It’s never particularly hard work to go to Islay. In fact, you have to remind yourself this is actually work, and you’re not just here to enjoy yourself (though I did).But my arrival was low key. Heavy, driving rain obscured the view across Loch Indaal; even moving between distillery buildings ensured a good soaking and dark clouds hung low over Bruichladdich.But that’s enough of the impressionistic stuff. Mood music gives way to the facts. Bruichladdich distillery was founded in 1881 and, until the next few days, will enjoy the distinction of being the most recent distillery to be built on Islay (the new Kilchoman farm distillery over Sunderland Hill at the back of Bruichladdich will shortly acquire that title).The distillery was built in 1881, for William Harvey IV and his two brothers by their uncle, Barnet Harvey, financed by a bequest from their father William Harvey III. They chose a location on the edge of Loch Indaal, on the Rhinns, the most westerly point of Islay. At the time it was a state-of-the-art plant, and it has remained very much the same ever since, with most of the original equipment still in use. Using cavity walls and a new fangled material – concrete – made from pebbles from the sea shore, this was a purpose built operation, efficiently laid out, built around a central courtyard that housed the Kiln (removed in 1961) and a large steam engine that provided the power.Alfred Barnard passed through five years later recording a “solid handsome structure in the form of a square” and appearing generally impressed at the overall efficiency of the distillery, then producing 94,000 gallons (around 427,000 litres) annually.Like so many other sites, Bruichladdich has been through a bewildering series of ownership changes in the last 30 years. Latterly it was part of Jim Beam Brands, by way of Whyte & Mackay and Invergordon. Eventually, it was closed and left idle, ‘surplus to requirements.’ And that was probably going to be that.Bruichladdich’s fate, at least in the hands of the corporate monoliths, was to moulder on until the equipment was broken up for scrap. Fortunately there’s not much demand for supermarkets or blocks of smart apartments in the Rhinns so the buildings stayed intact.However, like as not, in 1994 Bruichladdich was set to join Lochindaal and Port Ellen on Islay’s roll of honour of dead distilleries. Sad, but that’s progress. Just one of those things. After all, it was ‘surplus to requirements’. Who can argue with that?Well, Mark Reynier evidently could and did. A 40-something former wine merchant, by December 2000, he’d been trying to buy Bruichladdich for eight years.Eight years. This is not normal. Mark is unstoppably driven on the subject of Bruichladdich, and ‘terroir’ (of which, more anon), and the distilling industry, and wood policy, and barley, and marketing folk (they are the spawn of Satan I generally gathered) and any other topic that catches his restless attention. After an hour or so, I had to go and lie down, feeling vaguely sorry for the negotiating team at Jim Beam Brands.But, all pretence of journalistic detachment aside, I can’t but respect his restless energy, and non-stop enthusiasm, and opinions as strongly-held as the fearsome Octomore that’s maturing in the Port Charlotte warehouses is pungent. In fact, I adore it all (though I wouldn’t want to work for him!).In 2000 the purchase of the distillery (with some 8,000 casks dating back to 1964) was completed on 19th December – a year before Mark’s 40th birthday and half an hour after his son, Ruaridh, was born.With his friends Simon Coughlin and Gordon Wright (yes, the Springbank Wrights), Jim McEwan and Andrew Gray from Bowmore an independent Scottish company with entirely private shareholders was formed – Jim Beam Brands collected £7.5m and the hard work began.In 2001 the plant was entirely renovated. All the Victorian equipment, much of it still original 19th century engineering, was retained. Local labour completed much of the work, as Ileachs renewed the connections of their youth with Bruichladdich.Distilling re-started at 8.26am on May 29th 2001 with the heavily peated Port Charlotte (40ppm) in homage to the Harvey Brothers, and the original Bruichladdich first distilled in 1881. At first, output was modest. Cask sales direct to the public provided vital cash flow.OK, I’ll confess to buying one. I know it’s silly, but back then I got caught up in the emotion of it all. When, completely by accident, I caught sight of my cask I felt quite irrationally proud. Some owners send their casks birthday cards; some come to visit; one ex-bourbon barrel is even decorated with party streamers, a little hat and a special plaque. I limited myself to patting the head of mine, but couldn’t stop grinning like a fool.Four years on, and the good news is that private cask sales are being cut back. “And why is that good news?” you may very well ask. Simply because the distillery, despite stepping up production by 35 per cent this year (back to 1881 levels), needs most of this new make for its own future sales so there is very little left for you and me.But that’s actually great news for lovers of good whisky who love Bruichladdich’s idiosyncratic approach and hanker after a romantic golden age of robustly independent Scottish firms (and Kentucky gentlemen making bourbon and so on).After all, as Aeneas MacDonald pointed out, the deeper meaning of Burns’ oft-quoted line ‘freedom and whisky gang tegither’ is that “freedom is not a social myth or a national egotism but rather the profounder autonomy of the individual soul.”That’s expressed in Bruichladdich’s refusal to join the SWAand gestures such as naming the latest Valinch release (the handbottling direct from the cask, permitted only to visitors to the distillery) ‘From Red to Black’. The name’s a reference to the colour of the ink on the profit and loss account, Bruichladdich having now turned the corner into profit and taking this opportunity to salute the sceptics.There’s so much to tell. Walking round the warehouses, including the incredibly evocative dunnage buildings at Port Charlotte, formerly the Lochindaal Distillery premises, I saw a bewildering cornucopia of good things.There are riches yet to be released that I can only hint at – the second release of ‘3D’ – nicknamed Moine-Mhor, or The Big Peat, a vatting of three different decades of heavily, medium and lightly peated Bruichladdich; new made spirit from organic and Islay grown barley, fragrant and aromatic; ranks of superb casks including beauties from Chateau d’Yquem, peerless Sauternes beloved of Russian oligarchs, awaiting filling; a rumoured Octomore that has hit 300 ppm of phenols. The audacity of it! The impudence!Beneath the restless innovation there’s an intellectual rigour and a vision at odds with industry norms. Mark Reynier and some of his management team come from a wine trade background. Naturally, then, they are obsessed by ‘cuvees’, and ‘terroir’ – the specific characteristics of origin obtained from the environment, soil and micro climate around the barley.“Our belief,” he proclaims, “is that origin and micro-climate can make a critical difference to flavour. And now we can prove it. We want to savour that variety and celebrate the excitement and fun of experimenting with a palette of flavours, rather like a painter with a palette of colours.”This has led Bruichladdich to source only Scottish barley and to experiment with locally grown crops. It’s a move resisted by the rest of the industry, more concerned with yields and economics and a recent move in the Scottish Parliament by Liberal Democrat Andrew Arbuckle failed to gain support for the exclusive use of Scottish barley in distilling whisky.Arbuckle’s argument was that it was inconceivable the French would allow Champagne to be made with anything other than home-grown grapes or that Parma ham might be made with imported pig meat. “But,” he told MSPs, “Scottish whisky makers can, and do, use imported grain to make Scotland’s national drink.”Mark Reynier whole-heartedly agrees: “It does after all say Product of Scotland.” As Arbuckle points out: “Half the current Scottish whisky industry is owned by foreign companies... it may give an inkling that support for the Scottish economy is not a priority for some whisky makers.” Expect this debate to run further.With this background, I confronted Mark with the persistent rumour that the distillery would be up for sale soon. With Bruichladdich back in profit, awards being won, sales growing and their reputation rising, surely now was the time to cash in and invest in a little vineyard in the sun? The spluttering could be heard as far away as Bowmore.“I think it is more a bit of industry wishful thinking. We’re not for sale,” he told me indignantly. “Our shareholders, management and employees all understand and agree we’re here for the long-term. We still have a lot more to do. More projects. We’re building something precious and different and having far too much fun to cash in.”So that’s clear. Bruichladdich will continue to send bottles up Mount Everest and to the North Pole. It’ll release a staggering variety of ages, styles and expressions, revelling in their freedom from a ‘corporate house style’ and the flexibility of owning its own bottling line using Islay Spring water. (Abottling line. On Islay. Don’t even try to do the maths). It’ll continue to receive whisky fans at their whisky Academy. It’ll persist with their preindustrial distilling and continue to give us non-chill filtered, colouring-free drams, packed with fatty acids, gloriously anachronistic and robustly independent.And while it’s at it, it’ll pick up a Queen’s Award for Enterprise and be recognised by The Scotch Whisky Directory as having the only whiskies to score zero ratings for undesirable impurities and off-flavours of any kind.So little wonder that the black clouds seemed to have disappeared by the time I left. Bruichladdich really is enjoying its moment in the sun.Tel: +44 (0)1496 850 221
Distillery tours are available all year round (restricted winter opening). Check details and book on-line.