recall being even more enthusiastic about his love of whisky than I am about wine. The next time we met face to face was a decade later in a solicitor’s office in Glasgow on the even of the purchase of the distillery. I would not deny that it has been challenging at times – that tension would not be there if one didn’t care – and after all, we have absolutely nothing in common. Nothing, that is, except passion, pride, enthusiasm, eagerness, daring, tasting ability, determination, imagination, inquisitiveness, vision… It took time to understand each other but thanks to my mother being half Scottish (my heart probably rather than my head) and the French and Viking blood of my father it helps.
ATW: Is there any talk of restarting the Bruichladdich Academy again?
MR: No. Too much hassle. We wanted to do it properly, give people the true experience rather than some dumbed-down, vacuous PR exercise. It was fun do do but the simple reality was that it was too draining, too invasive on everyone – and we have enough on our plate as it is.
ATW: Can you update us on the status of the New Port Charlotte Distillery?
MR: We have the planning permission but were held up by the environmental permissions. But since we finally received those, a year of monitoring river levels and flow rates etc… the economy has fallen out of bed and with that uncertainty we feel it would be unwise to proceed with this project, at this time, and compromise what we already have.
ATW: …and finally (from a couple of us)…
If a distillery owner was turning 50, say next year, would they not want to vat a special malt for that occasion, and if so would they not want loyal fans in Calgary to share a bottle?
MR: I do not know to whom you refer.
Thanks, Mark. Your time and effort are appreciated.
Watch ATW in the near future for a review of Willow Park’s (Calgary) exclusive Bruichladdich manzanilla 12 year old and a feature on Bruichladdich’s distillery manager, Allan Logan.
Also ‘Laddie on ATW:
An interview with Jim McEwan, Bruichladdich’s master distiller.
The Port Charlotte lineup in a vertical tasting (PC5-PC8).
…and several reviews under ‘Reviews’ on the right side of the page.