Two Whiskies, One Distillery, 100% Islay
A Selection of Whiskies from Bruichladdich
Last week we commemorated Fèis Ìle, the annual Islay Festival of Music and Malt, by reviewing the Laphroaig PX, a hard to find variety from one of the iconic distilleries from the Island of Islay. Since we’ve also reviewed a Lagavulin, newcomers to single malt whisky might assume that all whisky from Islay is peated. However the island’s nine distilleries offer a full spectrum of whisky, from unpeated, floral and delicate, to experimentally peated. There is one distillery that embodies this full spectrum: Bruichladdich.
We discovered Bruichladdich from, surprise, another WhiskyFest event. The branding is definitely eye-catching, including the tell-tale pale blue bottles of their flagship variety. We quickly discovered that Bruichladdich is a distillery that is not afraid to experiment. Founded in 1881, Bruichladdich has changed hands and been dormant a few times, yet the current machinery at the distillery is from the Victorian era. The Bruichladdich of today is a mix of heritage and experimentation.
Today, Bruichladdich produces three separate ranges of whiskies. The core range is unpeated, offering several different varieties which utilize different barley and casks. The Port Charlotte range is heavily peated. The Octomore range is, what we will call, experimentally peated, pushing the boundaries of peat smoke in a single malt.
We visited Bruichladdich on our trip to Islay in 2016 and had an amazing experience. The distillery itself is a time capsule, with wooden fermentation tanks and grinding equipment. While the equipment maybe vintage, the concept for the whisky is fresh. Bruichladdich has a bit of the vibe of a well-run craft brewery, constantly trying new ideas and evolving the core range of products. The staff was friendly and receptive, and in addition to our tour of the machinery and process, we were able to try tons of samples from across the wide Bruichladdich range and also fill a small bottle from a cask that was on hand.
Bruichladdich has a lot of branding focusing on terroir and provenance. The idea is that where a whisky is grown, distilled, and aged can dramatically impact the flavor. To this point, one of the more unique features of the Bruichladdich range is that it includes varieties made with Barley grown on the island of Islay. If you have ever travelled to any of the Scottish islands, you might conclude that they are not conducive to growing barley, or crops in general. The weather can be cold, damp and windy. But Bruichladdich, as well as another relative newcomer Kilchoman, have tried to create whisky which is crafted from ‘grain to bottle’ on the island.
A Tale of Two Drams
Today we’re looking at the Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2007 and the Port Charlotte Islay Barley 2008. Both use barley from different farms on Islay, and the farms rotate from year to year. As you can guess from the rest of this review, the use of local ingredients fits in with the idea of experimentation. It also makes the whisky a bit more interesting—the same expression will taste slightly different from year to year. The regular Islay Barley is unpeated, while the Port Charlotte is peated to a level of around 40ppm. For comparison sake, Laphroaig and Lagavulin expressions range between 30-50ppm and Bruichladdich’s Octomore range we mentioned earlier can reach above 200ppm!
PPM is a measure of the phenol count in the malt, and the higher the number the more peated the whisky.
Both bottles have a fairly standard shape that is used for many of Bruichladdich’s expressions and utilize the clean and modern branding that is recognizable of the distillery. Both bottles also include a fair amount of descriptive text that showcase an Islay-focused narrative about the role of terroir in flavor of the whisky.
Islay Barley Rockside Farm (2007)
On the Eyes: Unlike most of the whiskeys we’ve reviewed thus far, the Islay barley has a pale, golden straw color with little to no red or amber tones. Despite its young age (aged 6 years in a variety of casks), the whisky is fairly full bodied with decently long legs.
On the Nose: The initial aromas are very fruit forward, with strawberry and stone fruit scents. The nose can be a bit strong, probably because this whisky is bottled at 50%.
To the Taste: The first sip introduces us to a honey sweetness that builds into a whole heap of spice and heat. As the heat builds, we picked up the taste of cereal grains mixed with more honey.
And the Finish: The finish fades somewhat quickly, which is interesting after the first tastes build up so much heat. The flavor of a soft honey lingers to the end.
The heat that we experienced from this dram made us curious to test out the flavor after adding a few drops of water to the whisky. While there are enduring myths that this is sacrilege, we’re firm believers in enjoying whiskey in a way that’s preferable to your palette. We were surprised to find how much the aroma and flavors changed with the inclusion of a few water droplets.
On the Nose: A total transformation. The fruit scent is replaced with that of fresh flowers and earth. The nose suggests a more savory tone as opposed to the consistent sweetness out of the bottle.
To the Taste: The flavor is less sweet, with more grain flavor dominating the reduced notes of honey. The taste resembled sweetened oatmeal or porridge. Overall, a much warmer flavor.
And the Finish: The finish still fades quickly, but this time we taste mostly heat and spiciness, with almost no sweetness.
Port Charlotte Islay Barley (2008)
On the Eyes: Nearly identical to the unpeated Islay Barley, but a little more pale & yellow. The Port Charlotte is a medium to light bodied, thinner dram. NAS (no age statement) is listed on the bottle, but we suspect it is of a similar age range.
On the Nose: This one is distinctive. At first, we smell smoldering wood with smoked meats nearby. The aroma doesn’t smell like traditional peat, lacking the maritime and sweeter elements.
To the Taste: The flavor is evocative of barbeque around a campfire. As the taste progresses we detected flavors of freshly toasted hearty wheat bread.
And the Finish: The finish retreats quickly with lingering elements of smoke and a hint of vanilla and almond.
After tasting the Port Charlotte Islay Barley, we decided to compare how this dram evolved with the addition of a few water drops. While not as drastic of a change as we experienced with the Islay Barley Rockside Farm, the water significantly brought out the sweeter notes of the whiskey that were previously hiding behind the smoky elements.
On the Nose: We had a split decision on this one. One of us smelled burnt caramel or butter. The other, a scent that was a little sweeter, yet still very evocative of a bonfire.
To the Taste: With water, this dram is much sweeter. The flavor now resembles more of a “pure” peat taste with a mix of ocean breeze, smoke, and sweetness. The flavor matures into something like caramelized sugar (the top of a creme brulee).
And the Finish: The finish is fantastic—a pleasant mix of smoke, sea salt, and fading sweetness.
Despite using barley from farms that are no more than a 30 minute drive away, aged in similar casks, and at the same facility, the two Islay Barley expressions manage to create a comprehensive single malt experience. Bottled at 50%, both whiskies are in a balanced range between pure intensity and approachable. Having compared the Islay Barley expressions to their Scottish Barley and Bere Barley cousins, we can indeed taste a difference. The flavors of honey and caramelized sugar were much more apparent in these two delicious bottles. The best part (maybe worst for some) is that the Islay Barley expressions will continue to evolve as different farms and the unpredictable Islay weather play a factor. Enjoy the experiment!