The Future of Islay – Part Two

I've seen, smelled, and tasted enough evidence over the last year to finally understand the importance of barley's role in creating the flavor of a single malt whisky. Since sampling ten different "SMASH" beers at Skagit Valley Malting in Washington this past July (made from ten different types of barley), I've got all the proof I need to know that barley-specific malts are clearly the next step in Scotch whisky's evolution as a beverage. But while most of us are just coming around to this realization, one particular distillery on Islay has been exploring the capacity of barley flavor variants for more than a decade. Bruichladdich has not only been testing whiskies made from different species of barley, they've also experimented with various growing locations in Scotland as well as the dynamic of specific vintages. In fact, I can clearly remember the first time I tasted one such whisky from this progressive Hebridian producer: it was Bruichladdich's 2006 Bere barley release, a whisky that absolutely blew me away with its creamy texture and inherently individual character. That eye-opening experience came to market in 2013, but the whisky had originally been distilled seven years prior, clearly indicating that the production team had been keen on exploring barley's capacity for flavor for some time. While a few distilleries like Springbank and Kilchoman have traditionally released local barley editions, none have been as detailed or as dedicated as Bruichladdich in their transparency. Over the last few years, the company has distinctly transitioned from a traditional malt distillery into a serious advocate for more terroir-centric whisky. Part of this metamorphosis has to do with a transition in leadership. This past week I made the trek out to Bruichladdich, both to formally meet the facility's two new directors and take a serious look at their unique vision for the future.

I'm not sure how many folks are aware of the long and intimate relationship between Bruichladdich and K&L, but there's been a deep connection between the two businesses that started well before I took over the spirits department. Not only was K&L the first retailer in the world to bottle and sell a whisky from the post-2001 resurrection distillates, our former whisky expert Susan Purnell actually had her wedding at the distillery and the service was performed by former master distiller and whisky icon Jim McEwan. Susan sent dozens of K&L customers during her tenure over to Islay to learn and work at Bruichladdich's whisky school, and she made damn sure that the first single malts I tasted upon my hiring were from her favorite distillery. I inherited her love of Bruichladdich and tried to continue where Susan left off, visiting Jim on Islay during my first trip to Scotland back in 2011. However, when Bruichladdich sold to Remy Cointreau the following year, I wasn't sure of what to expect. While the immediacy of dealing with an independent distillery changed a bit, I remained close with the company's CEO Simon Coughlin and kept myself abreast of the whisky's evolution through our contact. Over the last four years, Simon's push for more transparency has become the distillery's main focus. Dealing with the adversity of larger distribution and limited stocks, he moved the core range of whiskies from an age statement model over to regionally specific expressions because—like I do now—he believed early on that terroir matters when it comes to whisky. "You've got to come out and visit, David," Simon said to me on the phone a few weeks back. "I really want you to spend some time with Adam, our new distiller, and see how our work is progressing."

Being a fan of Simon, Bruichladdich, and the idea of terroir in anything, I obliged.

Whereas Bruichladdich began as the career culmination of whisky veterans like Coughlin and McEwan, today it's being lead by two forward-thinking youngsters; who better to lead the distillery into the next generation of whisky production than fresh Islay blood? Allan Logan is a fourth generation Islay distillery worker who has been involved in Bruichladdich's production since day one. I spent the first part of my visit with him tasting both aged and unaged distillates from single origin regionally-specific barleys, joking that one indeed smelled "more northern" than the other (as if anyone knew the distinctions between Scottish regional barley flavors). While we shared a few laughs over the feigned pretense, we both agreed there were clear differences in the whiskies—in their infant stage as well as after a few years in wood. There were distinct floral notes and a lighter profile in one malt, while another had a much heavier character and supple richness. I was then introduced to Adam Hannett: a thirty-three year old Islay native who started as an attendant in Bruichladdich's gift shop almost fifteen years ago before becoming the company's current "head" distiller. Two things I loved right off the bat: 1) Adam doesn't refer himself a "master" distiller yet, unlike many craft venturists with far less experience than him; 2) Adam looks almost exactly like my childhood friend Jeff Meanza, so much so in fact that I almost referred to him as Jeff numerous times during our visit. I felt at ease from the moment I met him because of his down-to-earth demeanor and his unpretentious character. "I grew up around here with my friends kicking a soccer ball in the street when there was nothing," Adam said to me as we talked about the changes at Bruichladdich over the years; "Now you have to watch yourself in the road with all the tourists driving around," he added as we headed to the warehouse to sample a few new projects.

I mentioned to Adam that I was impressed with Allan's presentation of Bruichladdich's regionally-specific whiskies and the clear distinctions he was able to make vis-à-vis their origins. "When people talk about terroir today it often feels as if they're looking to prove what they know rather than clarify why exactly something tastes the way it does," I said, as he proceeded to climb a large rack in search of a specific cask;"It's as if they're searching for the secret no one else knows, but they can't really explain why it's important." Bruichladdich has gone far beyond simply labeling their whiskies as simply "local," choosing to add the vintage, as well as the name and location of the farm where the barley was grown on some of their Islay releases. But while all of of those details definitely play a role in the whisky's inherent flavor, they're not meant to literally explain why it tastes the way it does. No one, as far as I know, has connected the dots at this point yet. "It's not about saying we know something you don't," Adam explained as we continued to discuss the phenomenon; "It's simply about celebrating the community. We're in a position to help the island by way of using local barley. Now the young kids are getting involved in farming, whereas before it was for an older generation." Considering we're approaching a transitional period when the Scotch whisky industry will look to continue its current popularity with a younger generation, creating an early bond with that group's values and interests has never been more important. While the current era of serious whisky connoisseurs may lament the necessary changes that have recently occurred, such as the loss of standard age statements on the label, it could very well be that the next era of drinkers defines its desires by something other than a number.

But that's not to say that Bruichladdich is moving away from age statements; on the contrary! After discontinuing their initial new era ten year old shortly after its unveiling, the boys are back with a new version, as well as ten year old Port Charlotte and ten year old Octomore. After sampling the new and improved Bruichladdich 10—a delicious malt that focuses far more on the grain this time around with minimal sherry influence—we took a drive over to the old Lochindaal distillery warehouses where the company keeps its Port Charlotte and Octomore barrels. The improvement that more time in wood displays in the peated whisky's flavor is clear from the initial sip. The profile is rounder, sweeter, and more evolved. In the case of the Octomore, the extra cask time has completely changed the nature of the heavy smoke, moving it more towards an ashy and earthy element on the finish. I was utterly captivated. While Bruichladdich was forced to move away from age statements due to an intermittent supply of mature whisky, purists will be happy to hear the distillery has put that Remy money to good use. While strategically holding back most of their oldest barrels, Bruichladdich simultaneously increased production and will now be in strong supply once the new editions are launched. Keeping their releases at ten years of age is a top priority for the brand, but—if you ask me—numbers won't continue define the distillery's whisky moving forward. Age statements have become security blankets for the old guard. They're a part of whisky's past, a remnant of its former classication, not its immenent future. While I drooled over the twelve year old cask of Port Charlotte available in the gift shop, I have to admit that I was much more interested in the younger 2009 Bere barley vintage release they had on the shelf. It's their improvement and enhancement of distinct barley-driven malts that has me most inspired as of late.

While an adherence to age statements, cask types, and gimmicky marketing stories from old Scottish lore still dominates most Scotch whisky marketing, Bruichladdich has chosen to center its message around the far more difficult discussion of terroir. When you think about it, a sense of place has always been important to the prestige of a product, even in the cases where the place itself had little to do with a unique quality or flavor. It’s the reason why people still continue to buy touristic momentos on vacation, or Bud Light cans with their city’s sports franchise plastered on the side (even though the beer inside each can is exactly the same). It’s the reason people wore Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts back in the eighties—each one identical except for the location of origin. When it comes to marketing and a general consumer interest, the sale of locality has often been more about public proof of experience than genuine individuality ("I was there and I can prove it!"). However, if you can show that terroir isn’t just about showing off, owning bragging rights, or generating a quick ten seconds of Instagram attention—if you can actually present people with a flavor that clearly originates and emirates from one particular spot on this earth—then you’ve really got something. While I’ll continue to enjoy blended whisky and blends of different single malt whiskies, I don’t think there’s a renaissance in the cards for nondescript blends, no matter how much we continue to glamorize the throwback genre. I just don’t see it. As far as I'm concerned, there’s no going back from the new age of transparency. Consumers today want details as to the ingredients and the location of origin from their food, their beer, their wine, and their whisky. Now that the cat is out of the bag there’s no way you’re getting him back inside. The current generation of eaters and drinkers has long spoken about what its willing to embrace: travel, tradition, locality, purity, authenticity, and a sense of place. Nebulous blends with clever marketing need not apply.

Whisky as an ideal has come to epitomize an enthusiasm for exploration and new experiences. The amount of whisky tourism in Scotland alone these days is unparalleled, but no one drives all the way to Islay to drink a blended whisky or some basic Highland offering. You make the pilgrimage to Islay because you love Islay whisky—the peat, the salt, the earth, and the sea. Whomever can provide the most memorable and moving picture of that wonderful place is going to shape the future of the category. Whomever can speak to the next generation of whisky drinkers in their terms, their language, and within their range of core values, will dominate that genre. I’m betting on Bruichladdich. Almost all of their distillery staff is under the age of thirty-five, the atmosphere is fun and forward-thinking, and the company has a fresh and modern take on whisky. Most importantly, they're continuing to create and inspire.

I've been enamored with Bruichladdich since my first day working at K&L, but I don't think I've ever been as excited about their whisky as I was this week. The future is bright.

-David Driscoll


The Future of Islay

We were having lunch at the Ardbeg cafe when Andrew Laing got the call from his dad Stewart. I watched his face for a reaction—good or bad—but I couldn’t read anything from his expression. We’d been waiting all day for this moment; the decision from the Argyll & Bute Planning Committee concerning the future of Ardnahoe distillery on Islay. For more than a year, Stewart and his two sons, Scott and Andrew, have been working to approve what would become the island’s ninth distillery. They’d purchased a piece of land just south of Bunnahabhain and north of Caol Ila, between the two stalwarts along the northeast coast across from Jura. They’d created a design, gathered a list of necessary equipment, and submitted the plans to the council back in January. Since then they’d been working to troubleshoot and tweak the plans to fit with the department’s feedback before the final hearing was scheduled. A yes or no vote was set for 11 AM this morning in Lochgilphead, and we were past midday at this point. While no one was expecting any conflict or issues, the boys were still a bit on edge because the reality of an Ardnahoe distillery would not be (and could not be) official until permission was granted. It was still possible for any potential protesters to file a grievance or air a complaint and now Stewart was calling from the main office with the news. “Hello? Hello?!” Andrew began saying repeatedly after only a few seconds of conversation. His phone had cut out. “The signal on Islay is terrible!” he exclaimed. Apparently the message had not been transmitted. Both Andrew and Scott tried calling back, but there was no service. “We’ll go to Iain’s,” Andrew said. “My dad’s surely called him already.” We paid our tab, rushed to the parking lot, and headed north back towards Port Ellen.

We drove hastily past the former distillery site and along the coast to the home of Iain Hepburn, the architect and designer for the Laing’s Ardnahoe distillery, who coincidentally shares the same last name as the boys’ maternal grandfather. “His car is here,” Scott said as we approached. After a few knocks, Iain answered the door with a huge grin.

“Is it a yes?” Andrew asked half with excitement and the other half shattered nerves.

“It’s a yes!” Iain exulted and with that announcement cheers were immediately shouted, hands were shaken, hugs were given freely, and a bottle of Champagne was quickly produced. We gathered in Iain’s conservatory overlooking the Islay countryside towards the Mull of Oa to celebrate. Andrew popped the Veuve Cliquot, handed us each a glass, and together we toasted the future of Ardnahoe: the first distillery for a historic whisky family, but not the Laing's first thought of ownership. Stewart’s father started the family’s first whisky business in 1949, a blending house that purchased and matured both single malt and grain whiskies from other producers, but the family’s current operation—the Hunter Laing Company—had been considering the purchase of a working site for years. “We realized about eighteen months ago that we were going to have build if we wanted to own a distillery,” Andrew told me as rode the ferry from Kennacraig. “For several reasons, Islay was the clear choice. We have family connections to the island. Our father worked and trained at Bruichladdich in the sixties, and we had relatives living in Bowmore in the 1800s. We vacationed there as kids. It's the only location we ever considered.” Andrew and Scott are also partial to the island’s peated whiskies, which made building on Islay that much more romantic.

After an exhaustive search for the perfect site, the Laings teamed with acclaimed Islay engineer Iain Hepburn to create a vision for the family’s long-held dream. Having designed projects at both Ardbeg and Laphroaig, as well as the beloved pedestrian path from Port Ellen down to the southern distilleries, Iain’s reputation on the island is that of someone who can get things done, and get them done well. “As far as the aesthetic design, we took our lead from him,” Scott told me. “He’s the expert and the one with the experience.” The boys knew they wanted a classic pagoda roof as part of the appearance, but beyond that their goal was to find a design that fit the atmosphere—one that would blend in with and enhance the scenic property. Iain not only provided the design for the distillery, he also engineered it to be as efficient as possible in terms of production. While the logistics were important, his goal from day one was to enhance the visitor experience at Ardnahoe. In spite of the slope on to which the facility would be built, Iain's intent was to put as much of the experience on one main floor so that the vistors wouldn't have to continually walk up and down various flights of stairs, or meander their way through multiple levels. "I wanted it to face northeast and look out on to both Jura and Mull, and beyond towards Skye,” Iain told us when we met him at the group’s planning office yesterday. “It’s an absolutely beautiful location, and it’s a rather dramatic view as you come down over the hill and see the water for the first time.” He walked us through the blueprints and outlined the inner workings of the facility before we made our way out to visit the estate.

The name Ardnahoe comes from the name of the adjacent loch, which will serve as the water source for the distillery. In Gaelic, the name means “height of the hollow,” referring to the site’s dramatic topography. Having access to a natural water source is perhaps the most important aspect of choosing a distillery site, and Ardnahoe will be built directly across from an immensely deep lake of clean, fresh, pure Islay water. Due to the important role that water plays in a whisky’s ultimate flavor, there’s a rich tradition in Scotland of naming a distillery after that vital resource. “The name was an obvious choice,” Scott said as we gazed out over the grey expanse. “We didn’t spend too much time deciding on that.” As I continued to think about Scotland's tradition and heritage of distillation, I realized that—once built—Ardnahoe will become the only Scottish-owned distillery on the island. "We didn't take any outside investors," Andrew said, "because we didn't want anyone else telling us how to do this." A major new distillery free from venture capitalism, a lengthy Kickstarter campaign, or any other attempt to solicit donations from potential whisky drinkers before actual producing a drop of whisky? What a concept in this day and age where monetary investment is considered the burden of others!

Between the main distillery site and the loch of Ardnahoe is an old farmhouse that dates back hundreds of years and currently serves as a makeshift office for the project. While the distillery won’t be open until 2018, the rustic edifice has tasting room written all over it. We all thought it would make a great event destination for Ardnahoe promotional parties in the meantime, imagining a candlelit hall crowded with whisky fans at next year's Feis Ile festival. While the official distillery buildings are still being finalized, the Laings have announced that they intend to make both peated and unseated styles of whisky like their neighbors at Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila respectively. Perhaps the addition of a third distillery on the northeast coast will finally give Islay's heralded south beach a run for its money! I can sense a new rivalry in the making.

After going over the details and the design of the visitor’s center, we waded through the weeds and made our way down to the future home of the distillery. The view from the hill is simply majestic; the mountains of Jura standing stark across the Straight of Islay with the current moving quickly north out to sea. Iain’s design will be classically styled, but with a modern approach in terms of an aesthetic. “We want to honor tradition, but we also want to give people a reason to come out here and see us,” he said as he outlined the vision for us. After almost ten years in this business, I can't say if I've ever been as excited for a new whisky distillery as I am for Ardnahoe, mainly because of the philosophy that the Laings are approaching the project with. As longtime fans and bottlers of whisky, all three men know full well what constitutes a great dram. As veterans of the whisky blending business, they're tailoring that vision from the perspective of the consumer. Plus, I don't believe I've ever met three more level-headed and kind people from one family before. I've known the Laings for about five years at this point, but after spending the last three days with them I can safely say that this is one of the first distillery projects I've witnessed completely free of vanity, ego, or delusion. The Laings don't envision Ardnahoe as an investment to be flipped, or a last ditch attempt to capitalize on a hot whisky market. It's simply the logical next step for a Scotch whisky family that's been part of the industry for over six decades. They've devoted themselves to the single malt community because they believe in its necessity.

As Andrew poured the Champagne and Scott finally began to smile, we all took a deep breath and relaxed into our seats. You could sense that a great weight had been lifted from their shoulders, despite the encouragement and support that the Islay community had emitted over the last few days. Everyone from the Scotch whisky community has been rooting for the Laings since day one, as have consumers in the know. As we rode the ferry back to the mainland, we continued to discuss potential strategies and ideas in the ship's main lounge. A group of Scottish men sitting nearby, who were clearly dedicated whisky fans, happened to overhear our conversation and asked about the progress. Since I knew Andrew and Scott were both too modest to brag a bit on their own behalf, I informed the group that the plans for Ardnahoe had just been approved and that a celebration was in order. Within seconds the men had produced a hip flask and poured a dram for everyone in the group, wishing the boys their very best and promising to stop by the site on their next visit. You could sense the men were just as excited by the idea as the Laings themselves, and why wouldn't they be? A new distillery on Islay is a big deal. It's the spiritual home of single malt whisky, a veritable Mecca for Scotch drinkers. Everywhere we went, the news about Ardnahoe was met with a reaction and congratulatory bliss normally reserved for pregnancy announcements.

In a sense, the Laings are indeed adding on to the family. They've got a few more exciting announcements up their sleeve, to boot. Buckle up, everyone. There's still more to come.

-David Driscoll


A Preview from Ardbeg

I did manage to stop by Ardbeg this afternoon and taste the brand new release of the 21 year old limited edition. The place was absolutely packed with excited malt fans and tourists making the journey for the big event. The whisky is quite delicate and light on its feet for what Ardbeg has been become known for over the last decade, so fans of the more restrained and ethereal style of whisky will be pleased. These things were selling like hotcakes all day long!

I've got a big story to tell you about tomorrow, but I have to wait until then. It's all typed up, the pictures are ready, and the quotes are in. Now, however, it's time for cold beer and Indian food. We are celebrating some big news with the Laings.

Look for the Ardbeg later this Fall (hopefully by late October).

-David Driscoll


From Glasgow to Islay

Islay is such a popular destination for business and tourism these days that you can catch a twenty-five minute flight from Glasgow just about any day of the week. But with space on the tiny plane at a premium, the prices aren't cheap and the schedule is never a sure thing due to the unpredictable weather patterns. Seeing that the drive from Glasgow to the ferry at Kennacraig is absolutely stunning, I would never even think about flying—even if I was strapped for time. Today was the fifth time I'd made the drive to the Kintyre and it was no less thrilling that any of the previous occasions. Andrew's SUV with its large sun roof and expansive windows made for perfect viewing.

Traveling by plane, you would dearly miss the majestic beauty of Loch Fyne and the adjacent town of Inveraray, home to the Duke of Argyll. 

You would also miss stopping for lunch in Tarbert and gazing out onto the many boats in the harbor.

Plus, you'd miss out on the ferry ride. Catching the boat from Kennacraig to Port Askaig is practically a right of passage for serious whisky drinkers! 

Oh, the excitement you feel as Jura approaches and the brooding mountains begin to stir something within your soul.

Then you hit the ground running and you can't wait to make your first distillery appointment! We got a lot done today, but we've still got a lot to do tomorrow. There's a lot of new stuff happening on Islay and today I got my first look at it. You'll have to wait another day unfortunately before I can type it all up.

-David Driscoll


Back At It Again

Life has been rather surreal as of late. One minute I'm in Kentucky, the next in Denver. I was in Las Vegas last weekend, yet Monday afternoon I found myself walking the steps once again to the offices of Hunter Laing in Glasgow. Remind me of how I got here, will you? I've always enjoyed traveling so I don't mind the wear and tear of the jetset lifestyle, but I will admit I've been confused a few times while waking up in the middle of the night, wondering where I am. The trip to the UK has become old hat at this point, however: ten hours overnight to London, just enough of a layover at Heathrow to grab a sandwich from Pret a Manger, then up to Scotland for an early afternoon arrival before settling down to an evening full of business. So far everything is going incredibly well. I had a great seat on the plane, I sat next to a very interesting Lebanese woman and chatted with her for hours, I got to my hotel right on schedule, met up with my buddy DJ as planned, then headed over to meet Andrew, Scott, and their dad Stewart and tasted through dozens and dozens of casks. We found more old grains, more Islay stuff, more values, more rum, more of everything! Why can't life always go this smoothly?

I'm up early, which is normal for my jetlag sensitivities; but I did manage to grab six sold hours of shuteye, so I'm pretty thrilled. We scoped out around twenty potential casks, then celebrated the success with a shot of 1982 sherry-aged Port Ellen before walking over to a lovely Bavarian place called West on the Corner for beers and schnitzel. We ended up ordering more beer along side glasses of Brora 35 at the Bon Accord before calling it a night, but I was in bed by ten and up at four, per the norm. We're scheduled for early activities today anyway, so it's no biggie. Andrew and Scott are picking us up at 8:30 AM for the lovely drive to Islay. You may have heard they're planning to build a new distillery there called Ardnahoe, so we're gonna go check it out. We've got an midday ferry booked. I've got a camera and a computer. They've got a trunk full of Scotch. What more do we need?

I'm gonna go for a run, I think. The cool Glasgow morning is calling my name.

-David Driscoll

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