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At whisky's coalface

Bruichladdich is the latest of a series of distilleries to launch its own whisky academy. Mark Furse joined one of the first groups to see what you get for your money
By Mark Furse
Promoted under the engaging tagline: ‘got a thirst for knowledge?’ The Bruichladdich Whisky Academy is an attempt to provide participants with a structured approach to whisky making in a hands-on environment, which will appeal to all aficionados of malt whisky.In many ways Bruichladdich is ideally placed for such a venture. The Islay setting is superb – the distinctive colour used as the Bruichladdich livery replicates the colour of the sea in the bay – and the distillery is both historic and independent.I was sold the idea of the academy on an earlier visit to the distillery, at the end of the standard guided tour, convinced by the informed enthusiasm of the gui de, Adam. I do like a dram, and also enjoy being informed about my enthusiasms.Many people who have taken a distillery tour must be frustrated by the lack of engagement with the process, no matter how well structured the tour is, and the academy offers a significant step up. At the end of August, in a week of near perfect weather, I joined the academy for what was, in effect, a working holiday.The web-pages for the academy (www.bruichladdich.com/the_academy.htm) state that the aim is to allow a maximum of six people to “stay in the distillery for a week long residential course shadowing our workforce as they go about their jobs of mashing, distilling, and bottling our whisky, using equipment much of which dates from the opening of the distillery in 1881 – without a computer or automated process in sight.”I arrived at the accommodation, a spacious house behind the distillery, with a view of the loch, on Sunday evening, to be met by Fiona, the housekeeper, and the other participants. Three of us were signed up to the academy as full time ‘students’, and we were joined by a German couple researching a book, who undertook some of the academy programme, and Andrew, spending some weeks at the distillery gaining an insight into the trade before entering the industry as a professional.My fellow students were Willem and Jeffery. Willem, Dutch with an obvious passion for Islay and a wealth of knowledge about its whisky and culture, and Jeffery, a senior ER doctor from Kansas, all, like me, men of a certain age.The make up of the course is typically, but not exclusively, male, and the majority of those attending are not from the United Kingdom.Awaiting us in our well-appointed rooms, were items of academy branded clothing (which we got to keep), and a Bruichladdich miniature.On Monday morning we strolled down to the distillery for a 9am start beginning with a meeting with the redoubtable Jim McEwan, a legend in the industry.We were given A4 folders containing various information about whisky-making, warned about THE EXAM to be held on Friday afternoon, and assigned our various tasks.Willem and I were despatched to the bottling hall, while Jeffery was to spend the day mashing. We were given a safety briefing, and then shown the process of bottling the finished product.One of Bruichladdich’s strengths (no pun intended) is that its whisky is not chill filtered, meaning that the essential oils that provide part of the flavour are not removed prior to the bottling process, and a consequence of this is that the standard strength is 46% abv. We were first shown
how to determine the strength of the vatted product, using hydrometers and the relevant tables, and to calculate the amount of water necessary to add in order to produce the right quantity of whisky at any given strength. The rest of the day was spent bottling miniatures, a somewhat
repetitive task, made interesting by the people we were working with.One of the main joys throughout the week lay in being able to ask the distillery staff about their jobs, and to share experiences. It was a concern of mine that I might be in the way of people trying to go about their work, and it is of no small credit to the ethos of the distillery that at no point,
no matter how irritating and ill-informed my questions may have seemed, did this appear to be the case.All staff treated us with grace, courtesy and above all with friendliness throughout. Willem and I managed some 1,400 miniatures over the course of the afternoon. If I ever buy one of these wretched things again (Willem has a collection of over 300 Islay miniatures all, I am reliably informed, unopened) I will first stop to consider the plight of the person who had to fill and label it.The Bruichladdich website stresses as a point of pride the lack of automation in the distillery. This was one job I would be quite happy to see fully automated!Tell anyone you are going to be in a distillery for a week and the riposte is almost inevitable: ‘have one for me’, or something similar. Whilst it is certainly a pleasure to take a course where smelling like a distillery at the end of the day is a good thing, the temptation to drink all the time vanished quickly, and the health and safety instructions were very clear that drinking during the day would not be tolerated – unless, that is, the drinking was a necessary part of the working process.The no drinking policy did not extend to the evenings or to the time in the house, which was amply stocked with Bruichladdich’s final product. At about 4:30 on the first evening Jim McEwan collected us up and took us into one of the warehouses for a session of tasting from the barrels.For all of us these tasting sessions quickly established themselves as the highlight of the week’s experience. Jim’s knowledge and enthusiasm is immense, and although he can be at first a little daunting he was always an engaging host.Add to this the fact that the warehouses are redolent with the atmosphere of whisky slowly maturing, and the stage was set for some truly wonderful tasting sessions. Jeffery referred to this time as being in ‘the wee thin place’, alluding to a meeting of the physical and mystical worlds.Such was the experience of sitting in a whisky warehouse, with motes of dust suspended in slanting sun rays, being coached on how to properly assess a whisky drawn straight from the barrel.Tuesday found Willem and myself working in the warehouse, collecting barrels of 15 year old whisky in a mix of sherry and bourbon wood, to vat for the next bottling. This involved, necessarily, sampling the product to check for quality.We also had the pleasure of responding to questions from visitors on a distillery tour with all the insouciance of old-hands. After they left we caught each other’s eye, and the message was clear: ‘isn’t it nice to be on this side of the line’. On Wednesday we toured the Island and paid a visit to Laphraoig. It was a nice touch that even here we were treated well, given a tour and a complimentary miniature and shot glass. We dabbled in peat-cutting, being shown the process by Norrie Campbell, who has been cutting peat on Islay for more than 40 years, and enjoyed another of Jim’s tastings.Thursday I spent in the distilling room, controlling the speed of the process, and sampling the new spirit for strength and flavour (this was probably the most technical of the tasks I was assigned), and on Friday morning I was working in the mash-room (a 6am start being required). I also spent some time in the mill – a scene straightout of Victorian Scotland.In between, the three of us put our warehousing skills to good use building a three-high stack of hogsheads (250 litres) in warehouse 12 (damn, those things are heavy!).On Friday afternoon we took and passed our exam, and were presented with certificates qualifying us to be ‘ambassadors’ for whisky, along with an individually signed and numbered Valinch.This is the part of the process which is less satisfactory. The staff at Bruichladdich are not educationalists, and it is to their credit that this is stressed on the website. The word ‘academy’ conjures up an expectation that at least some formal teaching and presentations will take place, and that a structured learning environment will be created. This was not the case here.We all greatly enjoyed our time, and for each of us – I suspect even Willem – our knowledge of whisky was dramatically improved (in fact I’m pretty sure I could now turn out an approximation of the stuff in my garden shed given enough time). However, would Bruichladdich really fail someone who had spent the £1300 for the week?Call this the ‘Whisky Experience’, and present a certificate of completion at the end and all would be nearly perfect. On the basis that what is really being offered here is a unique experience, I have no hesitation in recommending it.