In-Depth Profile: Bruichladdich 21
There are two distinct types of whisky drinkers that I deal with regularly here at K&L: those who just want to drink something good for the money, and those who are in search of the rare, hard-to-find, and distinct. In our first round of 2014 Signatory casks we had plenty of great options for both camps. Those who wanted great bang-for-their-buck whiskies had the outstanding Glenlivet 16 in sherry, the sexy, smokey Bowmore 11, and the rich, fruit-forward Benrinnes 17. Those were slam dunks that anyone could enjoy, regardless of their excitement level concerning single malt. The more-savvy drinkers looking for something special could indulge in the old-school character of the Balmenach 25, the insane quality of the Caol Ila 30, and the rarity of Laphroaig in refill sherry. In total, all six of those whiskies have been selling like wild fire (two are sold out, and another two will be sold out by the end of the week).
Stuck in the middle, however, was the Bruichladdich 21 year old hogshead. Not inexpensive and worth taking a shot at, like the Dailuaine 16 and the Glen Elgin 18 which both clock in under $90; nor collectable like old Caol Ila, or out of the ordinary like old Balmenach. What we have is a $150 bottle of whisky that isn't a priority to either particular group of drinkers. There's no name, no story, no special flavor, no hurry to buy, and no real selling point. It's just good Scotch from a good distillery, nothing more.
I decided to spend my entire weekend drinking glasses of Bruichladdich 21 to see what I could find to say about this whisky (other than complete drinking satisfaction). Personally, I have a real soft spot in my heart for the Islay distillery because of our close relationship and the time I've spent in Scotland with both Jim McEwan and Simon Coughlin. We're always under some kind of Peter Pan-like spell when we visit the place. But this cask was chosen by David OG, Kyle, and myself while sniffing around the Signatory warehouse in Pitlochry, so there was no localized romanticism at work while we tasted an Islay classic in the dead center of the Scottish mainland. Our thinking was simply this: there's very little mature Bruichladdich left that hasn't either been funkdafied (a term I'm borrowing from Da Brat) in old, stale sherry, or glossed over and reshaped in some sort of first-growth Bordeaux wine cask. So much of what's available (and what's been available) from Bruichladdich has either been vatted into the Black Art series, or moved through into a super-pricey distillery exclusive 375ml (see my old 2012 photo below for a look at the gift shop shelf).
The bottles above are where most of the leftover Bruichladdich stock has ended up. The last bottle of pure, unmanipulated, ultra-mature Bruichladdich whisky I remember tasting from the distillery was the 1985 DNA release and I think we sold the last of that for $400 a bottle. These were the issues the three of us discussed as we stood there with Des, watching our breath freeze in front of us, cupping our hands around the Glencairn glasses in an attempt to warm up the barrel sample. K&L has always been a haven for Bruichladdich fans, an outpost for the distillery that began back with Susan Purnell in 2006. We should try to keep some of that fire alive, shouldn't we?
Speaking in terms of comparative pricing, the Bruichladdich 21 cask from Signatory is pretty well priced. It's a single barrel at 56.2% that comes in at $149.99, which seems more than fair considering the distillery 22 year chimes in at $200, and the 18 year (if you can still find it) sells for about $140. Again, what stands out for me is the purity of the whisky. It seems crazy to be living in an age when plain old hogshead whisky would be something to celebrate, but with Bruichladdich that's where we're at. The 21 year old cask from Signatory is malty on the nose with a faint trace of phenolic action. The Islay character is present in the aroma, even though the bouquet itself is gentle and not at all straightforward. The first sip is all salty biscuit, lemon with sweet grains, and then a hint of earthy peat on the finish. With water, the subtle phenols become more apparent.
There's something utterly nostalgic about the whisky for me. I used to taste samples like this Bruichladdlich all the time a few years ago. You could get a cask like this whenever you wanted back then, so there was no real reason to get excited about something so omni-present. It's just simple, unpeated Islay whiskey that pleases the palate and goes down easy. As I have less time and less of a capacity to enjoy single malt these days, I find that I'd rather have something like this 21 year when I do get the chance to relax. It's no different than how I like to relax with a glass of 4% ABV English bitter rather than a 9% California IPA. It's no different than how I would rather drink two glasses of 11% French gamay, than one abrasive glass of 16% California Cabernet.
I miss the ability to just drink something simple, well-made, and straightforward that has a reasonable price tag and offers me a chance to recapture a bit of the past. Ultimately, it's possible that David OG and I bought this cask more for ourselves—for our personal enjoyment and consumption, rather than for our customers. Every year we go back to Scotland and find ourselves personally more interested in what won't sell, than what we can actually move through inventory of. It's exciting to find a barrel of whisky that we know people will like (and obviously it's our job to do so), but I think sometimes the two of us simply like to relive old liquid memories and can't help ourselves when we taste something like the Bruichladdich 21.
In the old single malt market, mature Bruichladdich from a hogshead wasn't all that prevalent, but it wasn't all that sought after either. In today's new market with $500 bottles of 25 year old standards, I'm not sure it's all that more desirable. That's OK, though. I don't mind sitting on this stuff for as long as we need. It's not like we can get more anyway.