The village must have been recently built in the 1880s, likely developing around the new distillery, as maps from the National Library for the mid 1800s only record a Lodge House, kennels and a smithy near the shore on the south side of the Bruichladdich River. The distillery was built on the north side of the river in 1881, one of the last on Islay with Bunnahabhain also opening that year. It was built, owned and managed by three brothers from the Harvey family who we have met before as owners of Yoker and Dundashill Distilleries in Glasgow. There were some disagreements and changes in ownership between the brothers but the family company remained in charge until 1937.
|Bruichladdich late 19th Century|
|Distillery front facing the shore today|
My own arrival at the distillery was on route from Bridgend and having emailed the week before I was welcomed by Mary McGregor who ‘recognised’ me from my email. A warm start to the tour then and we had a merry international group of seven visitors to follow the absorbing distillery story that Mary was to engage us with. My project was made known and Barnard was given a place on the tour as well.
|Old barley loft and hoist|
|Belt driven Boby mill from 1913|
|Grist loft and transfer from mill room|
|Mash tun with lauter rakes|
|Original coppers for mashing water|
|Wash Still from 1881|
|Spirit stills from 1970s|
|Ugly Betty 'Lomond' still|
Production when Barnard visited was 94,000 gallons (434,000 litres) but is now around double that. All Bruichladdich’s spirit is matured on Islay in twelve warehouses, double the number that Barnard saw, with both dunnage and racking warehouses dotted around the site and further storage at Port Charlotte. Barnard described the warehouses as all having good head room and that certainly applies to the tall racking warehouses today.
|Plenty of headroom, and cask room, in a racking warehouse|
I’m not going to dwell on the pallet arrangements but there is an interesting discussion on different warehouse types on the Whisky Magazine forum here if you are curious. Our next stop was at the bottling hall, something I don’t think Barnard would have seen at any distillery with most whisky in his time being sold to blenders and bottlers in the major cities, or sold by the cask to stand in the cellar of a bar or licensed grocery store. The water used to bring the whisky down to bottling strength is from the Octomore spring mentioned on my Lochindaal post.
|Bottle your own whisky at Bruichladdich|
The current venture began in December 2001 after a seven year gap. The distillery was bought for £7.5m, including £5m for stock and the old name of Bruichladdich Distillery Company, once the Harvey’s family company name from 1886, was resurrected and the distillery reborn, privately owned for the first time since 1937. Jim McEwan, after nearly 40 years at Bowmore, was brought in as production manager and Duncan MacGillivray who first worked at Bruichladdich as Stillman from 1974 returned now as Manager.
The new team describe themselves as “progressive Hebridean Distillers, proudly non-conformist, fiercely independent”. Mavericks maybe, but also custodians of heritage. Despite many changes in ownership over 120 years the main buildings, layout and operations have remained much as Barnard found them just a few years after the distillery was built. The Coppers, an old mash tun, the original wash still, traditional craft and experience rather than computers used in the production process - so much of the history is still in place and preserved here.
|No computers needed in the still room|
Yet I wondered how he would view the current fixation with wine finishes, or Additional Cask Enhancement (ACE) that Bruichladdich experiment with. They also produce an Organic whisky, a distinction unthinkable in his time when ‘scientific’ farming was still developing. Their Octomore whisky has been peated to 152ppm for the 2010 release, the peatiest whisky we know, probably more so than when peat was the standard fuel across Scotland in Barnard’s time. The webcams around the plant that you can log onto to see the different stages of production from your desktop would seem like witchcraft in 1885, akin to the second sight that people once feared in the island communities.
Questions to ponder over a dram or two and we were treated by Mary to a wonderfully varied tasting back at the visitor centre where my inferior pallet, sorry palate could be tested. The standard Bruichladdich spirit is very lightly peated at only around 3ppm and their whisky mostly matured in ex bourbon casks. The ‘Rocks’ whisky has been ACEd in Grenach casks that I thought provided a hint of kiwi fruit to the gentle peat notes. A 21yo matured solely in Oloroso casks gave me a wonderful mouth full of sweet honey and banana flavours. And then there was that Octomore. Wow, only more so! A big hit of peat that slowly mellows from flame to embers, but with a sweetness just there under the surface, peach and treacle drifting in the smoke.
|Bruichladdich visitor centre and tasting room|
Jim views a Still room as like a kitchen - a good chef can create wonderful things from quality ingredients and the same can apply in a distillery given time and imagination. A still house can be an evocative place, late at night the “silence of the stills” as he put it can perhaps inspire thoughts and dreams. I began to consider whisky as being as culturally ingrained as raising a family, or cooking, woven into our lives and developing alongside us, providing moments to cherish. Jim finds some of those moments when he is alone in a warehouse with a glass, a valinch and a torch, finding that one cask that stands out as special in its time.
|R>L Mill house, grist loft, tun room and still house / kitchen|
In the meantime I will be looking out for the next Hebridean progression from cask to bottle and the first brick to be laid at the new distillery in Port Charlotte. I will finish with my thanks to Mary for her warm welcome and infectious spirit and to Jim for his wisdom and inspiration, all four qualities to be found infused in the fabric of life on Islay, and if you can’t get to Islay then let Islay come to your glass and find them in a well crafted and cared for whisky. Bruichladdich have quite a few to chose from.