When I posted a link to Steve Hyden's article about the Pixies last week, I meant it as a conversation starter to discuss the emotions we all feel when a beloved b(r)and moves on to greater success. In the whisky world, no example looms greater than Bruichladdich distillery -- the indie darling that cashed in to mainstream success after a decade-long run without corporate sponsorship. I've thought a lot about this story over the last year and I've come to this conclusion: we need to get over ourselves. David, Kyle, and I visited Bruichladdich distillery a few weeks back on our trip to Islay and everything was just as friendly as it had always been. The people are great, the vibe is upbeat, and the attitude is still fresh and exciting. I still email with Simon Coughlin regularly, and now I get to work with some of my friends at Remy on a brand they're incredibly excited about. Nothing about Bruichladdich has really changed so far, other than my mindset.
Back in the early 90s, an independent band signing with a major record label was instantly considered a sellout -- another corporate-sponsored artist that chose money over credibility. We lamented the success of these artists because it meant the end of our seemingly intimate relationship with their music; an expression we thought was more legitimate because they weren't getting paid big money to do it. In reality, we used our association with independent musicians to say something about ourselves and what we were about -- it was really more about us than it was about the music. When Bruichladdich sold out to Remy Cointreau, it seemed the ability to stand for "fiercely independent" whisky was taken away from the brand's loyal consumers. Yet, this wasn't really the case.
While Bruichladdich is no longer an independently-owned company, being "independent" as a consumer doesn't mean you automatically side with small brands over big brands, or artisanal over mass-produced. It means you think for yourself and you decide if the whisky is good based on what it tastes like. It means you wait and see how the dust settles before forming an opinion. It means you keep an open mind before coming to a conclusion. It definitely means that you don't fall prey to the co-option of "small batch, hand-crafted" and the other marketing bullshit that has run completely amok, thereby becoming just as much of a label whore as anyone paying top dollar for a big name.
I finally got to taste through Bruichladdich's new (and stable) line-up of whiskies yesterday and give them the due consideration they deserve. And, as an independent retailer and independently-minded individual, I found them to be quite good. Especially this one:
Bruichladdich Islay Barley Single Malt Whisky $59.99 - This six year old whisky uses barley from nearby Rockside Farm (the same source Kilchoman uses for their 100% Islay whiskies) to make an expressive, pure, and dynamic single malt of supreme character. Much like Bruichladdich showcased with their fantastic Bere Barley release a while back, the barley really can make a huge difference when you don't mask the inherent flavor of the whisky with sherry maturation or heavy peat. The aromas of the whisky are full of sweet grains, heady vanilla, and hints of caramel mixed with faint butterscotch. The palate is lean and peppery, but not lacking in weight or richness. Yet, this isn't a supple whisky. It's piercingly pure and straightforward in a way that inspires more sampling and contemplation. It's exciting, yet familiar. In essence, it's everything you want regionally-specific whisky to be -- both interesting and tasty.
I've really come to my limit with the tension between small booze versus big booze. "Craft" is a dead and dated term -- it rarely means what it implies and it handcuffs a producer to a penchant for size over quality. I don't care about size anymore. I'm much more interested in working with good people and good booze. The people at Bruichladdich have always been our friends and the new regime hasn't changed that at all. And the whisky still tastes damn good.