Friday, December 8, 2017

Bruichladdich, The Classic Laddie - Scottish Barley

stats: single malt Scotch, Islay, 50%, $55

About two and a half years ago (mid 2015) I wrote about Bruichladdich, The Laddie Ten. That bottling, which had previously been the distillery’s flagship offering, had essentially been discontinued early in 2014. In that post I examined the changes which had taken place at Bruichladdich since its sale to Remy Cointreau in 2012, and I also pondered the future of the brand versus what might have been if the previous owners had continued on.

More recently I wrote about Bruichladdich’s new Travel Retail exclusive, The Laddie Eight. In that post I mostly discussed the history and the merits of younger age-stated single malt whiskies.

Today I’m going to take a look at Bruichladdich’s current flagship bottling, the non-age-stated The Classic Laddie - Scottish Barley. This expression was actually introduced late in 2013 and slid into the position of the distillery’s flagship bottling when The Laddie Ten was discontinued in the spring of 2014. It was originally labeled as “Scottish Barley”, with “The Classic Laddie” in much smaller print. More recently those two titles have switched their relative prominence. I do still have both age-stated expressions on hand as well, so I’ll also be tasting them to see where they stand relative to The Classic Laddie.

Bruichladdich, The Classic Laddie - Scottish Barley
Nose – Quintessential Bruichladdich maritime aromas of briny sea spray and dried beach grass with malty undertones. Delicate floral, spice and white fruit notes add subtle complexity.
Palate – Dry maltiness and coastal minerality are the driving forces here, but a fruity assortment of secondary notes keeps things interesting. The flavors do bounce around a little, but not to the extent that I’d consider this to be a flaw of any significance.
Finish – It definitely becomes more oaky and spice-driven while transitioning into the finish. Notes of fresh cut grass and green malt do become a bit more prominent than I’d prefer at times, but this is still a pretty respectable dram overall.

Bruichladdich, The Laddie Ten
The nose of the Ten is oakier than the other two.
On the palate the Ten is pretty sublime, with well integrated flavors and graceful transitions.

Bruichladdich, The Laddie Eight
The nose of the Eight is more grassy / youthful than the other two
On the palate the Eight is a little more grassy/perfumed/floral than the others, but still makes a good showing.

Aromatically, the Scottish Barley lies midway between the 8 and the 10, but with more complexity than either. The differences between these three are somewhat subtle though.
On the palate the Scottish Barley is more fruit forward than the other two and shows impressive complexity. I might go so far as to say that it’s the most interesting of the three, but the 10 year would still be my top pick of the group.

Where the story of Bruichladdich, The Classic Laddie - Scottish Barley gets interesting is with a move the company made in April of 2016. That was when a new feature was added to the Bruichladdich website which allowed consumers to enter the batch code from any bottle of The Classic Laddie and see a listing of all of the casks (and relevant information about them) that were used in the vatting. This may not seem like such a radical thing to do, but it actually flirts with illegality according to current regulations.

While the issue of transparency has caused debate in the Scotch whisky industry for nearly a century, the regulations in place today date to 2008. They essentially say that any reference to age or maturation period must be only for the youngest component whisky in the vatting. This applies to labels and descriptions, including advertising and promotional materials.

Compass Box, an independent blender established in 2000, learned just how strict the rules were when they ran afoul of them in the fall of 2015. Compass Box had published on their website very specific cask information about two of their whiskies, including the various ages and proportions of the vatting components. They were soon contacted by lawyers from the Scotch Whisky Association (after one of the group’s members lodged a complaint) and informed that they were not in compliance with the law.

The SWA is a trade organization which lobbies the government to influence regulatory policy on behalf of its members. The group also employs a team of lawyers to make sure everyone is following the rules and that no other businesses infringe on the Scotch whisky industry. As is typical of such trade organizations, member companies pay dues based on their size (usually determined by sales volumes) and have influence in proportion to how big they are. Many of the smaller companies in the Scotch whisky industry are tiny compared to the biggest players, and for that reason a lot of them don’t bother with SWA membership; they know that their voices would be lost relative to the large multinationals with which they are often at odds. Back in 2008, when the newest rules were being proposed, SWA members represented 95% of Scotland’s distilling capacity, but only 33% of the companies involved in the industry. The five largest member companies provided 80% of the SWA’s dues, and presumably had an equivalent amount of influence over the group.

On its face the regulations may seem well-intentioned; they are supposedly meant to keep producers from over emphasizing the role of tiny amounts of rare and old whiskies contained in a vatting or blend. But let’s face it, the bigger companies often simply don’t want to tell consumers what is in their most expensive offerings; they’d rather throw their resources at marketing efforts and have you assume that there must be something special in the bottle. The industry regulations give them a legal excuse to hide behind for not disclosing information that they’d rather keep secret.

Compass Box (who is not an SWA member) conceded and removed the offending information from their website. But a few months later, in February of 2016, the company launched a campaign for transparency. In this they proposed an amendment to the current regulations which would allow for the full disclosure of the ages and proportions of all component whiskies in a finished product. They are asking for consumers and industry participants to register their support for this proposal through their website. It will be an uphill battle against the SWA and its most powerful members, but the cause is certainly worthwhile.

Bruichladdich (also not an SWA member) publicly came out in support of the Compass Box campaign the day after it launched and announced plans for their new website feature allowing the disclosure of batch information. Apparently this had already been in the works, but the powers that be decided to push up the schedule and launch the feature just a few months later. Bruichladdich contended that they were in compliance with the law because they were not publishing this information on packaging or marketing materials, and that they would not promote the fact that the information was being made available. Further, the information can only be accessed on the website by inputting a valid batch code, which the consumer can only find on a bottle of whisky.

The ages of the component whiskies are inexact as well. For each group of casks, only a vintage year is given rather than an explicit fill date. The website also only shows the year in which the batch was bottled, rather than giving a specific bottling date. That leaves a margin of plus or minus one year for the age of each component whisky in the mix. The bottling date can be found on the label of the bottle though, so that brings the margin down to plus or minus six months for those who really want to analyze things.

Of course the SWA did publicly question the legality of Bruichladdich’s scheme, but it’s still up and running more than a year and a half later, so Her Majesty’s Royal Customs must have deemed everything to be in compliance.

With all of that being explained, I’m going to examine the information for the batch number on the bottle that I sampled above, which was 15/207 and had a bottling date of 14th August, 2015.

There were eight component whiskies to this batch, with 71 casks in total, spread across four vintages. All of the barley came from the Scottish mainland, but for three of the groups of casks, the barley was organic. Most of the whisky was aged in Bourbon barrels, all of which were 1st fill. There were eight from 2005, eight from 2006, 13 from 2007 (a group of five and a group of eight) and 24 from 2008.

The other three component whiskies were all made up of former French wine Hogsheads. There was a group of four 1st fill red Burgundy casks from 2006, a group of seven 2nd fill sweet red & white Rivesaltes casks from 2008 and a group of seven 2nd fill Sauternes (sweet white from Bordeaux) casks from 2008.

I was curious what other non-bourbon barrel whiskies were going into batches of the flagship offering, so I looked up the codes for a few other bottles that I had access to; 15/224 and 16/320. The first one consists of 86 casks and the second one of 76 casks. In all three examples the casks span four vintages, making the component whiskies roughly seven to 10 years old. Three batches is not a big sample size, but I don’t see any Sherry casks among the non-Bourbon casks; everything else is either wine (mostly red) or fortified wine casks. The Bourbon barrels represent 75% to 80% of the casks in the individual batches, but all of the other casks are Hogsheads, which are twice as big as barrels. That means that roughly 60% to 67% of the liquid in each batch came from former Bourbon barrels.

15/224 has quite a big variety of wine casks, with Hogsheads that formerly held Port, Madeira, sweet red and white from Rivesaltes (France), and red wines from Burgundy, Pauillac (Bordeaux, France), Tuscany (Italy), Bandol (France), Banyuls (France) and Ribera del Duero (Spain).

16/320 is a simpler vatting, with the wine cask components represented by red wine Hogsheads from Ribera del Duero (Spain) and France (no more specific location or style was given).

This information is quite insightful. Recalling from my previous posts, Bruichladdich’s production had grown steadily from 2001 through 2012 (but never too dramatically in any given year). Early in 2013, about six month after taking over the distillery, Remy Cointreau announced that they would double production at Bruichladdich. With a large, established distribution network, Remy Cointreau had the ability to sell a lot more of Bruichladdich’s whisky in a short period of time.

To keep the flagship offering in supply while they waited for the production increases to catch up (after maturation) necessitated that bottling changing to a non-age-stated one with some younger whisky in the vatting. It also meant that many of the wine casks that had been laid down by the previous owners would have to be vatted off into The Classic Laddie - Scottish Barley rather than being utilized for special releases and one-off bottlings.

Some of Bruichladdich’s fans will bemoan the fact that this is the fate of so many potentially interesting wine casks. I actually applaud the company for having the courage to move forward with their transparency initiative, in spite of the fact that it reveals information that is likely to displease some of their core customers. To be honest, I’m kind of surprised that Remy Cointreau, being a large, corporate entity, didn’t force Bruichladdich to come in line, join the SWA and play nice. The rebellious spirit of the distillery’s former owners lives on there.

And for those who are still feeling discouraged by the direction of things at Bruichladdich; take a look at their website. The number of expressions available has increased quite a bit since I wrote about The Laddie Ten in 2015. Back then the only offerings shown besides the The Classic Laddie – Scottish Barley were a vintage-dated Islay Barley bottling, vintage-dated Bere Barley bottlings (two of them, I believe), Organic Scottish Barley and Black Art 4 (1990). Those bottlings all remain, but now there are three vintages of Islay Barley and three vintages of Bere Barley available. Additionally, there is a second Organic bottling (which is vintage dated), The Laddie Eight, The Laddie Ten (second limited edition release), Black Art 5 (1992), and four older, vintage-dated releases; 1984 / 32 year Bourbon barrel, 1985 / 32 year Bourbon barrel, 1986 / 30 year Sherry cask and 1990 / 25 year Pedro Ximinez cask.

The whisky made at Bruichladdich after its production was doubled is not quite five years old at this point. Overall, I’d say that the company is moving in a positive direction and I’ll be watching curiously to see what the next five years brings.

No comments: