Distillery Focus

Allocation of 'The Laddie'

Autres temps, autres mœurs. Times are a changing for the new French owners of Bruichladdich
By Ian Buxton
I suppose a lot of people are hoping I have something bad to say. Believe me, I did try. I looked everywhere. I looked under the washbacks for a French secret agent in hiding; I looked in the office for copies of Le Figaro; I even looked in the kitchen for some garlic but there was nothing to find.

I did find a very busy distillery, some happy and contended people and a positive story. If you're one of the noisy group of malt enthusiasts who loudly and repeatedly condemned the sale of Bruichladdich to Rémy Cointreau (and I do understand your pain, even if I don't share it) then perhaps you'd better turn to another article now. You're not going to like this.

A very brief re-cap: closed in 1994, Bruichladdich lay empty and silent on the shores of Islay's Lochindaal until it was purchased and re-opened in late 2000 by a group of private investors, led by London wine merchant Mark Reynier and his colleague Simon Coughlin. Through the turbulent decade which followed Bruichladdich adopted a stance at variance with the rest of the Scotch whisky industry, laying great emphasis on their treasured independence; focusing on terroir; believing that variety was all and generally making a nuisance of themselves. As it happens though, I don't actually think they were as much of a nuisance as they like to think - most of the industry tended to write them off as due to explode at any moment and

just got on with life, ignoring the rants from the self-styled 'renegade, maverick, trouble makers'. They just weren't that important.

Rémy Cointreau clearly thought differently. It now seems that they had been tracking Bruichladdich's progress for some years, opening a door to what big companies coyly refer to as "a conversation", and generally getting to understand what made the distillery tick. Some commentators have described the acquisition as Rémy's first involvement in Scotch whisky - it isn't. Between 1981 and 1990 they owned Glenturret so there is some organisational memory of the whisky business though, apart from being small and making whisky, there's little or nothing to link the two operations.

So fast forward to July 2012 when it was announced that the distillery had been sold. Cue general shock and outrage. Now Bruichladdich had rather gone on about their independence but put yourself in the owners' shoes: you'd put in your cash more than 10 years previously, then more cash, and then more. Despite its success and undoubted visibility, the distillery was still only working at around half its capacity and to increase production was going to require - yes, you've guessed - more cash. What's more, a loyal and dedicated workforce had seen comparatively little reward for their ingenuity, patience and hard work.

The takeover then, was entirely logical and, in fact, predictable. Only with a new owner with deep pockets could Bruichladdich move forward, increase production and satisfy their growing number of new drinkers. If that meant giving up independence then, concluded the owners, so be it. But, as all the world knows, it took a big offer - £58m in fact, though £10m of that went to settle bank and other debt.

So, just over a year on, what do we find? Firstly, production has been doubled and is now running at close to full capacity, though a little more could be obtained from the plant as it stands. Importantly, that's it: there are no plans to modernise the distillery, increase 'efficiency' or otherwise compromise its considerable charm. It's simply doing what it is designed to do but hasn't been able to for many, many years.

Secondly, that increase in output has led to the creation of six new jobs and, says MD Simon Coughlin (Mark Reynier was the only senior team member to leave), there will be more in the near future. Though they won't all be on Islay as the team of ambassadors is growing, that's incredibly important to an isolated island community with precious few openings for young people,

let alone the chance to work in a stable, international business with real career opportunities.

Where there is expansion at the distillery it can be found in the surrounding warehouses. New buildings are springing up to accommodate all the increased production and 100 per cent of the spirit will be matured on Islay. Simon Coughlin was adamant - "We will not move whisky off the island [for maturation]," he told me firmly.

And expansion was evident in the offices. Previously cramped, there are now new conference, meeting and tasting rooms and the visitor centre has a nice new door. The Valinch bottling is still there however (a port aged cask when I visited) along with a welcome as warm and as personal as ever.

Production of The Botanist gin in its distinctive Lomond still, with feature Carterhead basket for the Islay botanicals, will be stepped up - so much so that it will soon get its own bottling line where a new bottle will feature. But on this, as in everything we discussed Simon Coughlin came back to the same point. "All through the negotiations, Rémy said 'you will continue to run this' and, since then, that's exactly what's happened."

So I asked about the persistent rumours that the flagship 10 Years Old 'The Laddie' was to be discontinued. This met with an emphatic denial. The problem, it seems, is one of success. They simply didn't make enough back in the early days to satisfy today's demand, so 'The Laddie' must, of necessity, go on allocation. The moral is clear: if you see a bottle and you want it, buy it without hesitation. There isn't enough to go around and there is nothing that Bruichladdich, Rémy Cointreau or anyone else can do about it.

There will be fewer limited edition bottlings; fewer quirky special expressions and the company will concentrate on three core ranges: Bruichladdich (unpeated), Port Charlotte (peated) and Octomore (heavily peated).

I'm acutely conscious that this reads as if spoon-fed by their PR department. But it wasn't. I was given free and open access; talked to anyone I wanted to talk to; opened any door or cupboard I thought interesting. I didn't find any skeletons hiding there.

Will there be changes? Yes, of course - but I believe that they are for the good and we should all embrace and enjoy them. Perhaps The Laddie has just matured a wee bit.

Tasting Notes

Bruichladdich The Organic 46% ABV

Nose: A clean and quite milky aroma like fresh goat's cheese (this is good) alongside flowers, lemon, cut grass and general freshness.

Palate: Clean and precise with a delicious fizzy, sherberty quality that with water moves into elderflower blossom and a thick sweetness.

Finish: Creamy.

Bruichladdich Port Charlotte 9 2001 59.2% ABV

Nose: Masses of peat oils - pure phenols at work along with smoked bacon and mature nutty cheese. With water it goes back to the kiln and smouldering damp peat calf.

Palate: Big smoke from the start and a crunchy crystalline saltiness. Seems to tense slightly before relaxing finally to show its sweet heart.

Finish: Smoky.

Bruichladdich Octomore Comus 4.2 2007 61% ABV

Nose: Quite rooty/turfy smokiness - even freshly turned earth - with touches of baked banana and, with water, laurel/bog myrtle. A good sound, sweet central purity gives the necessary balance.

Palate: Plenty of cooling eucalyptus qualities and a light dustiness before it thickens in the centre revealing fruit compote.

Finish: Fresh and smoky with a building level of honeyed sweetness.