“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





25 May 2009



“A man of the Hebrides, for of the women’s diet I can give no account, as soon as he appears in the morning, swallows a glass of whisky; yet they are not a drunken race, at least I never was present at much intemperance; but no man is so abstemious as to refuse the morning dram, which they call a skalk. The word whisky signifies water, and is applied by way of eminence to strong water, or distilled liquor. The spirit drunk in the North is drawn from barley. I never tasted it, except once for experiment at the inn in Inverary, when I thought it preferable to any English malt brandy. It was strong, but not pungent, and was free from the empyreumatick taste or smell. What was the process I had no opportunity of inquiring, nor do I wish to improve the art of making poison pleasant.” -- From “Coriatachan in Skye” by Samuel Johnson in Journey To The Western Isles Of Scotland 1775


Jim Beam Follows Dead Vicars 
Doors Of Enlightenment Open
New Rays Of Hope On Hebrides

“In recent years, it’s the eagerness of the vicars of England to go to heaven that’s made the biggest change to the flavour of malt whisky”, says Andrew Gray, proprietor and sales director of Bruichladdich distillery, Islay. We’re having a few wee breakfast drams in the back of The Exeter, which is at 246 Rundle Street, Adelaide. Islay, a low 30x40 kilometer swelling in the Atlantic between Scotland and Ireland, is the southernmost and most fertile of Scotland’s western isles.

My friend goes on, in his mischievous Scots way, to explain that since so many of the traditional vicars have gone up to be with Jesus, taking their congregations with them, the amount of sherry consumed has plummeted, butchering the sherry business, making sherry barrels scarce. Traditional Scots parsimony has for centuries seen whisky distillers scrounge the cellars of Europe and the Americas for used oak casks. In recent centuries, old sherry-cured oak was often the cheapest.

Whisky emerges from the pot still like vodka, and over the centuries, that’s exactly how most of it was sold: straight from the still into the jug, jar, bucket or Scotsman. The need for securing larger volumes in longer-term storage made the barrel a natural requirement, but it soon became apparent that it’s the ageing in oaks of various flavours for differing durations that gives whisky its alluring fruit and colour. Over many decades, the sherry soaks into the first few millimetres of the oak staves. When strong malted grain spirit (over sixty per cent alcohol) is then steeped in the barrel it gradually removes those sugars, fruits, esters and lignins.


" ... now we're going back to the great winemakers of France for oak, and we're delighted with the results ... "

“We use different wood types more than any other company”, Andrew proudly announces, nosing his gill. “We’ve attracted criticism from some traditionalists who might accuse us of making malt whisky that tastes like strawberry jam or whatever, but we’re enjoying the possibility to make the changes, try new things. French wine casks were the first used by the fledgling whisky industry, away back in 1500s. They’d buy them from the old English merchant cellars, because all the French wine was imported in oak and finished in Britain. Then with the advent of the slave trade, rum barrels were easy to get. After the Napoleonic Wars, we could get sherry and port casks, and sherry became the popular flavour. Now we’re going back to the great winemakers of France for oak, and we’re delighted with the results”.

Most delightful for the consumer is the co-operation the winemakers show. Bruichladdich won’t take just any old barrel. They’re buying supreme oak from the grandest Bordelaise Chateaux: Lafite, Latour, and even d’Yquem, the most revered of the Sauternes makers. They source barrels in such buzzy new vignobles as Sassicaia in Tuscany and Ribero el Duero in Spain, and the poshest Californian wineries, and have recently re-established contact with a far-sighted sherry maker who enjoys tweaking barrels with sherries of different sorts, to provide Bruichladdich with a broader range of entertaining flavours.

“The more famous the vineyard, the better the oak, generally”, Andrew enthuses. “And the clever winemakers are quite partial to having a wee Bruichladdich flavoured by their wine!”


There’s nothing new in adding flavourants to whisky, and they haven’t always come from oak. In the bad old days of Dr. Johnson, sherry essence was a handy disguiser of the fusel oils, propanol and butanol, which were the unwanted, harsh by-products of indolent or greedy distilling. Fruit cordials, wines and other essences were common sweeteners and masking agents; glycerine, caramel and tea added unction and burnish, even various deadly poisons were employed to increase the general alcoholic effect. So it’s no breech of tradition to adjust the flavour: just jolly welcome is the news that Bruichladdich’s wine-steeped timbers are only to make its pure, clean whisky more of a colourful gastronomic adventure. Dr. Johnson’s sentiment notwithstanding.

The leviathan machinations of the whisky industry and its ownership leave the ever-changing Australian wine industry for dead. The tectonic plates of the old Europe-based transnationals, and the Americas - even the odd foolhardy freelancer - constantly push, grind and shove for control of the distilleries of Scotland and its Hebrides. There are repetitive cycles where maintenance expenditures are cut in waves of “rationalisation”, where new owners pillage the cellars of maturing whisky for a quick buck, then move along, leaving a shell of a business that somebody new might like to tip money into. At any given moment, it seems there are more mothballed distilleries than working ones.

When Bruichladdich was owned by Jim Beam, its beautiful Victorian machinery was let deteriorate without use or maintenance, whilst its cellars took in a lot of used bourbon oak, which is made from the spongy Quercus alba and gives simple lollyshop flavours of caramel and coconut. But Andrew and some friends bought the run-down distillery in 2000, and immediately tracked down all the old stillmen and cellarhands that had been “let go”, and offered them jobs again. Together, they turned the grand old joint back on. Tired of working for the rationalising Japanese that had purchased Bowmore distillery, five kilometres across the green-grey Loch Indaal, master stillman Jim McEwen snubbed his nose at the considerable retirement monies soon due him after 37 years service, and came aboard at Bruichladdich, bringing his wife and daughters with him. They all work there now.


A fanciful connection can be made here: Brian Morrison was instrumental in selling Bowmore to the Japanese Suntory in 1994, which manages it through Morrison Bowmore Distillers Ltd. The name Morrison means son of the Moor; it is likely Moors, perhaps in the form of Coptic missionaries, first brought distilling to Islay and Ireland even before St Patrick’s arrival, as the alchemic cosmeticians of Araby and Egypt had perfected the alembic, or still, in ages past to manufacture eye-liner – al kohl - from antimony, or kohl, thus alcohol. If all you see of a lass is her eyes, they might just as well look as seductive as possible. Fynes Moryson, the 1590s travel writer, added three more calibrations for such observations when he recorded the three levels of distilling extant in the western isles in his day: usquebaugh, or simplex - twice distilled; trestarig, or composita (three times), and usquebaugh-baul or perfectissima (four times). Personally, I’d prefer to be a four times man in those rough old days of rough old spurruts, but I digress ...

“We have no public listing”, Andrew’s gurgling along across his row of glasses. “We’re independent. Of course we have investors we must look after, but we can make decisions quickly. We love whisky and we love creating different styles. We all feel a need to use our enthusiasm up ... like Jim came in said it’s not the money its the legacy he wanted to leave, and when I go to the distillery he’ll say ‘Sssh!’ and we sneak out into the warehouse and he’ll hand me a glass and say ‘now what do you think of that?’ ... it’s these clandestine visits to the warehouse where it all happens. It’s priceless! We’re having fun!”

While it gets plenty of sunshine, Islay’s incessantly windy and low, so it’s very difficult to grow grain: the crops blow over. “It’s a very, very windy place,” Andrew warns. “The wind’s never zero. The daily average is twenty miles per hour. But we’ve encouraged nine farmers to grow crops on the more sheltered slopes and we’re now the only Islay distillery using local barley. So we take a separate batch from each of those nine farms. It took us a long time to convince them, but it’s working very well. Over the centuries, sea sand gets blown up the slopes, over the underlying gneiss rocks, and we’re finding we get a lovely nutty flavour in the distillate from those sandier fields. We’re up to 60% Islay barley now, and take only 40% from the north of Scotland."


But prime amongst these effects of terroir is the peat, the damp wad of spongy, decaying vegetation that makes a bog. Peat can smell floral and pretty, as when it’s made from decaying heather, rich in blossom; or salty, acrid and iodine-rich, if it’s made from wind-blown seaweed soused in the froth of the ocean, full of dimethylsulphide from the decay of phytoplankton. All sorts of mosses, sedge plants, herbs and grasses can be there, and if the water is kept up, the bog can be many of thousands of years old. Peat taken from near the surface tends to be more elegant and floral in bouquet; the deeper one digs the older the peat, and the more like bitumen and lignite it is.

Peat is not essential in whisky-making,. But it sure adds allure and character. The soil is rife with its aromas, the brooks babble across it, and when cut and dried, it takes the place of firewood. So expert maltsters use peat smoke to dry and stabilise their sprouting barley, entrapping the sugars the grains develop to supply the energy for their first growth. You need sugar to ferment to alcohol, so when the dried grain is cleaned and milled, it goes into more local water, boiling in this case, to extract all the remaining starch from the rough flour in the mash tun, which has a perforated floor. During this process, amylase, a handy enzyme, forms, which converts much of the starch to maltose, a sugar. Once the resulting sweet liquor, called worts, strains through the bottom of the mash tun, it is drained into a big fermenting tank called a washback, where yeast is added.

The most violent organic critter I’ve encountered was a fermenting washback in Highland Park, on Orkney, where a huge oaken tank vibrated and shivered from the violently frothing ferment going on within, great spouts of spume squirting up through its slatted lid. At Bruichladdich, the ferment is a much more laid-back and gradual affair.

Once you have this rough ale, or wash, it’s time for the still, where that alcohol is concentrated. The wash goes into the sealed copper pot, where it’s gradually boiled, so its concentrated vapour rises through the neck of the still and dribbles down through a cooled copper condensing coil. This fairly weak distillate, called “low wine” is distilled again, much more carefully, and its first impure condensate - “heads” or “foreshots” – are diverted carefully until pure whisky beguns to run, when a “cut” is made. As the still empties, the exuding spirit gradually becomes more oily and impure, so another cut is made to divert these “feints”.

“Our stills were state of the art in 1881”, Andrew proudly says, moving to glass # 6. “In the old days, the barns were first built for other farming purposes, and because they were low-roofed, the stills were made low and squat to fit inside. Such low, fat stills tend to produce harsher flavours. Fortunately for us, the distillery was purpose-built, so there was room for much taller stills, and these give a lot more floral and fruity esters to our whisky.”


“So far we’ve been buying our malted barley from the north of Scotland,” Andrew says, “and getting our Islay barley malted there. But we’re planning to re-establish our malting barn as soon as we make a bit more money ... We even tried to bottle Islay water to have with your Bruichladdich but the EU authorities wouldn’t permit it – the peat was too intense for their regulations. God knows what they think the islanders drink!”

Apart from their morning skalk, and a few wee drams here and there through the day, of course the islanders drink lots of their unique, peaty water, the water that washes their brave barley fields, flavouring the grain, and sousing down into the peat that will eventually smoke it from below. It is all these wondrous things in a myriad of combinations that Andrew Gray and his brave bonnie crew are determined to squeeze back into Bruichladdich.

“And so we are”, he says, leaning across his diminishing supply in The Ex. “You should be able to find thirty-one different Bruichladdich malts in Australia now. You can make up your own mind how we’re doing. Come along for the ride. It’s going to be great fun.”

Bruichladdich 23.10.1
$80; 46% alcohol; cork; 93 points
This is the Resurrection Dram: the first distillation made after Bruichladdich changed hands. The distillery had been falling apart for six years, but the new team resurrected all the ancient machinery and made this highly-peated, bourbon cask malt, and dressed it in the colour of the ocean that washes the distillery’s foundations. The unique tall stills of Bruichladdich always give more fruity esters than others, and they’re here in abundance: banana and canteloupe mingle nicely with the caramel vanilla and coconut of the American barrels. It’s slightly oily, with an illusion of sweetness, and just softly phenolic. Perfect breakfast whisky.

Bruichladdich Ochdamh-mòr Octomore
$170; 63.5% alcohol; cork; 94 points
There are many (about 30) other, more conventional whiskies available from Bruichladdich, but I recommend this five year old for its sinister gunmetal punkiness. Jim McEwin ran his Harvey Brothers stills so slow that they didn’t need the condensing coils: this wickedness just trickled out. Those unique long-necked stills don’t produce the iodine medicinals that mark other Islay whisky, yet this is nevertheless the most peaty whisky known: 131 parts per million, as opposed to most of the Bruichladdichs, which sit around 3-5 ppm. The damned thing reeks of coconut and barley shortbreads, and then stacks on the butyric fatty acids: it’s like a 63.5% alcohol Amoak chardonnay with a full malo - stunning!

In Australia, Bruichladdich malts are available at Vintage Cellars and 1st Choice stores. These reviews, and many more Bruichladdich reports, will soon appear in a new whisky section of DRANKSTER.

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