Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Bruichladdich, Legacy Series Five, 33 Aged Years

stats: single malt Scotch, Islay, 40.9%, $180

I lost my best friend today. When you’re a socially inept recluse with a fear of relationships, a wayward black cat can come to mean an awful lot to you. She was on my lap nuzzling and purring incessantly while I wrote much of what has been posted here. She’d even occasionally poke her nose into my glass to see what all of the fuss was about; and that would come with a rude awakening if I was tasting something from the more pungent side of Islay. It’s not easy to type with a twelve pound cat draped across your forearms and it’s tough to complete a thought with claws digging into your wrist for a little more attention. Those are distractions I’d be thrilled to tolerate as I write this.

My views on the grey market (i.e. personal sales) of whisky have changed over the years. I originally thought of those who engaged in it as vultures. Then, as I sat in a pub on Islay three years ago and mentioned tasting Ardbeg Kildalton on a distillery tour, the bartender asked how it tasted and said that she had a bottle but didn’t want to open it as it was one of her “investment bottles”. That altered my outlook a bit and I thought maybe it was okay to view special bottles of whisky as a commodity. Perhaps I could use my whisky knowledge to put a little money in my pocket. Upon returning to the states I quickly snapped up an Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist and a Bruichladdich Legacy V - 33 year old, with the intention of flipping them and doubling my money. Shortly thereafter eBay closed their loophole on spirits sales and the most accessible illicit whisky market was gone.

Once I was stuck with those bottles, my frustration gradually turned to gratitude. These are special whiskies, meant to be enjoyed and cherished, not bought and sold for the sake of profiteering. They are links to the past; bottles of liquid history; ties to a less complicated time for the industry.

I almost opened the 33 year Bruichladdich on the most recent New Years Eve, but it just didn’t feel like the right night. I chose to crack into my bottle of Big Peat that night instead. This is incredibly ironic as I reached out to the Big Peat when in need of an emotional crutch this morning, but upon further reflection concluded that only my most treasured of unopened whiskies was befitting of a toast to my abruptly departed feline companion.

When Bruichladdich was rescued and restarted in mid 2001 it had been mothballed for nearly eight years. The new owners needed cash flow and their greatest asset was in the warehouses. The distillery had produced heavily peated malt up until 1960, before following the industry trend of the time and switching over to very lightly peated malt. The heavily peated spirit was all long gone, but the warehouses did contain stocks from 1964 up to 1994, as well a two weeks worth of production (moderately peated, at 28 ppm) that was carried out in 1998 by the staff of the Jura distillery.

The character of the whisky began to change when a second set of stills were introduced in 1975 and production levels were increased. Although much of the original Victorian era equipment remains in use at Bruichladdich to this day, it is likely that the period from 1975 to 1979 is when fermentation times were shortened, worm tubs were replaced with modern condensers and the stills were changed over from direct fire to steam heating.

After 1980 much of the spirit was entered into marginal quality casks. There was plenty of good whisky spanning 1964 to 1998 in the warehouses, but the new owners had to pick and choose casks wisely. This is a big part of why wine cask finishes were so important for the reawakened Bruichladdich and why she put forth such a wide range of limited edition bottlings in the early 2000’s.

The Legacy series bottlings were released annually from 2002 through 2007 and represent some of the oldest stocks that were in the warehouses, from 1964 to 1972. Release Five was bottled in September of 2006 and is made up of bourbon barrels and sherry casks from 1972 and 1968. It was a limited release of just 1690 bottles, and it’s quite shocking that I came across several of them on a store shelf in the summer of 2012 at their suggested retail price. The few Legacy series bottlings that I see for sale now are typically in the $400 to $500 range.

The nose is expressive; wood, leather, dark stewed sherry fruits and a touch of dry spice. Putting a drop on the finger and letting it dry brings out coconut aromas and more complex spice notes. It’s full bodied, but not to the point of being clumsy. There’s a lovely evolution of flavors. Biscuits and Dundee Cake lead up front, followed by coconut and subtle tropical fruit in the background. A briny coastal quality comes through on the mid palate as well. It becomes more spice driven as it moves into the finish; cinnamon, teaberry and delicate mulling spices all do their part. It turns drier as it progresses and becomes more woody as the spice notes fade, but not to the point of being detrimental. Its character is dark and brooding, but graceful and complex too. The density of flavor is impressive for 40.9% abv, but I guess that is the difference between the alcohol level coming down through three decades of evaporation and a younger whisky that has just had water added to it.

Old whisky, like friendships and life itself, should be savored and cherished, not traded or hoarded as a trophy. Cheers Frida.

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