Monday, May 25, 2015

Bruichladdich, Laddie Classic vs. Sherry Classic

Laddie Classic: single malt Scotch, Islay, 46%, $69 (typical 750ml price, 200ml pictured)
Sherry Classic: single malt Scotch, Islay, 46%, $60 (typical 750ml price, 200ml pictured)

Just a few weeks more than three years ago I returned from my epic inaugural journey to Scotland. It’s high time that I crack the seals on the last of the many bottles that accompanied me home from that adventure.

One minor regret of my visit to Islay was that I didn’t take an official tour of Bruichladdich. Unfortunately the timing just didn’t work out for a tour there in between the morning tasting tour at Bunnahabhain and getting to Kilchoman in time to have lunch before the café closed and catching their last tour of the day. But we were able to stop by Bruichladdich and have a pleasant visit at the gift shop where a few tasting samples were provided. I also took a brief, self-guided walking tour of the grounds which gave me the opportunity to see the huge variety of casks they had waiting to be filled; from new charred oak to barrels from a few different American distilleries to casks bearing the hallowed names of Bordeaux’s finest producers.

Unbeknownst to all but a few people at that time, the owners of Bruichladdich were in the midst of serious negotiations for the sale of the distillery. The end of an era was fast approaching. This post will take a look at the history of Bruichladdich up to the summer of 2012 and in the not-too-distant future I’ll follow up with another post examining the changes that have occurred under the new ownership.

Bruichladdich was built on the western shore of Islay’s Loch Indaal in 1881, directly across the water from Bowmore, by a trio of brothers. The Harvey brothers were the third generation of a distilling family, but their father had passed away in1862 when they boys were aged 15, 14 and 5. Their inheritance included an interest in the family’s two Glasgow distilleries, Yoker and Dundas Hills, which was managed for them by two of their uncles.

The brothers decided that with a third distillery they would be able to break into the blending business and establish their own brands (Dundas Hills was a malt distillery and Yoker was primarily a grain distillery, but also produced some malt whisky). With the three brothers and two of their uncles as major investors, along with about a dozen minor investors, they were able to raise the capital to build Bruichladdich as a modern distillery using concrete and cavity-wall construction, both cutting-edge at the time. This was also Islay’s first purpose built distillery, all of the others on the island up to that point had grown out of agricultural operations and started off as barns and other farm buildings that were gradually expanded and added on to.

The arrangement to have Yoker and Dundas Hills (which were set up as separate companies) operate in concert with Bruichladdich and for there to be a blending and bottling business that would use the whisky of all three was only agreed upon verbally by the investors. Unfortunately, before the new distillery was even complete, there was a falling out between the family members, pitting two of the brothers against the third and one of the uncles. With no legally binding agreement in writing, the blending and bottling business never materialized, and the three distilleries were operated independently of each other. The Distiller’s Company Limited (the predecessor to Diageo) controlled the market and pricing for Islay single malt, which was all sold to blenders at the time. The new and struggling Bruichladdich couldn’t sell their whisky for a high enough price to be profitable was perpetually flirting with bankruptcy. When they tried to bottle their own whisky to boost profits, DCL ruthlessly threatened to make sure they got no further orders from blenders.

The distillery ceased operations in 1907, lacking the capital to continue. They were able to sell much of the whisky that was in the warehouses to a Glasgow broker for a reduced rate in 1913. That put them on better financial ground, but they weren’t able to resume distilling until after WWI, in 1919. Bruichladdich had a good run in the early 1920’s, but sales dropped off again in 1926 and production was stopped from 1929 through 1935. Finally, in 1937, the Harvey family was persuaded to sell the distillery.

Over the next three decades Bruichladdich changed hands several times, and was silent during WWII, from 1940 to 1945. When new owners, AB Grant, took over in 1960 they doubled capacity by switching from using the traditional floor maltings to buying commercially malted barley. This change coincided with Bruichladdich switching from heavily peated malt to unpeated malt. Some people like to speculate that Bruichladdich was never heavily peated and they look to the description of the distillery in Alfred Barnard’s 1886 book as evidence. He noted that the malt was dried only with peat in his description of every other Islay distillery at the time. But rather than stating that the malt was dried with coke (refined coal) as he did for other distilleries on the mainland, he simply neglected to mention how it was dried. A little research will quickly confirm that Bruichladdich was indeed heavily peated from 1881 to 1960 (or possibly 1961).

In 1968 the distillery was sold to Invergordon, who expanded production in 1975 by adding a second set of stills. After a management buyout from its parent company in 1988, Invergordon was floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1990. Whyte & Mackay, which was bought by Jim Beam Brands in 1990, began a hostile takeover bid for Invergordon in 1991. They finally succeeded after two years, taking control of the company in October of 1993. Whyte & Mackay, already owning a handful of malt distilleries, viewed Bruichladdich as surplus and she was mothballed in December of 1993.

The seeds of Bruichladdich’s salvation had been planted years earlier. Mark Reynier, a London wine merchant, had long been enamored with the single malts of Bruichladdich, but received a rather chilly reception upon attempting to visit the distillery while it was closed in 1989. Being a tenacious sort, he resolved to buy the distillery and save it. His annual inquiries to the parent company were met with the same negative response year after year. But that changed in 2000; as Beam Brands was in the lead up to selling off Whyte & Mackay in a management buyout the next year, they opened up to the idea of selling Bruichladdich separately before that deal went down.

Reynier was able to amass 50 investors who pulled together £6.5 million, securing ownership of the defunct distillery on December 19, 2000. He built a solid team, recruiting Jim McEwan to run the distillery. McEwan had been with Bowmore for 38 years, having started there in 1963 as an apprentice cooper at the age of 15. Even though he was only two years from retirement and a pension, McEwan had actually waxed poetic about his dream to restart Bruichladdich back in 1997. He probably didn’t take long to decide to accept the job offer from Mark Reynier. Many of the former members of the production staff came back, and with their intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the distillery, she was back up and running on the 29th of May, 2001.

With the distillery having been silent for seven and a half years, that meant that supplies of Bruichladdich’s flagship 10 year old would start to dry up just two and a half years after the new owners took over and it wouldn’t be seen again until mid 2011. Reynier and his team would have to make the most of what was still resting in the warehouses when they bought the place if they were going to make it through the first ten years. In addition to the gap in distilling, not all production years were represented in the stocks that came with the place. They had whisky from 1965, 1966, 1968, 1970, 1972, 1974, 1975 and 1977, then nothing from 1978 through 1983. Much of the whisky they had from 1984 through 1993 had been entered into rather low quality casks as it had been destined for the blending hall. There was also two weeks worth of production (peated to 28 ppm) from 1998 that was carried out by the team from Jura distillery.

But the new Bruichladdich was full of energy and imagination. A steady stream of new releases and one-off bottlings brought them plenty of coverage on blogs and in magazine reviews, not to mention expanding their shelf presence in the retail setting. Their aquamarine tins and labels, inspired by the distillery’s view of Loch Indaal on a sunny day, were eye-catching. Mark Reynier used his wine industry connections to procure casks from some of France’s most reputable wine producers. They were used to rejuvenate the whisky that had been in those tired old hogsheads since the early 1990’s. Having the names of Bordeaux’s most prestigious regions on the label along with 16 year age statements was a huge selling point.

There were hits and there were misses. The Legacy series showcased the finest of the oldest stocks on hand. The Links series paid homage to Scotland’s love of golf. Of course there were also some younger whiskies, like Rocks and Waves, which were sold a bit before their time behind a smokescreen of marketing. Some criticized the distillery for putting out too many different bottlings and losing their identity in the process. They did tighten up the selection as they moved in on the 10 year mark, and focused more on the fact that they were using either Scottish barley or Islay barley exclusively and able to showcase the terroir of the distillery.

In spite of some tough times along the way, including three cash calls to their investors, the new Bruichladdich made it through the first decade and released their new flagship 10 year old in mid 2011. Upon visiting the distillery shop less than a year later, I was confronted by many of those special releases that had gotten them there.

I’ll be perfectly honest though, I chose the two that I did primarily because they were available in 200 ml bottles and it was going to be much easier to fit them in my luggage.

Laddie Classic:
This bottling seems to have been available for a stretch of about four years, roughly 2009 – 2013. The description on the distillery website only states that it is a multi-vintage vatting, aged exclusively in bourbon barrels. I came across a few reports online that it was a vatting whiskies in the 5-7 year old and 18-20 year old ranges. That would straddle the years of non-production, and it’s supported by the description on the tin: A union of spirits distilled over the last decades. It is labeled as Edition_01. There was never an Edition_02, but perhaps that was represented by the Classic Laddie, Scottish Barley, which followed.
The dark golden amber color is richer than I expected. On the nose it shows density and freshness at the same time. Slightly soapy floral notes and malty aromas show first, with tree fruit, heather, honey and nuttiness lurking in the background. It’s fairly full bodied on the palate and has good complexity. Clover honey and moderate floral notes are balanced by vanilla, oak and subtle citrus. Some nice spice notes come to the fore early on the finish, but a youthful aspect really shows through on the later finish, with young, green-malt notes lingering on the back of the tongue as everything else fades away. I don’t really like where this one goes at the very end, but overall it’s kind of grown on me through the course of a few successive tastings.

Sherry Classic:
Again, we have a non-age stated Bruichladdich that is described as multi-vintage, but this one has been finished in sherry casks after starting in bourbon barrels. It also seems to have appeared in 2009, and it too is no longer available. The distillery description mentions that its average age is 14 years, which would suggest that it’s a vatting of pre and post-closure whiskies. I came across one review stating that the finishing period was 18 months. Between the description on Bruichladdich’s website and the information on the label, I was able to learn that the sherry casks were a mix of Fino, Palo Cortado and Manzanilla casks which were sourced from Bodegas Fernando de Castilla, and had held their “antique” single-solera sherries.
The color is actually about the same as the Laddie Classic, maybe just a touch darker. The nose is even more expressive on this one; dense and chewy with layers of stewed and baked fruits building on top of the malty backdrop and accented by mulling spices and a hint of brine. It’s at least as full bodied as its cohort. On the palate it shows more depth, with an array of dark, dry sherry fruits added to the mix. Similar spice notes emerge as it moves into the finish. While the lingering sherry fruit seems to cover any youthful character, I’m also picking up some subtle tropical fruit at the end. It could show better integration, but it has more depth than the Laddie Classic while being absent of its immature ending.

When I think back to that day at the distillery shop, amongst the many bottles on display, one caught my eye. It was a 30-something year old Springbank from Murray McDavid that had been distilled in the late 1960’s. It was priced out of my reach at about £400 ($650), but I knew that was actually a very reasonable price. Springbank aficionados have an almost mythical regard for bottlings distilled in that decade, and releases from the distillery older than 18 years had become very rare (the retail price on 21 year Springbank had recently jumped from $200 to $600).

I knew there was some sort of tie between Bruichladdich and Murray McDavid but I couldn’t recall the details (Mark Reynier had actually founded the independent bottler back in 1996), so asked one of the girls who was working in the shop. She hesitated a bit, choosing her words carefully and giving kind of a vague answer. I don’t quite remember how she phrased it, but it was something along the lines of saying that there was a connection, but the situation was changing. While that statement seemed curious, I didn’t give it too much thought at the time.

Three months later, when it was officially announced that Remy Cointreau had acquired Bruichladdich, I thought “ah, she must have known about the impending sale and assumed that Mark Reynier would be keeping Murray McDavid” (the independent bottler business actually ended up being included in the sale). While researching this post however, I learned that while the deal was being negotiated, the management team had floated the cover story that they were in talks to sell Murray McDavid so they could focus more on the core business. That was a pretty brilliant move to keep a lid on things until they were ready to let the world know.

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