'We tend to say: "It’s not as bad as you think it’s going to be!"’ opens Allan Logan, Bruichladdich’s head of production, at a recent tasting in the east London Scottish-haven Mac and Wild.
Today, single-malt Scotch whiskies from the Bruichladdich distillery are in the snifter glass and the unadulterated peat power fills the room. Logan and his team, including head distiller Adam Hannett, are continuing to push the boundaries of what’s possible with peat on Islay.
Octomore 8.3 is one of the special Scotch whiskies on display. At 309PPM (phenol parts per million) it’s a record breaker – the peatiest Octomore so far. On tasting, that peat-smoke character certainly doesn’t shy away – but with time, a more complex and elegant character is revealed. A little maple, moss and cherry on the nose; toast, cereal and peach on the palate alongside maritime flavours; coffee and burnt brown sugar on the finish. Balanced, especially considering that peat count.
It’s a distillation that in itself sums up Logan and his predecessor Jim McEwen’s vision for whisky-making at Bruichladdich. It’s rooted in provenance and terroir; one field produced the barley for this 18,000 bottle run (already sold out on Bruichladdich’s website). It’s experimental; the maltster has never been able to coax the phenol count of the barley back up to the level reached for 8.3. It’s robust enough to carry a lot of flavour, bottled at cask strength of 61.2% abv – and unlike its sisters in the Eight series, it’s aged just five years (instead of – you’ve guessed it – eight) to allow the peat and smoke to really shine.
'Age is just a number,' says Logan when we caught up with him after the masterclass to talk about what’s going on in the world of Scotch whisky. 'People have been educated that age matters, and now we’re trying to un-do the work.' This, he says, is because the quality of the barrel has far more influence on the whisky than the amount of time spent in it.
The desire to showcase younger whiskies also informs Bruichladdich’s house pour – The Classic Laddie – a blend of five-, seven-, eight- and nine-year-old whiskies which (because Scotch whisky laws only allow a bottle to bear the age of the youngest whisky in the mix) has no age statement (NAS) – something which, Logan believes, can get a bad rap.
'I’d like to think that for the same reasons we are, blenders are using multiple vintages to make a profile that isn’t restricted to one age,' he says. The pitfall – which he reckons could be putting off consumers – is producers using NAS whiskies to remedy a stock situation. 'But if blenders are doing it for the right reasons; if they want to open up a spectrum of choice, then that’s a cool thing to do. We’re transparent and we hope other brands are doing the same.'
Transparency in Scotch whisky is a fairly alien concept, it opposes generations of ancient methods and secret recipes. But it’s paramount to the way Logan wants to do business ('just like in the food industry') – down to the fact that each bottle of Bruichladdich comes with a website-friendly code you can use to trace the origins of the barley in your dram.
When the distillery reopened in 2001 with McEwen at the helm, everything was in its original condition, and he made sure the production retained traditional techniques. Along with these production methods and an emphasis on good wood (better quality barrels over longer ageing), terroir is one of the three fundamentals of Bruichladdich’s approach to making whisky.
'It’s a movement we’ve seen really taking off,' he says, referring to the idea that the environment, location and farming techniques involved in producing ingredients have a noticeable effect on the end product. 'We take our lead from the wine industry who has been doing this forever, and understand and respect terroir.
'When we started, we were talking about something which didn’t exist in whisky. We had nothing to back it up or verify… we weren’t being taken seriously.' But 17 years later, the difference can be tasted and believed. 'It’s only now that the whisky has matured and we’re releasing whiskies that speak of that, that people actually understand.
'We’ve been pushing sand uphill for the last decade and a half because the industry didn’t get it, and don’t still get it,' Logan says. 'We see more distilleries in America doing what we’re doing than on the same island, or the same country.'
Across the board, consumers want smaller amounts of better-quality spirits, and craft, terroir and provenance – though Logan expresses his reservation about the fact they’ve become marketing buzzwords. Palates are changing too. Whisky drinkers are skipping the 'unpeated phase’ that Logan went through in his younger years and going straight in with heavily peated beasts like Octomore.
But it’s no time to slow down. Since Logan and Hannett stepped into the hallowed shoes of McEwen and former general manager Duncan McGillivray, their mission has been to balance their predecessor’s knowledge with their own ideas for the future.
'When Jim retired it was like, "Holy shit! This is on our shoulders now!,"' Logan says. 'The thing he’s given us has been confidence. From him I’ve learnt to be sincere and be honest and make decisions if you feel in your heart that it’s the right thing to do.
'It’s a trait that’s been lost today; people are reluctant to make a decision based solely on their instinct, instead they need a consortium of people or someone hierarchical to make decisions… In this industry, that’s something you need to be able to do.
'We’re the current generation of Bruichladdich – and this is our chapter.'
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