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The Whisky Island
Of all the Hebridean islands, Islay stands alone in its proliferation of whisky distilleries. This is no random occurrence, however, multiple factors combined to make this small, rugged island the perfect location for the production of uisge beatha.
Islay’s position on Scotland’s Atlantic coast allows for a generous supply of rainfall, giving any would-be distiller an ample and reliable water supply. The island is also blessed with thousands of years accumulation of peat, so no shortage of fuel either.
Finally, Islay is perhaps the most fertile of the Hebrides and arable farming has long had a place on her landscape. Barley then, was to be found in abundance and this seems to have been the case for quite some time. On the back of a 1773 map of Scotland is a scribbled note about the Hebrides, attributed to famous cartographer and father of the modern atlas, Abraham Ortelius…
‘The greatest and most renowned is Ila, fertile for grain, and rich in minerals.’
How whisky first came to the island is a mystery, though some conclude that the monks who travelled to Scotland from Ireland brought more than just Catholicism with them. The MacBeatha, scholars and physicians to the Lords of the Isles landed on Islay at Kilchoman and set up home. Perhaps it was they who brought the knowledge with them.
In any case, whisky has been a central part of island life for centuries and for almost as long, the authorities have sought to make money from it. The English government imposed a duty on malt in order to pay for their war with France but with the Act of Union in 1707, those same taxes had to be rolled out across the whole of Great Britain.
Naturally, this was met with great hostility across much of Scotland. When Glasgow MP Daniel Campbell voted in favour of the English Malt Tax in 1725, the city erupted in riots and an angry mob ransacked his house. In a peculiar twist Campbell used the £6000 in compensation, paid to him by the city, to buy Islay where his descendant, Walter Frederick Campbell, would play a key role in the development of the local whisky industry.
Bruichladdich distillery meanwhile was founded much later in 1881, at the height of the blended Scotch boom. The Harvey Brothers owned two other sites at Yoker and Dundashill in Glasgow and saw Bruichladdich as the next step in the expansion of their empire. With the ability to produce both malt and grain across their three distilleries, the brothers hoped to make their blending company almost completely self-sufficient.
However, Bruichladdich was a distillery with a unique identity. Unlike its island neighbours, the spirit was produced from unpeated malt in order to please the blenders but this placed it in direct competition with the lighter, fruitier Speyside whiskies and the business suffered as a result. Passing from owner to owner, the distillery saw many closures, most recent of which, came at the hands of Whyte & MacKay in 1993.
After spending the rest of the decade in silence, the distillery was finally bought by a group of investors led by Mark Reynier. Under his leadership, the company began to foster a reputation for an rebellious attitude. With a belief in terroir central to the project and an adventurous approach to both cask maturation and marketing, contrasting with a dedication to the ‘old fashioned way’ on the distillery floor itself, Bruichladdich has gone on to become one of the most consistently exciting brands on the shelf.
Bruichladdich use 100% Scottish barley in the production of their malt and often experiment with the flavour impact made by grains from different regions. At the forefront of this, stands their ‘Islay Barley’ series, of which this 2011 vintage is the latest release. Using barley grown at six different sites across the island, head distiller Adam Hannett has created a single malt, matured for 6 years in a combination of ex-bourbon and ex-wine casks and bottled at 50% abv. The Islay Barley 2011 vintage retails for around £60 a bottle.
Smell: Digestive Biscuits & Oatcakes, Vanilla, Fresh Fruit – Apple, Lemon & zingy Lime, light Briney note… Sea Spray on a Stony Beach.
Taste: Chewy Toffee & Vanilla, Sea Salt & Brine, White Pepper and Oak Spice, warm Malty finish. Water brings soft green fruits – Apple, Pear etc
Thoughts: £60 isn’t cheap but in the case of this Bruichladdich it will buy you a well-rounded, barley-centric dram, given a little extra zest by the use of ex-wine casks in the maturation.
It’s an interesting dram that manages to successfully combine a chewy bourbon character with acidic wine notes, whilst still allowing the Islay barley to take centre stage.
If the whisky featured in this review has caught your eye, you can buy it from Master of Malt here. Please be aware that as an affiliate I can be paid a small commission should you make a purchase after following a link from my page. The whisky is also available from several other excellent retailers.
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