stats: single malt Scotch, Islay, 10 years old, 46%, $60
In the spring of 2012 Remy Cointreau made an offer for the Bruichladdich distillery that its Board couldn’t refuse. Mark Reynier, the London wine merchant who had orchestrated the previous purchase of the distillery, was actually the only board member to vote against the deal. The group of investors he assembled late in 2000 had put up £6.5 million to save the distillery. It’s no surprise that eleven and a half years later the majority of the Board voted in favor of the £58 million offer from the French company. The only immediate change that the new owners made was to relieve Reynier of his duty as Managing Director, replacing him with his business partner Simon Coughlin who had been acting as Operations Director.
In a recent post I covered the history of Bruichladdich from 1881 up to the 2012 sale. Now I’m going to take a look at how things have changed since that point and at what might have been if Reynier had remained at the helm.
The sale of Bruichladdich to Remy was officially announced July 23rd, 2012. Other than the immediate departure of Mark Reynier nothing seemed to change right off the bat. Then, in February of 2013, the distillery announced that it would move to double production.
Finally, in September of 2013 we started to see some major changes in the Bruichladdich lineup. There seemed to be a shift towards more emphasis on Scottish barley and Islay barley bottlings (for all three ranges: unpeated Bruichladdich, heavily peated Port Charlotte and super heavily peated Octomore), all of which were non-age stated. Some of the other offerings, such as Rocks, went away permanently.
About a month before the official announcement of the distillery sale, Bruichladdich announced that starting in August 2012 it would expand into the Travel Retail market, something it had mostly avoided up to that point. This news went largely unnoticed, but clearly foreshadowed the sale to Remy, who had extensive experience with Travel Retail. When the bigger changes started to take place late in 2013, most of the remaining limited production Bruichladdich bottlings became Travel Retail exclusives. These included The Organic Scottish Barley, the vintage dated Bere Barley bottlings, the cask strength releases of Port Charlotte, and the Cask Evolution bottlings of Octomore. Looking at their website today, the only specialty bottling that seems to be available outside of Travel Retail is the 23 year old Bruichladdich Black Art 4, 1990.
But the most significant change and the one that really stoked the ire of a lot of Bruichladdich fans was the discontinuation of the flagship 10 year old. A big part of the problem was how the situation was handled. There was no official announcement; it just mysteriously disappeared from the website. Rumors started that it had been eliminated from the lineup, while others claimed that it was going on allocation with a price increase. By the spring of 2014 it was clear that The Laddie Ten would be a distillery-only bottling, if it was available at all. This was kind of a big deal. The release of the new 10 year old in 2011 was a huge milestone for the team that had saved Bruichladdich. It not only represented their survival and the fact that they were now thriving, it was seen as the bottling that now defined the house style. After years of so many wildly varying limited releases, some wondered if the distillery had lost its way; the new flagship bottling had been the answer to those concerns.
While many are bemoaning the changes that are happening under Remy ownership, some degree of change was inevitable even if the distillery had continued under the old regime. Bruichladdich’s lineup had already tightened with fewer one-off bottlings in the years leading up to the sale and that trend was likely to continue. The company’s terroir driven philosophy also seems to have stayed intact with the change of ownership. After convincing Islay farmers to grow malting barley in 2004 for the first time since World War 1, they now have at least 10 different farms participating. We’ve only seen releases from three of them so far, but with Islay Barley still looking like an important part of the core lineup I think we’ll see that bottling rotate through various farms and vintages.
In addition to Remy being well established in the Travel Retail network, they also have a massive worldwide distribution network and very deep pockets. Under its previous owners Bruichladdich certainly would have continued to grow and expand production, but at a much slower pace. Remy had the resources to quickly double production and the distribution infrastructure to get that whisky to market. But even with a range of mostly non-age stated bottlings, it’s still going to take about six years for the production increase to show up as a supply increase. The Laddie Ten bottling was clearly a victim of this situation.
Interestingly, Mark Reynier expressed his disdain for the constraints of age statements in a post-sale interview that was published in The New Yorker in early 2013. But at the same time I think he understood the importance of age statements from the consumer’s perspective and recognized what the flagship 10 year old represented for the Bruichladdich brand. It would not have been discontinued under the old ownership, but they also weren’t capable of growing quickly enough to necessitate such a move.
If the distillery had not been sold, the changes made to their lineup wouldn’t have been too different from what we have seen over the last three years, in my opinion. I do doubt, however, that any of the bottlings would have been relegated to Travel Retail exclusivity. A recent post on the Bruichladdich website talks about experiments started two years ago (a year after the sale), where malt from different regions of mainland Scotland had been separated into 100 ton batches that were distilled individually. It certainly seems that Bruichladdich is continuing on the same trajectory that was established by its previous owners.
Mark Reynier’s end at Bruichladdich was abrupt. He had a vision and an endgame that went through 2014. At that point he planned to potentially sell the distillery but hoped they could float shares on a secondary exchange to raise capital and provide liquidity to the original shareholders, or be in a position to provide dividends to those shareholders and stick it out as a true independent. We’ll never know what the future of Bruichladdich would have looked like under the latter two situations, but I don’t think the difference from what we see today would be as great as others seem to think.
It’s also hard to say what the longer term future will look like for Bruichladdich. I’d like to think that The Laddie Ten will eventually make a return. Perhaps stocks are even being laid down with a view to someday producing older age stated bottlings. What we see from Bruichladdich 10 to 20 years from now may very well depend on how strong demand is as the whisky made after the doubling of production comes to age.
The Laddie Ten:
The nose has a rich maltiness with many secondary aromas contributing to its beautiful complexity. Gentle floral and grassy notes are intertwined with a coastal contribution of pebbles and sea spray as well as a very subtle hint of peat smoke. On the palate the malty backdrop mingles nicely with the bourbon barrel influence, which adds vanilla and toasted oak to the mix. Delicate notes of beach grass and minerality add complexity. It gracefully moves into the finish where a touch of spice and barely noticeable whisper of peat smoke keep everything in balance. There is a bit of heat on the mid palate that takes a few sips to get acclimatized to, but it’s still quite lovely overall.