I write this weeks review having just returned from a long weekend on the Isle of Islay. The island is not the most accessible of places… From Glasgow it is a two and a half hour drive followed by a two hour ferry. Whisky fans willing to make the journey will find their endeavours well rewarded however: there are eight distilleries, with possibly two more on the way, as well as a variety of fine establishments in which to enjoy the local produce.
I’ve visited Islay twice now and while there are many things I could recommend, a real standout on my trips have been my visits to Bruichladdich.
Coming to Islay out of season is not without it’s problems – ferries are fewer, distilleries operate on reduced hours and public transport is next to non existent but there are also some positives, one of which is the intimate nature of the service you receive. Our tour at Bruichladdich turned out to be us and our guide, which allowed for a very informal and enjoyable discussion as we made our way round. The experience was all the better for it and in complete contrast to some of the busier distilleries on the mainland.
The tour followed the usual format – a step by step walkthrough of the production areas… Malting, Mashing, Fermentation, Distillation and Maturation. Bruichladdich actually have their own bottling plant as well but unfortunately this was out of commission at the time. As we stood by the washbacks discussing the intricacies of fermentation I was even allowed to draw a sample of the wash to taste – something I’d always wanted to do and never been offered anywhere else so Bruichladdich have my thanks for letting me give it a go. After visiting the impressive still room with its antiquated equipment we were led to the warehouse, access to which is too often restricted on other tours. Here though we stood amongst hundreds of casks, breathing in the aromas of the traditional dunnage warehouse and all the wonders it contained.
The experience concluded with a sampling back at the shop and here, Bruichladdich really excel themselves. While I don’t want to give the impression that my enjoyment of a tour is defined by how much I’m given to drink at the end of it, the fact remains that Bruichladdich are the most generous pourers I have come across. To be fair, this is a trait of Islay distilleries in general… On the mainland tours tend to conclude with a quick dram and a nudge toward the gift shop but here things happen a little slower. You’re invited, even encouraged, to take your time and nowhere is this mentality more apparent than Bruichladdich. Staff here clearly take pride in their product and enjoy sharing the fruits of their labour. From the customer point of view, not only do you enjoy a great day out, you get to educate yourself on a wide range of the incredible spirits on offer here and if, like me, you like to make a purchase at the distillery, you have a better chance of making the right choice after sampling some of the options.
To be honest though, such was the quality on offer, I could have taken home a bottle of everything I tasted and been satisfied with it but sense (my wife) prevailed and I settled on the Port Charlotte Valinch ‘fill-your-own’ offering. This is something a lot of distilleries do now – instead of buying one of the core range you can fill your own bottle direct from cask. Giving you a single cask, natural, cask-strength whisky that’s limited to a few hundred bottles and isn’t available anywhere else.
The cask in question was No. 1615: a Grenache Blanc wine cask filled with heavily peated Port Charlotte. The whisky has aged for 10 years and comes in at a punchy 58.6%. The nose is a strange but fascinating combination of fruit and peat smoke – locked in a constant battle for your attention. There’s earthy Peat Smoke and Charcoal right from the off but with lots of fruit like Raisins, Sultanas, Blackcurrant and zesty Lime. On the palate there’s a burst of Lime, Orange, Blackcurrant and Raisins with some Dark Chocolate and then Peat Smoke, trying all the while to dominate but being held in check until the finish where it finally takes control. It resembles a sherry cask dram in many ways but with added zest and acidity – possibly from the wine influence?
The Scores: About the Scoring System…
Smell:20 / 20. One of the most interesting whiskies I’ve ever had the pleasure of nosing. Fruit dances in and out of thick clouds of pungent, earthy peat.
Taste: 20 / 20. Beautiful. I’ve tasted a lot of heavily peated drams but this is a real standout. The peat smoke is an ever present but only really dominates at the finish, allowing those fruit notes to come through nicely.
Value For Money: 7.5 / 10. This is the only slight criticism I can offer here. The bottle cost £75, which in itself is not expensive given the quality of the whisky and the ‘one-off’ nature of this particular expression but it irks me slightly that it comes in a 50cl bottle. I’d have been happy to pay a little more even, if the option of a full size bottle existed (across Lochindaal at Bowmore I bought a similar ‘fill your own’ in a 70cl bottle for £85). However, having said all that, this is a truly magnificent whisky and well worth a purchase in any bottle. I just wish I had more than 50cl of it to enjoy!
Total: 47.5 / 50. Delightful stuff. Up there with the best I’ve ever had.