Monday, July 27, 2015

Bruichladdich, Islay Barley, 2007 Rockside Farm

stats: single malt Scotch, Islay, 6 years old, 50%, $65

When a distillery finds itself under new ownership, it’s not uncommon for some changes to occur regarding the methods of production. Whether these changes are an attempt to improve consistency and quality or to increase output and boost profit margins, the character of the whisky is bound to be transformed by them.

While researching a couple of recent posts about Ardbeg, I learned that after it was taken over in 1997 by Glenmorangie a lot of long overdue maintenance and equipment upgrades were finally attended to. At the same time, having Dr. Bill Lumsden at the helm meant that there would be a much sharper focus on cask management going forward. But, I’ve also read (from the Ardbeg distillery profile on the Whisky-Online site, which I consider to be a reliable source) that more powerful yeast strains and shorter fermentation times have been employed during the latest era of Ardbeg ownership. In this example the positive and negative effects of these changes probably cancel each other out in terms of overall quality. Certainly though, the character of the whisky produced after 1997 is markedly different than that produced before.

While researching my piece on Bruichladdich’s 10 year old, I examined the direction that the distillery had moved in since coming under new ownership in 2012. Early in 2013, just six months after being bought by Remy Cointreau, it was announced that production was set to be doubled. The group that saved Bruichladdich in 2001 had been very proud of the quality of the distillate produced after they got the place up and running again, touting the long fermentations and slow distillations they employed. When a distillery is pushed to rapidly make a large increase of its output, corners are often cut to achieve the desired production numbers. I certainly had concerns about the changes that could have potentially been going on under the radar recently at Bruichladdich.

I did a little digging and came across an article announcing that they were going to start making twice as much whisky, where a distillery spokesperson claimed that they were determined to maintain the traditional methods of production at Bruichladdich. He went on to state that doubling output was possible without making any changes at the plant, aside from adding warehouses. At that time two new warehouses had been built in the previous two years, one was under construction, and a fourth was in the planning phase.

Being the skeptic that I am, I still had my doubts. I decided to dig deeper and take a look at some numbers to see if these claims would hold up to scrutiny.

The distillery had stated that it would be going from 750,000 LPA (liters of pure alcohol) per year to 1.5 million LPA and doing so with 24 hour production for five and a half days per week. Most of the other numbers I’m using are coming from the Misako Udo book The Scottish Whisky Distilleries, which was published in 2007. Bruichladdich has the following equipment: A single mash tun which takes 7 tons of grist and produces 36,000 liters of wort, 6 Oregon Pine washbacks that can each take a charge of 36,000 liters, two wash stills that each take a charge of 12,000 liters and two spirit stills that each take a charge of 7,100 liters. Fermentation times are stated as 60-67 hours during the week and 100-107 hours over the weekends.

I started off with the assumption that they were using a production cycle similar to that of Springbank which I was familiar with from their Whisky School. Springbank also has a single mash tun and six washbacks, and they were running five mashes per week. Bruichladdich’s spirit yield is 401 liters of alcohol per ton of grist. If you multiply that by 7 tons per mash and then multiply by 5 days per week and 52 weeks per year, you get roughly 730,000 liters per year. That’s close enough to 750,000 for me to assume that five mashes per week is the correct number.

Going over my notes from my time at Springbank, it looks a mash cycle should take four to five hours. Both distilleries run four batches of water through a mash (three is more typical of Scottish malt distilleries). Bruichladdich does produce more wort from a bigger mash (36,000 liters from 7 tons of malt vs. 21,000 liters from 3 tons of malt), but even if their mash cycle takes twice as long as Springbank’s, there is still plenty of time to run two mashes in a day without changing the process or the equipment.

With the given fermentation times, the mash done on Monday gets distilled on Thursday, Tuesday’s gets distilled on Friday, Wednesday’s on the following Monday, Thursday’s on Tuesday and Friday’s on Wednesday. Once his sequence has been established, there should never be more than three washbacks filled at any given time.

If the number of mashes doubles to two a day, then two washbacks are being filled each day. For the cycle to work out properly, you have to split the washbacks into two sets of three. A washback from one set gets filled in the first half of each production day, and a washback from the other set gets filled in the second half of each production day. Running like this, the above mentioned fermentation times are maintained and each of the six washbacks is getting filled six to twelve hours after it is emptied on an ongoing basis.

While there’s a little extra capacity here in theory (you have one washbacks that’s empty for six to twelve hours on each of the five production days), it’s probably not practical to put an extra mash through they system each week. I haven’t accounted for the time it takes to fill and then drain the washbacks, or the time it takes to sanitize them between fillings (this is done by pumping them full of steam). Adding an extra mash would have the staff constantly filling washbacks the moment they were ready. The best practice is to pitch the yeast as soon as possible after the wort is cooled to prevent any wild yeast or bacteria from establishing a foothold. That would mean the mashing cycle would have to be matched to when the washbacks became available, rather than a regular schedule of mashing at the same two times each day. I’m sure that would not be very practical.

On to the stills; the wash still takes 1/3 of what each washback holds (and the spirit still takes what the wash still puts out), so they would have been doing three distillation runs (each through a wash still / spirit still combo) each day that they were operating. The wash still run lasts five hours and the spirit still run lasts six hours and 40 minutes. A little bit of time is also needed to pump the spent lees and pot ale out of the stills after distillation is complete, but that shouldn’t add much ore than 20 minutes to the times above. With Bruichladdich’s two sets of stills, it is possible to do six distillation runs during a 24 hour period. There is a bit of lag time as the spirit stills can’t start running until the wash stills have done their first run. But once the spirit stills get started, they should both be able to push through three runs each for every 24 hours that they keep running. That lag at the start of the week’s distillations is probably part of the reason that Bruichladdich is running five and a half days a week rather than five.

I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised to find that my suspicions were unfounded in this case. Bruichladdich is now running at maximum capacity, at least in terms of washbacks. They could increase output further by running seven day a week; with two mashes and six distillation runs every day. If they did that without adding washbacks, that would mean fermentation times would be 60-67 hours for every single mash. As it stands now, for every two mashes that ferment 60-67 hours there are three that ferment 100-107 hours. That gives an average fermentation time of 87-88 hours. A reduction of 27% would be significant. If we hear of any future increases in production at Bruichladdich let’s hope the news is accompanied by an announcement of the distillery itself growing.

Okay, enough of the number crunching, let’s see how this relatively young whisky from Islay grown barley tastes.

The nose is quite fragrant, with floral notes and a slightly soapy quality (but not in a bad way). More subtle aromas are reminiscent of a salty, coastal breeze pushing across grassy dunes. On the palate it is somewhat full bodied and brings a nice range of flavors right up front. Gentle malt and stony minerality lead the way, with hints of fish nets and driftwood rounding things out. A youthful edge of green malt appears briefly as it transitions from the mid-palate to the finish. Warming spice notes take over at the end and are balanced by an oh-so-subtle touch of peat smoke.

In comparison, the 10 year has a more dense malt character with notes of gingerbread and American oak.

This Islay Barley bottle carries a 6 year age statement as well as the notation that it was distilled in 2007 and bottled in 2013. The bottling code, however, indicates that it was bottled in July of 2014. All of the lettering is printed directly onto the glass, rather than on a label. I suspect that they printed up too many bottles and didn’t fill them as quickly as they expected to. I would think it is actually 2007 distillate; why would they print more bottles than they had whisky to fill. So this should be between 6 ½ and 7 ½ years old, depending on when in 2007 it was distilled.

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