Lazarus-style reappearances are not unheard of at the Quaich Society; last year, for example, Diageo’s Duncan showed up for a return fixture with a lot of Clynelish and some Johnnie Walker Blue Label, building upon Talisker 57 Degrees North on West Sands (we couldn’t quite get the geography right) the previous semester.
However, Craig Johnstone’s second stint in St Andrews was, if anything, still more eagerly anticipated. The kind of extraordinary, surprising arsenal of whiskies he had brought along with him then from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society could only be matched by one Scottish distiller and that just so happens to be the one now employing him: Islay mavericks, Bruichladdich.
The first innovation of the evening was Craig pouring and distributing the tasting’s drams. This is normally something the Society Committee busies itself with 15 miunutes prior to commencement. The second was enlisting an ambassador from a rival company to help with the set-up. We were delighted to see Patsy Christie of Highland Park, but also of ‘Patsy and Craig’, on hand for support and – at times – an extra element of dialogue during the tasting. Without Patsy’s ruthlessly efficient harvesting, cleaning and filling of glasses, we would not have been able to enjoy our sixth dram of the evening, but more of that later.
Craig’s opening statement concerning Bruichladdich: ‘we’re pretty unstandard – the only consistent thing about us is our inconsistency’. The tasting roster epitomised this. We opened with the Organic, a roughly 7yo whisky under the Bruichladdich name, although ’I didn’t bring this because it says ‘Organic’ on the label,’ Craig asserted. ‘I brought it because it is an excellent whisky.’
Very sweet on the nose, it added aromas of heavy butter and cream before light floral tones emerged, together with shortbread. Very firm overall. The palate was clean, sharp and firm with plenty of malt while vanilla built in the finish. 53% of Bruichladdich’s barley consumption is organic, the rest coming from Islay farms where organic practices have to be dropped if the plants are to withstand the West Coast gales. The company aims for absolute traceability of one’s bottle in the very near future which would make for a most intriguing drive around Islay, spotting the fields which contributed to your bottle of Laddie Ten, or Black Arts.
‘I thought this was a whisky tasting?!’ piped up a voice in the corner when we arrived at the next spirit. What we had instead was The Botanist, a gin produced by Bruichladdich using 22 native Islay botanicals. That might sound like a lot, and it did to many people who know far more about gin than I do, but the result was magnificent. Incredibly lemony on the nose, it had the flavour of a Gin & Tonic without the Tonic added. Other notes included struck matches and coriander. The palate, for all its 46% delivery, was remarkably soft with waves of citrus and perfumy flowers. To those unique minds on Lochindaal, this is their tribute to whisky back in the unverifiable mists of time, when their uisquebeatha would have tasted a lot like our gin now.
Returning to the traceability theme, Dram #3 promised much. A single cask sample of 5yo spirit produced with barley harvested solely on Islay. This will be released, in vatted and reduced form, very soon. Despite measuring 66% on the Richter scale, it was remarkably well-mannered and I detected chocolate sauce mixed into vanilla ice cream on the nose: very spicy, rich and creamy. A little bit of char emerged, also. The palate began with a promising dark earthiness with a sinew of cereal. Then rich oak developed, developed some more and ultimately killed the thing, for me. An active cask had been relied upon to provide the spirit with a life-raft of sweetness and guts, but the barley experiment was unfortunately nullified as a result. Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to hear Craig describe the skilled, human adjustments every varietal change demands at the distillery. From the mill to the spirit still, distillery workers have to adapt their processes to ensure the best whisky and the right flavours result from whichever strain of malt they are using.
I’ve talked about the Laddie Ten previously and suffice it to say that it remains in my mind a solid, charming customer with presence beyond its years. While underlining the significance of a first age milestone achieved by the new Bruichladdich regime, Craig discussed how the frankly bewildering range would evolve in the next 18 months. Presently, they have 31 products, excluding special releases. This number will diminish to 15.
Remaining on the roster will be the Black Arts. This batch came off the still in 1989, but since then has been in more different woods than Bear Grylls. Bourbon, wine, sherry – you name it, Jim McEwan will have stashed some whisky in it. The undiluted nose oozed with red fruits, especially grape while the palate was full and oily. However, the word ‘butyric’ came to mind, which to you and me is a welcome euphemism for ’baby sick’. The acidic flavours from the Euopean woods curdled the creaminess from the American oak with less than successful results. Water improved matters, however. Charred on the nose with lots of dark honey, while rich oak, malt and toffee developed in the glass. With its sandy aroma and orangey tar qualities, it reminded me of a Mortlach. On the palate, I could still detect some acid reflux, but fat, booze-soaked sultanas rescued the performance. I don’t mean to be controversial (my neighbour and many others around the room raved about it) but the Black Arts did not enchant me.
The final dram of an enthralling evening appeared before the Quaich Society members courtesy of Patsy and we could get our teeth into Port Charlotte. This provoked a discussion on Bruichladdich’s peating policy. The latest Octomore exhibits – in Craig’s own words – ‘a stupid amount of peat’: Sauternes-finished and coming in at 61%, it boasts a peating level of 167 ppm. ‘At what point do you stop drinking whisky and start eating peat?’ one person asked. ‘We’ll let you know,’ Craig replied.
The Port Ellen maltsters experience genuine headaches providing Bruichladdich with peated malt. At one stage, before McEwan started prodding them, they believed the highest they could achieve would be 60ppm. But Jim wanted more. ‘How high a level do you want?’ they ask. ‘What is the highest you can do?’ asks Jim. ‘Well, to be honest up to now we have been peating barley for two weeks and then cutting that with unpeated malt to reach your specifications.’ ‘How peaty is the uncut stuff, then?’ ’305 ppm.’ The whisky arms race, my friends, has been won. Last year, barley peated to 305 ppm came of the stills at Bruichladdich and vanished into a cask, not to reappear for another five years.
In the meanwhile, we have Octomore and our specimen the other night: Port Charlotte. At 40 ppm, we are still talking Laphroaig territory, but it does not taste like it courtesy of the dramatically different distillation regime in taller pots. Buttery digestive biscuit malt on the nose, together with very sweet peat, apricot and vanilla. Fish on the barbecue. The palate and finish are marvellous: at first chunky peat and gooey barley, before drying and concluding with notes of honey and fresh peated malt. Superb.
Mr Johnstone once again proved to be excellent value, as intriguing and assured as the whiskies he brought along to us. We hope to see him and the Bruichladdich experiments back again very soon. Once again, many thanks indeed to Patsy for her selfless pouring and distribution work, without which efforts to accommodate a sixth dram would have been far more shambolic.