What is Islay? Recently, Bruichladdich tried to seize the initiative with a new marketing campaign claiming they are Islay. To an onlooker such as myself who refuses to be swept away by their cool branding, it seemed an odd move. After all, the thing that makes Islay so special is that it there is no definition and as a result it means something different to each and every one of us.
Islay to me isn’t about the whisky and I appreciate if you’ve never been fortunate to visit the island then my perspective might be less tangible. Islay is about the people and that community spirit. The friendliness of the place and everyone pulling together regardless of who they work for. That’s Islay to me in a nutshell; not the peat. Not another marketing campaign to stick a virtual flag on the landscape and claim it for your own as we’ve seen with Talisker.
Islay isn’t something you can pigeonhole to boost sales and profile. Let the whisky do the talking and here at MALT, we’re big supporters of Bruichladdich with over 50 reviews and counting. Personally, I find pre-closure Bruichladdich far more interesting than what it’s currently producing. Time may change that and hopefully, it will as my whisky friends are united by the romanticism of the distillery. Port Charlotte can be ok and I do think the new 10 year Port Charlotte bottles look tremendous. Octomore is always fun and interesting… So essentially for a non-fan, it isn’t all bad.
Except I do think they’ve taken a misstep with this new campaign. Is Islay a badge or provenance? As Bruichladdich state, the Scotch Whisky Association regulations dictate that to be called an Islay spirit you must only be mashed, fermented and distilled on Islay to qualify. Bruichladdich of course often use locally sourced grain and always Scottish barley. I’d direct you to a very interesting interview we did with the team recently. What they’re trying to achieve here is more popularity due to the rising demand for peated Islay which shows no signs of abating. I really appreciate the transparency that Bruichladdich showcase with their malts, however, what do you classify as Islay?
You could argue that the owners should be from Islay or at least live there, perhaps even that the barley should be malted on the island. In both instances, Bruichladdich falls short. Diageo has the Port Ellen maltings that can supply distilleries on the island and whilst it’s not always Scottish barley they malt for their regional distilleries, it is at least malted on the island and not hundreds of miles away in Inverness. Springbank manages to do 100% of their needs locally so it can be done if you’re willing to stomach the associated costs. For Islay currently, only Kilchoman comes close if you want to use the definition of floor malted rather than machine drums. See where we’re going here? Right down the rabbit hole into a can of worms.
How about all the spirit should be matured on the island? Mark Watt joked that Islay is sinking under its own weight of distilleries so we can imagine this slow submerging would be accelerated if all the whisky produced at Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain, Ardbeg etc had to remain within the geographical limits of Islay. Perhaps to overcome such a problem they’d have to park former oil tankers off the coastline full of barrels to meet demand and a new definition of what Islay is.
Bruichladdich, of course, has invested millions to be able to mature their stock on the island thanks to the deep pockets of their foreign owner in Rémy Cointreau. Kudos to them for being able to do this on the scale of production they are achieving. Many consumers don’t actually care where the spirit is matured. I agree there’s a certain romanticism attached to something that’s lived its life on Islay before reaching your hand. Is it essential to the process? Ultimately it depends on where you store the mainland barrels and how far do you want to take this? Only traditional floor dunnage warehousing or coastal locations?
Labelling yourself as being a revolutionary after voting for corporate ownership – where all the profits ultimately end up – seems a little short-sighted and being imaginative with the truth. The opportunity to continue on a truly exciting and trailblazing path was shunned. The more we go through the list of possibilities it all adds up to Kilchoman being more Islay doesn’t it? And I’m not a huge fan of the farm distillery either truth be told. As usual, there have been the generally blinkered comments on various social media platforms about the new campaign being great. Then there are others who prefer to look behind the headline and the reason why does all of this matter now and the timing? In reality the public reaction has been mixed.
Does this seem incredibly needy from Bruichladdich? Are they in dire need of a confidence boost perhaps? We all understand that Islay matters, but where do you draw the line? It’s just the same as provenance. Logically provenance should be everything from the crop to the malting, the distillation, maturation and bottling. For the majority, this cannot be achieved like the said flaws in Bruichladdich’s Islay argument without a certain dedication and investment that no Islay distillery owner is prepared to cover.
The logical reply is each to their own. Keep that friendly rivalry that exists on the island and the employment that whisky brings to the region. Only a few decades ago Bruichladdich and other Islay distilleries were on their knees and we almost lost them for good. Now the boom times are back but we must always keep things in perspective given the boom and bust nature of Scotch. Concentrate on making the best whisky you can and charging a fair price for it. You can keep your branding and fancy packaging for the Macallan-chasers. I’m happy with Islay the way it is.
My apologies, as this should be all about Bunnahabhain arguably the most modest and reserved of the Islay gang. A distillery that until recently lacked investment with literally its warehousing ready to fall down. Also owned by a foreign corporation, Bunnahabhain has tried to keep its maturing stock on the island by going so far as to use space at Port Ellen. The time will come when there isn’t enough space on the island to mature stock unless more warehousing is built and then there comes a tradeoff between such a practicality and the beauty of the landscape. You can plant as many trees as you like but it’s still a warehouse. Perhaps not as imposing as those seen at Macallan – how do they get planning permission for them – where such a giant space can be filled in a matter of 3 months. No wonder Macallan are building more warehousing for the coming years.
We also enjoy a Bunnahabhain and some of the interesting cask approaches they are taking. My favourite remains the standard 25 year old which is delicious. We’re going beyond that marker with a rather elder statesman in this new release from the team behind the Dornoch distillery who are in the midst of a crowdfunding drive. This Bunnahabhain was distilled in November 1989 before being bottled at 28 years of age in July 2017. The American oak hogshead resulted in 208 bottles at a strength of 43.6%, with an asking price of £195 and it’s still available as we type this.
Dornoch Bunnahabhain 1989 – review
Colour: a light pine
On the nose: a touch more peat than I was anticipating initially. This subsides revealing pine cones, tinned pineapple chunks and a nice twist of lime. Quite refreshing and airy given its age in wood, it displays a real lightness and poise. Lemon drizzle cake, sweet cinnamon, orange pips and apricots.
In the mouth: another twist more apples and Custard Creams. Memories of a nutty granola with oats layered in honey are revived as is freshly plucked basil chopped and thrown into olive oil. A subtle green fruit element with Kiwi, mango and grapefruit proves enchanting and not dominant. Lime Cordial, wine gums and a weak peppermint tea.
A really sexy and juicy Bunnahabhain with an unusual slant. You could argue the finish is weak and for its age, there isn’t enough boom factor. But stick this in your mouth and you’ll find some joy guaranteed. A lovely Bunnahabhain from Islay, showcasing another dimension and isn’t that what its all about?
My thanks to the Dornoch Castle Whisky Bar for the sample and the #weareislay images come from Bruichladdich.