I’m writing this weeks blog having just returned from a holiday to the Isle of Islay and as well as being rested and refreshed I’m also inspired and excited by some of the lovely drams I’ve tasted over the last few days.
Islay is not the most accessible of places… It’s a two and a half hour drive from Glasgow followed by a two hour ferry (though there is a quicker but more expensive flight). However, for whisky geeks it’s a journey well worth making: there are eight working distilleries, at least two more on the way and the former Port Ellen distillery – now Diageo’s maltings – to explore.
This was my second trip to the island and there’s many things I could recommend but one of the standouts on both of my trips so far has been a visit to Bruichladdich Distillery.
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 just us and our guide which led to a really informal chat as we made our way round and the experience was all the better for it.
The tour followed the usual format – a step by step walk through each production area… Malting, Mashing, Fermentation, Distillation and Maturation. Bruichladdich even have their own bottling plant but unfortunately this was out of commission at the time. As we were talked through the Fermentation stage we were offered a sample of the wash bubbling away in the washbacks, something I’d always been curious about and never had the chance to try before so that got the thumbs up from me. After visiting the still room we made our way over to the warehouse, access to which is all too often restricted on tours. Here though we stood amongst the casks breathing in the aromas of a traditional dunnage warehouse.
The tour concluded with a sampling back at the shop. This is where Bruichladdich really excel themselves, I don’t want to give the impression that my enjoyment of a tour is defined by how much I’m given to drink but it has to be said that of all the distilleries I’ve visited, these guys are the most generous. To be fair, this seems to be 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 slowly. You’re invited, even encouraged, to take your time and nowhere is this mentality more apparent than Bruichladdich. The drams here seem to keep coming so long as you are willing to receive them. Of course this makes perfect business sense as well – I’m more likely to buy something I’ve sampled and I’m more likely to be satisfied with my purchase if I’ve compared it to whatever else is available. Of course, for the seller there’s the added bonus of each dram eroding my pre-agreed spending limit!
To be honest, I could have taken home a bottle of everything I tasted that day but sense (my wife) prevailed and I opted for one of the Valinch series of ‘fill-your-own’ bottlings. This is something a lot of distilleries do now – instead of buying one of the core releases you can fill your own bottle direct from the cask. So what you get is a single cask, natural colour, non-chill filtered, cask strength whisky that isn’t available anywhere else and is limited to a few hundred bottles.
The cask in question was No. 1615: a Grenache Blanc wine cask filled with heavily peated Port Charlotte Spirit. The whisky is 10 years old and comes in at a kicking 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 there’s 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 – presumably from the white wine.
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 fruits to come through nicely.
Value For Money: 7.5 / 10. This is the only slight criticism I can offer here. It cost me £75 for this, which in itself is not a problem given the quality of the whisky and the ‘one-off’ nature of it but it irks me slightly that it comes in a 500ml bottle. A full 700ml bottle isn’t too much to ask for at the price. I’d even have been happy to pay more if the option of a larger bottle existed (it’s worth noting that just across Loch Indaal at Bowmore I bought a similar ‘fill your own’ in a 700ml bottle for £85). However, having said all that, the whisky is magnificent and well worth a purchase in any sized bottle. I just wish I had more than 500ml of it to enjoy.
Total: 47.5 / 50. Delightful stuff, smell and taste are up there with the best I’ve ever had and only the annoying 500ml bottle lets it down.