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Bruichladdich is a funny distillery in some ways. Despite being founded in 1881, its current mythos really began when it was taken over in 2000 by Mark Reynier and Simon Coughlin of Murray McDavid. Under the expert guidance of Jim McEwan and former manager Duncan McGillivray, the distillery was transformed from a crumbling antique into the home of one of the most beloved single malts in the world.
Due to the global coronavirus pandemic this years edition of the Islay Festival, or Fèis Ìle, had to be cancelled, but has since re-emerged in virtual format with many of the island’s distilleries planning new events and digital sales of their festival bottlings. Bruichladdich were due to host their open day on Sunday May 24th but will now take things online instead with the day featuring everything from tasting sessions to live music, bringing a little bit of Islay magic into homes all over the world.
Ahead of the festival Bruichladdich saw fit to release a special bottling, not quite the one they had originally planned for the occasion but something that would at least satisfy the demand from their eager fanbase. To their credit they opted to sell by ballot, with each successful entry being allocated a single bottle, a move that should have cut down on the amount of bottles appearing on auction sites. Sadly of course a few have nevertheless been spotted for sale at something like three times the price but it seems there isn’t an awful lot more than can be done to prevent this kind of flipping. So long as people are willing to pay crazy money for a bottle of whisky, others will try to make a quick buck.
Personally I rarely get involved with such in demand limited edition bottles. First of all, I don’t go to the Islay Festival, I much prefer to go when the island is a little quieter but even when distillers release special edition bottlings online I can’t really be bothered to take part in the feeding frenzy that will inevitably lead to the temporary demise of the website and prompt a flurry of irate social media posts from people who can’t get a bottle.
It’s a strange way for a consumer to behave. Distilleries should be courting us, trying to get us interested in their products but instead we whisky drinkers are online, positively fuming that they won’t take our money fast enough. The modern whisky drinker it seems has plenty of disposable cash to go with their lack of patience, and any modicum of dignity was apparently abandoned some time ago.
As consumers we put ourselves at a disadvantage through such actions. How long does a business stay motivated to produce a quality product when they know people will throw money at it regardless? Of course Bruichladdich have always seemed to put plenty of care into their whisky and their customer service has been excellent in my experience but I do wish we whisky fans could take a step back and see these limited editions for the extravagant luxury they are and stop viewing them as an essential, or worse, an entitlement.
You would think an event like the coronavirus outbreak would have people re-evaluating what is really important in life. Instead, there are reports of people attempting to book accommodation on Islay in order to access the limited edition bottlings, risking not only their own lives but those of the island community they supposedly love. For the record, Islay is closed, the distilleries are closed and no bottles are being sold there. No accommodation bookings are being taken and the Ferries will not let you on. Stay. At. Home.
I get it of course, the fear of missing out* on such releases is strong and nobody wants to be the one that didn’t get a bottle but there’s just so much good whisky out there. Missing out on one should be seen as an opportunity to buy another instead. That was the attitude with which I approached the ballot for Bruichladdich’s 16 year old Port Charlotte. Should my name come out the virtual hat I would have an opportunity to buy an interesting bottle of whisky. If not, I would save £150 for the next bottle that caught my eye – God knows there are plenty that do. Under no circumstances would I allow myself to be sucked in to the notion that this bottle is somehow unmissable. That kind of thinking leads people to seek out the flippers, paying three times what the bottle was originally worth, just so they can be part of the “I got one” club. On this occasion I was one of the lucky ones of course (if being allowed to spend £150 on a single bottle of whisky can be considered lucky) and my purchase showed up a few days later. Kudos to Bruichladdich for the unbelievably prompt delivery, I ordered Friday and got it Tuesday.
*The Whisky Sleuth wrote an excellent piece on the “fear of missing out” over on malt-review.com. Check it out here.
The 16 year old single malt was created from three “parcels” of casks. Parcel one was made up of refill hogsheads that were recasked into first fill bourbon in 2012. Parcel two began life in first fill bourbon before being transferred to sauternes casks in 2013 and parcel three was a combination of ex-sherry, ex-bourbon and virgin oak casks. 3000 bottles were released at an abv of 55.8%, priced at the rather eye-watering sum of £150.
Smell: Honey & lemon. Agave syrup. Apple juice. Grilled pineapple. Orange marmalade. Caramel toffee. Pine needles. Bacon and floral smoke.
Taste: Pleasing salinity. Caramel. Honey. Apple. Mango and pineapple. Shortbread. Oak. Leather. Black pepper. Bacon. Undercurrent of bonfire smoke.
Value for Money: Yes well… there’s not much that can be said here really. There’s an argument that whisky is worth exactly what people are willing to pay for it and that is certainly a valid point of view but there’s no doubting the price here is rather steep for a 16 year old malt. Still, no-one forced me to buy it and it has brought me considerable satisfaction since it arrived ten days ago.
It wouldn’t surprise me if some were a little disappointed with this. Not because the whisky is poor, it most certainly isn’t. It’s just that people tend to expect full-time sherry maturation or dominant cask finishes with these limited editions and the Port Charlotte 16 is more nuanced than that. It’s all about the complex interplay between the spirit and a broad array of cask types. The resultant dram is a bit of a slow burner: the smoke has mellowed over its sixteen years but remains an ever present across both nose and palate and the whole affair is incredibly well balanced. Does that make it good value for money? Maybe not, but at least those who decide to treat themselves to one of the oldest Port Charlotte’s ever bottled will be rewarded with a dram to remember.
Learn more about Bruichladdich here.