"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Bruichladdich Distillery, Islay

Barnard visited Bruichladdich Distillery on his way back to Bridgend from Port Charlotte.  His time spent travelling around the Loch Indaal area had convinced him that Islay “well deserves the appellation of the ‘Queen of the Hebrides’.”  Bruichladdich village he finds “aspiring and tastefully built…on one of the finest and most healthy spots on Islay”.  Today, as then, the distillery dominates the centre of the village and is the only one of the original coastal distilleries not to have its name emblazoned in bold black letters on a shore facing wall.

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
The distillery was described as “a solid handsome structure in the form of a square, and entered through an archway, over which is a fine stone-built residence for the use of the partners when staying on the island”.  The residence was the tall noble building on the near corner of this undated picture (from The Museum of Islay Life) although the archway is not clear and the main gateway that is still used is shown.  A fire in the 1930s destroyed the residence and the adjacent spirit store and there is now a two-storey building in a style in keeping with its neighbours.

Distillery front facing the shore today
Barnard later notes that “The Distillery having been completed all at one time the buildings are more distinct and separate than in some of the other large works…thus ensuring the greatest possible security against fire for the Whisky lying in Bond.”  Other distilleries that were purpose built before this time chose to build more compact interconnected units but Bruichladdich had distinct separations, keeping anywhere involving heat and flame away from the malt barns and warehouses.

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
Mary first took us to the mill room below one of the old malting floors and I tried to match up the location with Barnard’s notes.  There were originally two buildings with barley lofts above malting floors above warehouses.  The larger one was four stories with the bottom two as warehouses and this building forms the west side of the square opposite the gateway, the lower levels still used as warehouses today.  The other building, at the front of the square, only had one ground level warehouse and this is now home to the shop and tasting room.  Hoists to the barley loft doors can still be seen on the outside wall.

Belt driven Boby mill from 1913
The old kiln building is now long gone but it once dominated the centre of the courtyard which we had just crossed.  The louvered peak to the roof can be seen on the old picture above, just to the right of the residence.  Barnard notes that the barley was transferred to the kiln house in bags carried across gangways above the courtyard.  The dried malt was then transferred back to the mill house where a ‘Boby’ mill built in 1913 is now in place, still belt driven and with an old wooden dresser hiding in the loft above to remove stones from the barley.  The barley is now malted at Bairds in Inverness before being brought here for milling.  The grist was transferred to the grist loft above the mash tun by a long elevator when Barnard visited, the now bricked up opening in the wall still visible from the courtyard; an Archimedes screw now caries the grist across the way.
Grist loft and transfer from mill room
The mash tun was a good size and one of the deepest Barnard had seen at six and a half feet.  The tun used today also dates from 1881 but was brought from Bunnahabhain distillery in 1900 and is the only open topped mash tun on Islay.  The water still comes from a reservoir in the hills behind the distillery and Barnard here records an energy efficient practice – the water used to cool the worts in the refrigerator “is of sufficient pressure to rise to the Brewing Coppers, into which it flows at a high temperature, thus materially reducing the time and cost otherwise necessary to boil the water in these Coppers for mashing purposes”.  The same coppers are used today.

Mash tun with lauter rakes

Original coppers for mashing water
Barnard observed six washbacks which could ferment 7,000 gallons each (32,000 litres) and the same arrangement is in place today, one of the original backs still going strong after 125 years.  They have a volume of 45,000 litres but a fill level still of 32,000 and no switchers are needed here as there is sufficient clearance above the wash for the bubble activity to regulate itself.

Wash Still from 1881
There were originally two stills and although Barnard doesn’t provide the sizes one of them still remains here as Wash Still No.1, capacity 17,300 litres.  The original stills were coal fired and were stoked from outside which helped keep the still room clean.  There are now four stills, heated by steam coil, two wash stills around 17,300 litres each and two spirit stills around 12,270.  The two newest stills were installed in 1975 to double capacity.  The tall, slender necks of the stills, particularly the spirit stills, produce a light, pure and fruity spirit that contrasts with the heavier, oilier spirit from the stockier pear and onion shaped stills I had seen at other Islay distilleries.
Spirit stills from 1970s
Actually, there are now five stills at Bruichladdich.  An old ‘Lomond’ style still was saved from the Inverleven distillery at Dumbarton when it was demolished in 2004 and it was installed at Bruichladdich about a year ago.  Nicknamed ‘Ugly Betty’ the still was reconstructed and altered and in August this year they ran Islay’s first distillation of … gin!  Nope, not kidding, and it’s available in the shops now and it’s really quite wonderful.  A long, gentle fifteen hour simmer produced a sensational flavour from the 31 botanicals, 22 sourced on Islay, that were packed into the newly designed chamber on the lye pipe and give the gin its name The Botanist.

Ugly Betty 'Lomond' still
More information about the history and design of Lomond stills can be found on Bruichladdich’s website.  For now, well we had reached the end of the distilling process and there was only one place left to go.  Yup, the warehouses were calling and my project was about to open a door to another world for our group to enjoy.  I love the aroma in a warehouse, the maturing spirit the end result of the craft and traditional processes, with some interesting finish experiments and knock-out peat beasts developing here.

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
There are also now some casks stored in a palletised fashion, i.e. standing on pallets, in an orderly grid, and upright I tell you!!?  I was so disturbed by this I didn’t take a photo - it just looked, well, it looked wrong!  Traditional storage arrangements may be less space efficient but they seem to add a kind of charm to the warehouse experience that was missing with these maverick, upright, upstart casks.  You can get the feeling that if you bend your ear to a dunnage cask it will whisper to you of the secrets held within.  A palletised cask just offers functional silence, the dark and mystical happenings in these hallowed spaces locked away, no story to tell.

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 Bruichladdich website includes a wealth of information on the history of the distillery but a few key developments are worth noting here.  The first quiet time for the distillery came in 1907 when financial problems led to stock being sold off cheap and the distillery closed until after the war.  From 1919 another decade of distilling took place but prohibition in America and a slump in the whole industry again forced closure in 1929.  The distillery restarted in 1935 just before the Harvey family ownership ended, and apart from closing between 1941-45 the distillery then operated until 1995 before closing again.  During this time Invergordon had doubled capacity in 1975.

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
Barnard could also be considered a maverick; Richard Joynson certainly thought so in his introduction to Barnard.  His great journey, while echoing the grand tour approach of those other great travellers of Scotland before him, Martin Martin in 1695 and Boswell and Johnston in 1773 was, a further century on, a first attempt at distillery bagging and a unique and fresh view on both the distilling traditions and the wider landscape of Scotland.

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
I quenched the flames in time to meet the legendary Jim McEwan who was kind enough to invite me to his office to discuss Barnard and Bruichladdich, a meeting and some wisdom that I will long remember.  Jim describes whisky maturation as like watching your family grow, special at every age for different reasons, all memories to cherish.  By using traditional methods to produce quality and experimenting to provide variety and choice, Jim endeavours to create whisky that can be special at different ages, from the young Port Charlottes and Octomores to the deep, rich 21yo I had sampled earlier.

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
My Bruichladdich experience came to an end with a view across Loch Indaal and with thoughts of tradition and heritage wrestling for space with newly inspired ideas that were cooking in my head.  Hey, if a still house can be seen as a kitchen then maybe, I thought, my kitchen could become a still house, no?  Okay, perhaps not, I will leave it to the professionals, those like Jim with experience and imagination, and the relevant customs documentation.

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.