Style. A good thing right? Stylish people, stylish things, stylish places, stylish magazine. In his mesmerising ‘lost’ 1971 interview, Bruce Lee says “I do not believe in styles anymore: because of styles people are separated. They are not united together because styles became law.” Granted, he was talking about style in the context of Jeet Kune Do, however there is something to be said about ‘no-style’ – or at least a flexible approach to it.
Single malt Scotch has amassed a passionate following over the past few decades, and for the most part distilleries have built their reputation on the fact that their distinctive drams are easily identifiable by aficionados and are seen as being ‘pure’ expressions of the craft: unadulterated by other whiskies typically found in blends. But recently Jim Murray’s notoriously divisive annual publication – the Whisky Bible – raised the hackles of the whisky world, with not a single Scotch placed in the top three, and interestingly a Japanese whisky (The Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry 2013, incidentally) taking the top spot.
Don’t look so surprised. Japanese tipples have been slowly but surely nipping at the heels of the old guard since Bruce donned his first jumpsuit, and some might say their evasive ‘style’ is key to their phenomenal success. Unlike Scotch, where centuries of history and an abundance of distilleries have traditionally weaved a rich tapestry of flavours for blends and as a result are typically owned by larger parent companies, the Japanese whisky industry has had a slower, more considered approach since deciding to distil its first few drops of uisge beatha in the 1920s.
Although undeniably schooled and influenced by the Scottish style, the many decades during the 20th Century when the total of Japanese distilleries could be counted on one hand meant that to create their own blends the Japanese would rely on a single distillery to develop a range of styles for blends. This lack of restriction from the shackles of tradition (and parent companies with ulterior motives) is likely to have informed the progressive and innovative approach that is seeing whisky buffs today ready to sell their first born for but a wee drop of Karuizawa 1972.
Of course, this is not to say that Japanese whisky is the be all and end all in the world of whisky, and mind boggling innovation can be found all over the world – not least in the eyebrow-raising, rule-breaking, old guard-baiting Bruichladdich distillery on Islay.
Rocking up to the rock ‘n’ roll distillery with its turquoise colour scheme and fact-of-the-matter ‘PROGRESSIVE HEBRIDEAN DISTILLERS SINCE 1981’ written in no uncertain terms in its Akzidenz-Grotesk font gives a hint of things to come. Here, they do things a little differently, much to the chagrin of the Scotch Whisky Association, which this Victorian whisky distillery has ruffled the feathers of one too many times and which it is proudly and resolutely, not part of.
Naturally their entry-level Bruichladdich Laddie Classic showcases the distillery’s elegant, fruity and floral style, but trying to keep track of the its 430 plus-and-growing expressions of whisky is as futile as explaining to the migratory geese on the island that every time they gobble up an ancient strain of barley on Islay a whisky writer somewhere sheds a tear.
The constantly evolving range of expressions is in no small part due to the fact that aside from the un-peated Bruichladdich (unusual for an island whisky) and their excellent island-foraged-botanical ‘The Botanist’ gin, the distillery has revived the heavily peated Port Charlotte from its long-gone neighbouring distillery, as well as creating the infamous Octomore: named after the farm from which a peaty trickle of water informs what is scientifically – yet deceptively – the world’s peatiest whisky (and former Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible single malt of the year in 2011, described by master distiller Jim McEwan as an “iron fist in a velvet glove”).
“Be like water, my friend” Bruce Lee says, and water sourced from the peaty Octomore spring or nearby ‘water reservoir’ (read: puddle) is not the extent of McEwan’s focus and fascination with terroir. Jim was being a bit like water himself when he filled the wellies of his role, seeing an opportunity to flow from the neighbouring Bowmore distillery as an chance to express himself by challenging expectations and convention.
Notably, James Brown (the legendary anecdote-spinning Octomore farmer rather than the Godfather of Soul, duh) has taken on the Herculean task of supplying the distillery with five types of barley, making Bruichladdich the only distillery on the island to only use 100% home grown grain. Despite his comedic grumbles about growing a troublesome ancient strain from Orkney – “Bere barley. Why bother?” – a quick comparative tasting of a Bruichladdich made from bere/Islay/‘Scottish’/organic barley is a real eye opener, proving that nuances in the grain really can have a huge impact on the complexities of whisky, particularly with younger expressions. Even the Japanese are still getting their heads around this important consideration, with the vast majority of their whiskies using barley imported from Scotland. For any still in doubt, handily Bruichladdich have put together a marvellous ‘tasting pack’ to quell any objections and provide hours of entertainment for the whole of your family.
Naturally, changes in the seasons and working with tricksy barley strains and temperamental water sources has contributed to the focus on terroir and a view that expressions are released in vintages. But that is just the tip of the iceberg, so before we encroach into true geek territory and get all misty eyed about fluctuating iodine levels of peat depending on the sea level, it is worth considering that this fastidious approach has come about for a reason. The same reason Japanese distilleries broke protocol, the same reason Bruce Lee’s teacher Ip Man round-housed Wing Chun style into what eventually became Jeet Kune Do, the same reason most new ideas become influential: practicality, efficiency and convenience.
Romantically it is cute to look at Bruichladdichs rock ‘n’ roll distillery as a rock band that might occasionally confuse its fan base by releasing a prolific volume of concept albums, and the guys at the distillery are open to the fact that they are constantly learning from mistakes and “working on continuity”. However, their progressive approach to style can be traced back to the late 90s, where for six whole years the somewhat neglected distillery produced no whisky while the owners changed hands. By the time it bucked up its ideas in 2001 and was purchased by oenophile Mark Reiner, it had a huge gap to fill in terms of younger whiskies.
Using Mark’s expertise they started to purchase wine casks as opposed to the traditional American oak, in order to quickly impart flavor and step back into the ring with the big boys. This nifty move to adapt and survive in an increasingly competitive market resulted in the distillery courting controversy and disdain from the Scotch Whisky Association, with a bonkers selection of barrels, from cognac to Chateau Haut Brion, as well as proving to be a major influence on distilleries as far flung as Kavalan in Taiwan.
Rest assured, caramel added for colour and chill filtration typically found in many homogenous drams on the travel retail shelves are not even close to being considered, neither is adding water before barreling nor the prospect of finding one of their whiskies in any blends.
Wandering around the Bruichladdich warehouse with nowt but a tasting glass, venencia, crowbar and a healthy sense of adventure, randomly pointing at barrels proved to be most fruitful, turning me into a jovial whisky tipster: “What is in that stack of barrels way back there with nothing but a jagged fracture of daylight pouring through a tiny barred prison window for console? 2007 Port Charlotte aged in ex cognac barrels you say? Why not” (Crème caramel and candied almonds balanced with an intriguing touch of acidity taming the smoky beast indicate that this dram is well on the way to being one to watch). “Is that a Chateau d’Yquem stamp on the side of those barrels? Why, yes it is.” Not only that, but they seem to be ageing a new Octomore, with greengage in healthy competition with the peat, an inexplicable Parma violet floral sweetness pervading the everlasting finish.
Last but not least, tucked away under a cascade of barrels in an appropriately pitch-black corridor of the warehouse, the new ‘Black Art’ is dragged out onto the cold concrete floor. Black Art by name and dark arts by nature, this whisky is the mythical expression that even Bruichladdich employees talk about in revered whispers. Nobody seems to know quite what goes in, what it goes into and how it comes out, but the distinctively pink hue betrays the fact that this Scotch has seen a fair bit of time in an ex-red wine barrel, and we are whimsically informed that this stuff has been kicking around the warehouse since ’89. Liquorice, toffee and unripe banana indicate that this dram is destined for a little more hard time to think about the consequences of its ageing before unleashing itself unto the unsuspecting public.
Julian de Féral is an award-winning bartender-turned international drinks consultant and occasional raconteur.
Bruichladdich whisky is available at high-end retailers such as Harvey Nichols, Fortnum & Mason and Selfridges in the UK. Octomore retails at £100 for 70cl and their Port Charlotte £47 for 70cl.