Centuries-old Islay Scotch producer is looking to change how whisky is consumed now
Images provided by Bruichladdich
On the island of Islay, west of the Scottish Highlands, there currently sit eight distilleries of Scotch whisky. Of them, Bruichladdich is the only one to restrict a significant portion of its sourcing, distillation and maturation to the island. By every definition of the matter, Bruichladdich embodies everything about Islay, and they’re proud of it, too. Known for its dangerous ocean swells, fast currents and unsavoury weather, it takes a certain kind of person to withstand the temperamental nature of Islay. But to those who work at the Bruichladdich distillery, these conditions are ones that are embraced because, combined together, they help create the perfect environment for crafting the bold Scotch whisky so characteristic of the brand.
The Bruichladdich distillery produces three major Scotch whiskies: the unpeated namesake Bruichladdich, the heavily peated Port Charlotte and the extremely peated Octomore. In the early aughts, the once-dormant Bruichladdich distillery (originally built in 1881 and considered a marvel of Scottish engineering at the time) was reignited by a group of investors, including current CEO Simon Coughlin, who believed in balancing the quality of the heritage liquid with a forward-thinking view of what whisky should be. “We respect the past but we’re not driven by it. Fundamentally, we’ve got this great history. We haven’t changed much. We’ve just put back the bits that have been missing for many, many years,” states Coughlin. He describes the brand as ‘intellectual.’ Information about everyone from the farmers to the distillery workers is available on the brand’s website, and a code featured on every bottle can be traced to obtain a breakdown of every bottle’s unique characteristics.
The distillery begins its process with the barley seed, not grain. Entrenching themselves deep into their commitment to the land, Bruichladdich only uses Scottish barley (after all, it’s called ‘Scotch’ for a reason) as a way to honour their craft, but also support Islay farmers. Factors like the strain, the region where the barley is grown and the type of field can heavily influence the quality of the finished product at the distillery. “If you want to make the best, you have to start with the best,” Coughlin adds.
None of the factory’s operational equipment is run by computers, either. The distillery makes ample use of traditional processes by sustaining artisanal craftsmanship in the region, a result of knowledge that has been continually passed down through each generation. “The jobs that used to be there in the distilleries are gone. There used to be individual maltings, coopers, more mashmen, stillmen and distillers. In terms of the operation and what’s happening [at competitor's distilleries], it’s electronic. They’ve got empty buildings, some of them look a little sad,” says Coughlin. In comparison, 25 percent of those employed at Bruichladdich are less than 25 years old.
As with any technique loyal to history, the process from start to finish is slow. Distilling is gravity-fed instead of being forced for efficiency, and flavours are born out of a fermentation process that takes its time in giving Bruichladdich its signature characteristics. Of course, of extreme importance are the types of casks used throughout the process. The wood pedigree is something that Bruichladdich takes pride in, with a diverse provenance of casks that have been sourced everywhere from Europe’s finest wineries, to the Neusiedler See in Austria, to the sherry bodegas of Jerez. “You can’t compromise on one thing. If you compromise on the wood, you might as well compromise on the barley because you’re taking something great and losing all that individuality.” The result? A high-quality, pure Scotch that truly is the pinnacle of excellence and Scottish tradition.