Brian Townsend examines the successful return of Bruichladdich Distillery after it was reopened 20 years ago after being closed for a time.
The isle of Islay looks like a misshapen capital H, with most of its distilleries in the right-hand (eastern) part and, until a few years ago, just one distillery, Bruichladdich, in the western part.
Bruichladdich also distilled Islay’s one unpeated malt. Founded in 1881 by the Harvey brothers, it had its ups and downs, was mothballed in 1994, was reopened in 2001 by shrewd investors, with Jim McEwan as head distiller, then went from strength to strength.
It installed its own bottling hall, launched the peated Port Charlotte and Octomore single malts, named after nearby lost distilleries, and The Botanist Gin. Now employing 60 (and is Islay’s biggest employer), it was bought in 2012 for £58 million by Remy Cointreau.
Jim McEwan retired in 2015 and has just unveiled, via specialist bottler Dramfool, his own special cask-strength malts, most matured in ex-French wine barrels. Jim helped to pioneer widening the range of casks to mature whisky. Ex-sherry and port casks have been used since the 19th Century, but today former rum and wine casks, mainly from France and further afield, are increasingly used.
Four Bruichladdich malts released
Launched in March, Jim’s first four malts are a 2008-distilled ex-bourbon-casked Bruichladdich at 59.8% abv providing 215 bottles; plus three 2007-distilled malts – an unpeated Bruichladdich matured in a first-fill Bordeaux cask, bottled at 61.8%, giving 265 bottles; a peated Port Charlotte, also first-fill Bordeaux cask, bottled at 60.9%, giving 299 bottles; and a mega-peated Octomore, first-fill Sauternes cask, bottled at 57.5% giving 290 bottles.
Some 20-plus bottles, all specially numbered, of each were auctioned by Whisky Auctioneer of Perth to raise funds for the Scottish Air Ambulance. The remaining bottles were later offered on the Dramfool website and sold out within minutes, as did a subsequent special bottling.
All four are delectable – as the wine casks mellow the peat, totally transforming the Port Charlotte and Octomore compared to punchy earlier bottlings from ex-bourbon-casks. I particularly enjoyed the Port Charlotte – it snuggled up to my taste buds and made them purr – with the Octomore close behind. And both Bruichladdich expressions were also a delight.
If Jim’s other casks are as good as these, aficionados are in for a bonanza.