Dr. Bruichladdich: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Distillery Spotlight: Bruichladdich Distillery
Region: Islay, Scotland
Note: Our Distillery Spotlight articles discuss how each distillery's unique process results in the distinctive flavour profiles of their whisky. To find out more about each step of the whisky-making process, check out our Basics Series article on how to distil the elixir of life.
It was a cold Scottish summer day and the year was 1989. Mark Reynier, a young twenty-something 3rd-generation wine trader from London was on vacation with his brother in Scotland. Reynier had recently enjoyed a 15-year-old Scotch from an obscure, pronunciation-defying distillery called “Bruichladdich” (pronounced “brook-laddie”). So he stopped by the old distillery, expecting a warm Islay welcome. After all, people in these parts are much friendlier than Londoners.
Reynier approached the heavily rusted gates and found them locked, with a sign “PLANT CLOSED, NO VISITORS”. He peered into the courtyard and spotted a distillery caretaker, so Reynier waved and asked if he could go in and have a look around the Bruichladdich Distillery. “I’m your best customer! I came all the way here by bicycle!” Reynier pleaded. The caretaker took one look at him and said those magic words that Reynier still remembers till this day:
“Nah. You can f**k off!”
So, imagine the surprise of the old caretaker 10 years later, when the slightly older Mark Reynier stepped through the gates of the distillery as its new business owner. Would the caretaker be allowed to keep his job?
Family drama over a dram
In its early days, Bruichladdich Distillery was a bit of a neglected child.
It was built in 1881 by three brothers (William, John and Robert Harvey), who also owned the now-defunct Dundashill and Yorker grain distilleries in Glasgow. Just like almost every other whisky distillery established in the late Victorian era, these distilleries’ were originally built to create blended Scotch whisky. The plan was to combine the spirits produced at Dundashill, Yorker and Bruichladdich to start a new line of Scotch blend.
Before construction was even completed, John (the only brother who knew how to distil whisky) fell out with his other brothers, owing to the lack of a formal written agreement on ownership. Bruichladdich struggled to survive under the remaining brothers, Robert and William. Neither of them had distilling expertise. To make things worse, they struggled to find a market as an Islay malt. They could no longer collaborate with Dundashill and Yorker to create their own Scotch blend. Larger blended Scotch companies, like John Walker & Sons, were already well-supplied with Islay malt.
Against these odds, Bruichladdich remained within the hands of the Harvey family through WWI and right up until WWII began. William Harvey’s son sold off the distillery, which then switched hands through many owners until it came under the control of Jim Beam and Whyte & Mackay Ltd (owner of Dalmore, Jura and Fettercairn) in 1993.
Sadly, the new owners deemed Bruichladdich “surplus to requirements” and mothballed the distillery in 1995.
Becoming the Progressive Hebridean Distillers
Here is where Mark Reynier stepped into the picture. There were people who did not want to see Bruichladdich’s story end. The turn of century saw Bruichladdich develop a provocative, renegade personality and evolve into who they describe as “Progressive Hebridean Distillers”.
Don’t tell Mark Reynier to F**k Off
After being insulted, Mark Reynier audaciously decided to buy the distillery in his youthful anger and vigour, so he could make Bruichladdich single malt himself. Holding the memory of being told to “f**k off” very close to heart, he wrote to successive owners of the distillery offering to purchase it every year for 10 years despite being rejected time and time again. Finally, in 2000, he got in touch with the latest owners Jim Beam and Whyte & Mackay Ltd who had decided to mothball Bruichladdich for being “surplus to requirements”. “Use it or lose it!” Reynier argued in a letter. It was absurd of them to refuse to sell the distillery since they had no plans to operate it. They relented and agreed to discuss a sale.
Reynier set about raising his “F**k you money”. He raised £4.2 million from a group of private investors and £2.5 million from the Bank of Scotland, and Bruichladdich Distillery was acquired for £6.7 million (US$10.3 million).
What happened to the caretaker who earlier told Mark Reynier to “f**k off”? He kept his job at Bruichladdich, thankfully.
(Image Source: Bruichladdich)
To create a quality spirit, Bruichladdich needed a talented master distiller to lead the team. Reynier set his sights on Jim McEwan (not to be confused with Scottish actor Ewan McGregor). McEwan already had celebrity status in the Scotch industry and was the closest thing it had to David Bowie. He was working at the rival Bowmore Distillery and had a solid 38 years of experience working his way up as an apprentice cooper, whisky blender, distiller and global ambassador. McEwan was also a charismatic native Ileach who was born and raised on the island.
McEwan readily agreed. He left his jet-setting job at Bowmore where he travelled around the world to hold whisky masterclasses, in exchange for the opportunity to resurrect a ghost distillery using a limited budget.
Resurrecting a ghost distillery could have been a romantic thought. But the reality was much tougher work than McEwan expected. He regretted his decision the first day he stepped through the gates of Bruichladdich and saw buildings with just four walls and no roof. To make matters worse, some of the old Bruichladdich whisky they'd inherited from their predecessors was not stored in good-quality casks, and had to be re-casked with fresh wood.
McEwan thought to himself:
“This is a mess, a bombsite! You’ve just made the biggest mistake of your life, Jim.”
(Image Source: Bruichladdich)
Between January and May 2001, McEwan and Reynier oversaw the dismantling, cleaning, repair and reassembly of the Victorian distillery.
It is a romantic rationalisation that the 120-year-old Victorian equipment was intentionally retained so that the whisky would taste the same as in 1881. But this was necessary by virtue of their limited budget of £300,000 for renovations. They had no corporate investors! The team had to repair broken equipment themselves or source for cheap second-hand components to replace them. Most of the distillery’s equipment was (and still is) the original equipment built by the Harvey brothers in the 1800s.
After several months of refurbishment, Bruichladdich distilled its first cask in May 2001. The Laddie was finally back up.
Staying afloat in the rough Islay sea
(Image Source: Islay Pictures Photoblog)
The modern Bruichladdich’s challenges call to mind the early struggles of the Harvey brothers. Once again, it found itself a small Islay distillery with little corporate backing and it was a constant fight to stay afloat. There were employee overheads of course. The Victorian-era distillery equipment also faced corrosion and often required costly maintenance and repairs.
The team devised ways to bring in funds while they waited for the freshly-distilled spirit to mature in casks. Reynier grew a thicker skin- on three occasions he had to ask his investors for more funding. McEwan, on the other hand, worked tirelessly to blend and re-cask the existing stock into a plethora of special releases to bolster their sales.
Reynier himself explained that the proliferation of Bruichladdich products was necessary:
“We needed to survive a decade until our own whisky stocks were ready.
Limited editions were easier to sell. We operated a hit-and-run tactic of aiming bottlings at specific markets.”
Keeping in the limelight
The sheer number of limited edition bottlings also made Bruichladdich quite a fixture in news and review sections of whisky magazines and editorials. That said, quantity isn’t all. Bruichladdich’s first few releases swept up numerous awards; the quality of the spirit reflecting McEwan's distilling and blending skills.
Just 3 years after Bruichladdich was reborn, Whisky Magazine named McEwan as its 2014 Hall of Fame member for making “a lasting contribution to the world of whisky” by turning Bruichladdich into one of the largest employers on Islay, partnering with local Islay farmers and challenging conventional notions of what whisky should look like. You can say it is like being named TIME magazine’s person of the year, but for the whisky industry.
These are not superlatives, however. The modern Bruichladdich remains somewhat of a black sheep of the Scotch whisky industry in its approach to whisky distillation. At risk of ruffling the feathers of large and influential groups like Diageo, Bruichladdich advocates for 3 principles to be adopted in Scotch-making: commitment to (1) terroir, (2) transparency and (3) quality over snobbery.
Barley and terroir really matter
Here’s a pop quiz: Scotch whisky must be distilled and matured in Scotland. Does this mean the Scotch producer have to use barley grown in Scotland?
It may sound obvious that Scotch should be made using 100% Scottish barley. But the reality is not the case. Mark Reynier accused the larger Scotch industry for feeding drinkers misleading “propaganda” about the Scottish provenance of their whisky, when in fact their barley could be imported from Ukraine.
Terroir, pronounced “teh-wahr”, is the French concept used to refer to the environment’s impact on a crop’s growth, and how it affects the taste of the drink made from the crop. This takes into account the influence of soil, sunlight and climate– among many other factors. The term is most commonly used in the realm of wines to explain the taste profiles of wine varieties harvested from vineyards in different farms that are exposed to different conditions.
You would recall that Reynier was originally a wine merchant before turning to whisky. He was sure that the concept of terroir is equally important to Scotch whisky as it applies to French wine. Under Reynier’s leadership, terroir became an integral part of Bruichladdich’s philosophy in whisky-making.
Is this just pretentious marketing? Or can we really taste the difference?
Perhaps this sounds like pretentious pseudoscience. But recent research has produced strong evidence that whiskies made from barley grown under different environments actually have different flavour and mouthfeel.
Reynier blames the wider whisky industry for being too profit-driven, overly focused on growing climate-resistant barley, ignoring the importance of good terroir, and not improving the flavour of barley. This could explain why many - including the Thompson Brothers of Dornoch - find that vintage whiskies made in the 60s taste much better than whiskies today.
Terroir differences are most easily observed by tasting younger whisky without too much cask influence. At the 2016 Fèis Ìle (Islay Whisky Festival), Bruichladdich conducted a master class in terroir and shared two samples of two-year-old spirits from Black Isle and Aberdeen. The spirits were mashed and distilled in the exact same manner, and the only difference is that one was from barley grown in Black Isle, while the other was from barley grown in Aberdeen.
The spirits exhibit very different characters:–
- The Black Isle spirit has a nose of cereal notes, and a palate of fruity apples, pears and sour gooseberries.
- The Aberdeeen spirit, on the other hand, has much fruitier notes with subdued cereal notes, and a palate that is much mintier.
Where can we find terroir influences in Bruichladdich’s whisky?
All Bruichladdich bottlings are intended to embody the distillery’s commitment to terroir. The distillery proudly proclaims that unlike others, they only use 100% Scottish barley. Scottish barley is ideal for whisky-making for various reasons, including its lower nitrogen content. This is supposed to help create the optimum flavour profile for whisky distillation.
While the distillery releases peated labels, terroir is most easily experienced when on looks at younger unpeated Bruichladdich expressions.
The entry-level Bruichladdich Classic Laddie expression - the one which comes in the iconic "Tiffany blue" coated bottle - is made with 100% Scottish barley. The expression is said to have significantly sweeter notes than other Islay whiskies, with sweet oak, apple juice, vanilla and a slightly salty maritime taste.
The Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2007 - Rockside Farm is also entirely made from Scottish barley, but this time, said barley are from a specific farm on Islay called Rockside Farm. Taste this expression alongside The Classic Laddie and you may notice a greater degree of brininess and seaweed notes as well as the brightness of lemon zest.
Finally, there is the Bruichladdich Bere Barley 2010 - made from “bere barley” a rare ancient variety of barley that was grown by farmers in Scotland for over thousands of years. Unlike modern barley, the crop yield of bere barley is only 50% of the yield of modern barley, while the alcohol yield is 15% lower than modern barley. These factors make bere barley more expensive to cultivate and use for whisky distillation. However, what bere barley lacks in yield is made up in flavour. This expression is supposed to have a more unctuous texture with an intense sweet malty note and well-rounded quality.
Transparency and opaque bottles
Another peculiarity of Bruichladdich’s is the game-changing transparency of their bottlings. But what does transparency mean?
Consider their flagship expression that comes in a fully opaque aqua-coloured bottle that would fit right in at a Tiffany & Co’s. We cannot see the colour of the whisky inside. This is intentional because the liquid inside is rather light-coloured and looks relatively young. Bruichladdich wants to shift our obsession away from colour, and instead consider everything else that they would be telling us.
Go on to their website here to see what I mean. Anyone who purchases a Classic Laddie or Laddie Eight bottling is provided with highly-detailed information on the barley provenance (i.e. terroir-relevant information), cask types used, and age of the youngest component of the whisky.
Now, that's quite a bit of information! I suppose that sometimes the colour of transparency is actually opaque.
Their point is this: every batch of whisky is slightly different. So rather than aiming for absolute consistency of colour and flavour in flagship expressions, Bruichladdich prefers to openly disclose different ingredients and cask types used that would subtly influence the final flavour. Consistency of quality was more important than consistency of flavour and colour.
Few other Scotch distilleries provide such comprehensive detail, but Bruichladdich is not alone in its advocacy for transparency.
Several years prior, nonconformist blenders, Compass Box Whisky Co. campaigned for a change in the law after it got into legal hot water with the Scotch Whisky Association releasing excessive information about the contents of their blended Scotch.
While most players in the Scotch industry remained silent, Bruichladdich was one of the few vocal supporters for Compass Box’s transparency campaign.
What does Bruichladdich have to do with the Iraq War?
So obsessed with transparency was Bruichladdich that, for a period of time, the distillery maintained 8 webcams that live-streamed the different steps of the whisky-making process at Bruichladdich. Reynier’s idea was to show the world that Bruichladdich uses the most traditional methods to distil whisky. He got more attention than he bargained for.
One morning in 2003, Reynier received a surreal email from a US Pentagon operative, Ursula who admitted that agents have been watching the live-streamed webcams of the small Islay distillery.
With the Iraq War brewing, US intelligence agencies were evidently on high alert, monitoring sites that could produce chemical weapons of mass destructions (WMDs). On such high alert that there were even agents watching the comings and goings of a Scotch distillery in Islay.
The story goes that US intelligence agents spotted copper stills and distilling equipment en route to Bruichladdich, and began monitoring whether the distillery made chemical WMDs.
Ursula then assured Reynier that the Pentagon did not consider Bruichladdich a threat to world peace. They were simply using Bruichladdich’s videos to “train” their operatives (if you could trust her words). She explained that the whisky distillation process is actually very similar to the process of making certain chemical WMDs, what with the use of reactors, batch processors and evaporators. Just some “tweaks” to the process can create something very pleasant (whisky) or something very deadly (chemical weapons).
At a time when the Iraq War was just beginning, this was too good a story to pass up. Reynier shared his experience with the media, which made for a great headline-grabbing story of a Scotch distillery being investigated for harbouring WMDs.
Ever the good sport, Bruichladdich commemorated the incident with a special bottling- the Bruichladdich 1984 Whisky of Mass Distinction expression. Weapons of Mass Destruction, Whisky of Mass Distinction - geddit?
Bruichladdich’s many faces
For its production capacity, Bruichladdich releases a dizzying array of different bottlings. There’s the eponymous fruity and fresh unpeated Bruichladdich expressions. There’s the moderately-peated Port Charlotte (40 phenolic parts per million ). Then there’s the heavily-peated Octomore expressions that are routinely the most heavily peated whisky in the world (up to over 300 ppm).
It only has an annual production of about 2 million litres of alcohol. Lower than most other Ileaches like Caol Ila (about 6 million) Laphroaig (about 3.4 million), Bunnahabhain (about 2 million), Lagavulin (about 2.4 million) and the nearby Bowmore (about 2.3 million). “Caol Ila produces in a day what we produce in one week,” Jim McEwan once noted.
Yet how does Bruichladdich manage to produce such a staggering number of different lines?
Their secret: unlike others, Bruichladdich is not reliant on business with Scotch blenders. It is free to produce as many different styles as it wishes without worrying about supplying a consistent flavour.
The Port Charlotte line was conceived when Jim McEwan grew tired of people saying Bruichladdich wasn’t a true Islay whisky because it wasn’t peated. The distillery did in fact make peated malt from 1881 to 1960, so McEwan resurrected the peated malt to have these people “shut up”.
This line gets its name from the small village of Port Charlotte, 3 km down the road from Bruichladdich, with many wind-swept stone buildings. The new Port Charlotte comes in an unusual and distinctive military green bottle.
There may be cask style differences and terroir differences, but Port Charlotte is always made from 40ppm peated malt. This line comes the closest to the quintessential Islay whisky with heavy smoke, savouriness and plenty of rich, nutty caramelised flavours. You can say it is McEwans’ answer to complaints that he does not make Islay whisky.
Bruichladdich sources peated malt from Bairds Malt Ltd in the city of Iverness. One peculiar feature is that Bairds toasts the malt over an outdoor open peat fire. This meant that smoke levels were unpredictable and inconsistent - sometimes extremely peaty malt is made (200+ ppm).
When McEwan realised this, he proposed a offbeat idea: What if they made whisky directly from the extremely peated stuff?
This was how the Octomore was born. Peating levels begin at a minimum of 80 ppm, but the sky's the limit. The first release was distilled in 2002 at 80.5ppm. Subsequent batches have reached over 300 ppm, becoming some of the most peated whiskies available.
The Octomore was ultimately conceived as a highly experimental series. While the line now is very well-known with consumers, it only represents 10% of what Bruichladdich makes annually. Octomore is meant to be much more experimental than Bruichladdich and Port Charlotte.
That is why peating levels fluctuate wildly from release to release. At time of writing, the latest Octomore 13.X series comes in at about 130 ppm.
This is also why Jim McEwan had fun making the quadruple-distilled Octomore Discovery release. Most malt distilleries in Scotland only distil their spirit 2 times; this release was a quadruple-distilled whisky. It was also bottled at an incredible 69.5%. The quad-distillation has transformed the heavy-peat into very restrained smoke. The palate is also clean and smooth despite the 69.5% abv.
How does the distillery produce its three famous lines of whisky? The process begins outside the distillery at a malting facility, Bairds of Iverness. Here is where unpeated malt, peated malt and ultra-heavily-peated malt are sourced to produce the Bruichladdich, Port Charlotte and Octomore respectively.
The length of fermentation time can greatly affect the final taste of the spirit. Shorter periods (ie below 50 hours) tend to create more alcohol and cereal notes. Longer periods (i.e. over 60 hours) tend to result in less alcohol, but more complex and a sweeter tasting spirit.
Fermentation at Bruichladdich takes place within traditional wooden washbacks, and is relatively long, producing a sweeter and more complex spirit. The mixture is given at least 65 hours, and sometimes up to 130 hours (perhaps if a much fruitier expression is desired). Whether fermentation is complete is judged by the distillery staff who would constantly observe and make measurements using a hydrometer (to measure liquid density).
Tall, long-necked stills
Another factor that affects the texture and taste of the spirit is the height of the copper stills. Taller stills tend to result in a more delicate-tasting spirit. This is because heavier compounds are unable to climb up the neck, and end up hitting the inner walls of the still, thus condensing back into the pot.
Bruichladdich’s pot stills remain the same ones installed by the Harvey brothers 140 years ago. Contrary to convention during Victorian time, these stills are designed to be tall and long-necked. This helps create a fresher, more refined and floral spirit.
Radical terroir-ist stuff
But perhaps one of the most remarkable thing about Bruichladdich is its ability to produce a bottle of whisky made from barley harvested from a specific parcel of land in Islay. Because without taking the pains to do so, the influences of terroir could never be known.
Guaranteeing terroir would require traceability of provenance from barley farm to the bottling hall. It means that Bruichladdich must have the infrastructure to process separate parcels of barley taken from a multiplicity of locations. The barley of different terroir must be malted, mashed, fermented and distilled in completely separate batches. An unintentional mixture of malt from Farm A into Farm B malt would render earlier efforts wasted.
And to allow people to taste the effects of terroir, the distiller must take steps to allow the terroir of the raw ingredient to express itself fully. This could mean harvesting barley from appropriate locations with the right terroir influences. This could mean using less active and unobtrusive bourbon casks to avoid masking flavours. This could also mean bottling the spirit at the younger ages of 7 to 8 years old to keep the terroir influence fresher.
Supporting the local economy
It is very common these days for businesses to put on an ESG (environmental, social, and governance) spin on the way they are conducting their affairs. Perhaps you might be urged to donate a dollar to McDonald House Charities with your Big Mac? But travel far enough down the supply chain for most products and you will probably end up seeing a Guatemalan child being forced to pick your Starbucks coffee beans by a man holding a sword.
Is Bruichladdich different? That seems to be the case. In 2020, it became the only whisky distillery in Scotland and Europe to be certified as a “B Corp”, meeting stringent standards of social and environmental performance. (B-Corp certification is arguably one of the best indicators of a for-profit company’s commitment and contribution to making a positive social and environmental impact.)
Bruichladdich’s commitment to terroir, Scottish barley and local Islay ingredients incidentally produces a lot of value for the surrounding community. This has been the practice even before awards for social enterprises were a big thing back in 2001.
Buying from the local farming community (instead of importing from cheaper sources) provides an important stream of income to small farmers living on the remote island. Bruichladdich was also praised for being the largest employer on Islay, providing stable jobs to many islanders. And in an industry stereotypically associated with old white men, Bruichladdich’s management consists of more than 50% females.
I guess they weren’t lying 20 years ago when they first called themselves Progressive Hebridean Distillers!
There are many things that make Bruichladdich stand out from other distilleries. There’s its striking turquoise Classic Laddie bottle that raised eyebrows. There’s its place as the Scotch industry's enfant terrible that challenges conventional expectations of how whisky should be made and sold. There’s its stubborn dedication to unpeated whisky despite being an Islay malt. There’s also its provocative brand image and dry humour when it poked fun at the US military for “spying” on it.
What does stand out to me is the fact that Bruichladdich respects and does not patronise the whisky drinker. It takes you seriously and assumes you know your malts. It doesn’t pretend, unlike many other producers, that whisky would not differ from batch to batch to batch. It faithfully discloses everything we should know about each bottle of single malt - even if we may not initially understand certain bits.
It is usually not easy for most consumers, including myself, to see the point of discussing terroir. After all, the vast majority of the Scotch industry does not take terroir too seriously, so there is nothing for other drinkers to compare with. Another issue is the assumption that the subtle flavour differences due to terroir are arguably masked by years of cask influence and blending batches together.
I suppose drinking a dram of Bruichladdich is a little bit like looking at modern art. You may like it, but you may take some time to fall in love with it. It takes patience to notice how malt grown in one location has more notes of cereal, while malt grown in another brings a maritime or mint note. It takes patience to appreciate how these influences guide the Bruichladdich team to use certain ingredients for certain expressions. But for the drinkers who eventually notice these things, they absolutely love Bruichladdich’s whisky.
Bruichladdich’s releases tend to be very bold in strength, but usually come with a nice touch of elegance and complexity. The great thing is that with so many style variations, there’s usually something that would appeal to everyone.
If you don’t fancy peat, we recommend starting with the unpeated Classic Laddie, then working your way up to the various Islay Barley expressions intended to showcase malt of different provenances. Consider a sip of a Port Charlotte 10 - the peat does not overpower and is usually well-balanced with malty sweetness and smoked lemon.
If you enjoy peat, we recommend going for straight for the slightly older Octomore 10 Years Old, 2010, which has very aromatic smoke and ash without the dryness or sharpness of peat, and plenty of dark fruits with a touch of coffee.
Filling a bookshelf? We picked these for you.