Not into distillery tours with unenlightened tourists? Luckily Bruichladdich offers a warehouse tasting – an essential whisky activity on Islay. Read why.
In September 2013 we visited Islay – the beautiful Scottish island in the Southern Hebrides with a long proud history as the home of peated whisky. For any peathead this is an essential pilgrimage to undertake. For one of us it was the second visit and for none of us will it be the last.
We spent a week there and did many things; visited a lot of distilleries (made it to all of them except Bunnahabhain), drank a lot of whiskies, and met a lot of locals and other whisky pilgrims at the Ardview Inn in Port Ellen.
It is impossible to pick one highlight of the trip, but one of them was surely the Thursday afternoon warehouse tasting at the “progressive hebridean distillers” of Bruichladdich Distillery.
You should always have high expectations when visiting a distillery on Islay. The island is a popular tourist spot and all kinds of people drop by the distilleries for a look and a taste. The distilleries are all very good at making everyone feel at home, and will go to some length to make sure no one leaves thirsty.
As most whisky enthusiasts will know, it can be quite aggravating to try and savor a dram from your favorite distillery surrounded by the unenlightened. Luckily the distilleries are also getting increasingly better at offering something for people who are familiar with the distillery’s standard range and with the whisky production process from other distillery visits.
Nowhere on Islay is this clearer than on Bruichladdich Distillery. While the standard tour offers a nice walk around the premises and a generous taste from the range afterwards, the warehouse tasting offers a much more interesting, substantial and fulfilling perspective on the work of the distillery.
Bruichladdich mash tun.
Bruichladdich still room. This is where we tasted the Bruichladdich new make (for the Port Charlotte production), which seems a lot more approriate, rather than to include it in the line up in a subsequent tasting, as many distilleries tend to do.
Danny posing at the Lomond still, which Bruichladdich has decided to use for their gin production currently available in The Botanist Gin. A product we do not care much for as it is not whisky.
After the informal tour by general manager Duncan McGillivray it was time to enter the warehouse on the grassy hill behind the distillery overlooking Loch Indaal. As with most cask warehouses still located near old Scottish distilleries, they have a somewhat spiritual atmosphere. Both in the literal and the symbolic sense, obviously.
Dark cold buildings with countless statuesque casks give an immediate sense of being in a tomb. But knowing the old casks contain senseless amounts of priceless spirits living and maturing in the casks does stir up a sensation of awe about the whole situation.
Luckily the romantic and poetic mood was not allowed to put a melancholic blemish over the tasting. Our charismatic tasting host Raymond Tibbs had brought showmanship, dark Scottish sarcasm and Irn Bru to liven up the tasting.
Normally these sorts of antics at whisky tasting events are cringe worthy attempts aimed at bonding with a drunken audience through cheap laughs and using lowest common denominator to make sure everyone gets it. Not with Raymond though. While taking the piss out of both whisky tourists and native Islay residents he was very keen on getting a banter going with people in the room, which was particularly entertaining in the case of the shy central Europeans, who didn’t really understand a word he was saying.
All this being the case, the entertainment never overshadowed the reason we were there, and all the essential information about the casks was presented timely and authoritatively.
Ok, so what did we drink? These:
Bruichladdich 1989 Unpeated – cask #51 Limousine cask. Around 50%
Bruichladdich 2005 Port Charlotte PC8 – cask #1586 Bourbon cask. Around 61 or 62%
Bruichladdich 2002 Octomore 1 – cask #1115 Chateau d’Yquem cask. Around 55 or 56%
Even for what is supposed to be a somewhat exclusive tasting, this line up exceeded all expectations. There are two reasons why this is a magnificent line up.
1. The taste range was well suited for those inclined to peat. The soft complex blow of the 24 yo unpeated was a delicious and great opener of the taste buds. The Port Charlotte (or PC8) was a fierce kick in the face and a jolt of all whisky related senses with a nice peat afterburner. The Octomore 1 was a complete immersion in waves of peat and spirit balancing and battling with the more complex results of the white wine cask maturation. One of those whiskies that take a couple of minutes to develop during which time you are forced on a supernatural adventure towards the centre of the Earth.
2. Each and every one of these casks contain whisky, which would have been sold at tall prices, had it been bottled. Especially in the case of the Octomore 1 d’Yquem matured cask 1115, which is allegedly one of only two white wine cask matured Octomore 1 casks ever made. The other one is still left untouched somewhere in the Bruichladdich warehouses.
Given the quality and exclusivity of the casks, we got the impression Bruichladdich had actually chosen the best casks they could find and cracked them open just for the visitors who made the effort of visiting them in the Autumn 2013, regardless of the potential bottle value of a single cask release.
Even though this was an exclusive cask reserved for the warehouse tastings, we were actually able to get a fair deal of this with us back home.
Incidentally we had brought a hip flask along. Traveling with public transport on Islay you never know when you end up waiting several hours for a delayed bus or the next available cab, or alternatively need to make a few hours worth of trekking. So having some refreshing back up whisky ready at hand is essential to keep the buzz going after a distillery visit.
Throughout the warehouse tasting our host Raymond had caused some stir and nervous laughter by pouring both Irn Bru and the priceless whisky in his own glass over the warehouse floor in front of our feet.
We struck a deal with him, that if we emptied the contents of our hip flask on the floor he would fill it up again with the Octomore 1. He agreed.
Martin emptying the contents of the hip flask on the warehouse floor. It was Black Grouse. Our host Raymond looks at the spectacle in equal astonishment and disgust.
The wonderful Octomore 1 d’Yquem cask being poured straight from the cask and into the hip flask. A priceless whisky ready for private export.
Danny trying to hide in the warehouse.
The always friendly general manager Duncan McGillivray and the rest of the visitors center staff gave us another warm welcome at the visitors center, where we were offered samples of some recent Bruichladdich releases. Including the Octomore 6.1 and the Port Charlotte PC Scottish Barley. Impressed by the generosity we couldn’t help the temptation to spend a few quid on their products.
Martin filling a bottle from the Bruichladdich Distillery Valinch – a single cask whisky only available on the distillery at the time of the visit. In our case a sweet and rough 18 yo unpeated rum cask matured whisky called Bruichladdich 18 Rum Reggae Rockers All Star Delight.
To sum it all up the quality, generosity, character and exclusivity of the Bruichladdich Distillery warehouse tasting makes this our single most recommendable experience for a peathead on Islay.
Additional photo credits go out to Golam Sadeghnia and Allan Skou.
d & m / Whisser – A Danish whisky blog