Coming on song

Coming on song

Dominic Roskrow looks at four distilleries that have recently passed a big milestone.

News | 05 Jun 2009 | Issue 80 | By Dominic Roskrow

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The reopening of a distillery is a cause for celebration and is recognised as such. But perhaps just as significant is the day when the distillery bottles its first whisky made entirely of post-reopening malt.“Islanders carried children on their shoulders to witness the historic moment.They lined the Islay shore. The single morning plane, bringing more guests, was running late. The people on the shore scanned the skies. They had waited 10 years; what was another hour? Lovers of Bruichladdich had come from London, Seattle and Tokyo. There were tears of joy, a ceilidh, and fireworks at midnight.” The late Michael Jackson’s description of the reopening of Bruichladdich in 2001 captures perfectly the sense of occasion created by the reopening of a distillery.Not just when new spirit is set to flow, either. Speak to those tasked with renovating a disused distillery and putting it back in working order and they will talk of the same sense of excitement and expectation. Here’s Jackie Thomson on the moment she first set eyes on Ardbeg.“It was in a terrible state and I wondered what I had let myself in for. It needed a lot of tender loving care, a lot of work and a lot of paint. But you could see straightaway what a special place it was, and what potential it had.” A whisky distillery is cherished by the community it operates in and when one is mothballed or closed it becomes a sulky monument to failure, its silence casting a shadow over everyone connected to it.When the situation is reversed it invigorates and energises the whole region.After all the bunting and bands have gone, though, it’s down to business and a lengthy war of attrition while spirit is made and casked and the new owners set about selling the best of the old stock and salvaging the rest. And of course it’s years before the new stock makes it into the bottle, and when it does there’s rarely the same sort of fanfare or fuss.So is the moment when the new team produces its first all new malt a special one for those involved?Recently a handful of distilleries which reopened in the late 90s or at the start of the new millennium have done just that, including Bruichladdich.According to Mark Reynier it’s an important milestone but one that is very different to when a distillery reopens.“The more prosaic reality is that there is a long drawn out period of logistic and planning involved before you get to the following phase,” he says. “That somewhat detracts from the spontaneity of the event.“To be honest it’s more of a relief than anything. The real pleasure dawns when one sees the bottling on the shelf of a shop, a review from a taster one respects, and repeat orders come in. Then it finally dawns on you, with a huge sense of pride, that we did that.“It’s a coming of age for the team, not the distillery. And there’s a huge sense of how time flies. Is it really eight years since we started doing this? With all the trials and tribulations you’re just grateful to have got here. What we have created has a long gestation period but equally it will be around for generations. It is this sense of time and place, of history, that is awesome.” Over at BenRiach Billy Walker also talks about how the distillery’s first all new bottling helped define the new team. The first all new malt is called Birnie Moss and is both young and heavily peated.“It was certainly a defining moment in the history of the distillery,” says Walker. “We felt that it was important to bring an expression to the market which recognised this milestone, but importantly we wanted an expression that would project the personality of the ‘new’ team. The choice of a young peated Speyside whisky was a conscious decision because we had closely followed the progress of the 2005 peated fillings, which were matured in top quality fresh bourbon casks and were seriously chuffed at the quality which had developed.We felt that a young peated whisky would work much better than a young and immature fruity Speyside one.” The subject of what sort of malt to release raises the question of whether new distillers are under any pressure from long-standing fans who have expectations of the new whisky and what it should taste like. It seems not. Indeed, Bruichladdich’s Mark Reynier is blunt in his response.“There was no pressure from existing fans of the distillery for us,” he says. “And if there had been I would have suggested they might like to consider buying their own distillery.” Billy Walker, too, didn’t feel pressure from the weight of expectation. Indeed, the surprise element has worked in the distillery’s favour.“We have successfully brought a wide range of new expressions to the market without any evidence that the BenRiach fan felt in some way compromised,” he says.“Indeed the reverse is true. We have found that the fresh ideas have helped to increase the fan base for BenRiach.” When Burn Stewart took over Deanston in the early 1990s its thinking was straightforward. If it could make better tasting spirit by imposing quality controls and new production methods then it would do so. It took the distillery manager (and coincidentally Billy Walker, who was the company’s production director at the time) a while to get it right but in late 2008 Deanston was relaunched as an altogether brighter, fruitier and lengthier 12 Years Old, made completely with malt produced during the Burn Stewart era. MacMillan promised as long ago as 1993 that the eventual new bottlings would be better – and the new 12 Years Old is.“For the first time we controlled everything from buying in the ingredients through to actually getting a bottle in to the hands of customers,” says Deanston brand manager Marco Di Ciacca. “Once we took control of the distillery Ian MacMillan introduced his own quality controls along with a stringent wood policy. The quality of the liquid improved dramatically so we seized on the opportunity to re-launch and reposition the brand.” While Deanston enjoys some local loyalty and has big pockets of support in the United states, it is still a relatively unknown malt.Ardbeg, on the other hand, has always enjoyed an iconic status, and there are enough bottles of old Ardbeg around to provide its owners with a constant reminder of what is expected of the malt.Did that create additional pressure on the new owners?Not according to Dr Bill Lumsden, who last year oversaw both the arrival of the first all-new Ardbeg and the launch of Glenmorangie Original containing liquid made entirely with malt made on his watch.“When we took on Ardbeg we inherited stocks that were frankly of an inconsistent standard,” he said. “We set about making new spirit to the best standards we could.But we wanted to reassure fans of the distillery as to what we were doing, which is why we did the Very Young, Still Young and Almost There bottlings. For us the key thing was whether our version of Ardbeg is better than the old one, and we think it is.” That, in a nutshell, is the crux of the matter.Lumsden Walker, MacMillan and at Bruichladdich Jim McEwan are all masters of their craft and they have brought their knowledge of quality in all aspects of production to bear.In all cases the results are impressive and stand up to comparison with any of the distillery’s past out put.“It’s about education,” concludes Deanston’s Ian MacMillan.“If you let people know what you’ve done and why you’ve done it and they can taste the results for themselves, then there’s no problem. We’re making better whisky now, simple as that.”
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