I suppose I’m no different than anyone else. We all have too many bottles of whisky in our homes or stashed away elsewhere—waiting, I hope, for that moment to be opened, explored and shared.
Every bottle I purchase is with that sole intention. A release has to offer something that interests me personally before I hand over my card or click on “buy”—not because of its future value, status or collectability, either. It has to be a whisky or whiskey that offers the promise of quality, a new escapade or cask, or even the uncovering of an old classic.
My time on this earth dwindles with each passing day. Because of this, I want to unearth and experience as much as I can, armed with a sense of restraint, as noted in Adam’s superlative piece, and also in Dora’s honest appraisal.
That said, sometimes bottles get pushed aside or forgotten about. Our eyes are fixed upon something new, and what was next in line is relegated to the back of the cupboard, perhaps even locked away somewhere so safe that you don’t remember where it was! This was very much the case with this valinch release from Bruichladdich. I had forgotten this one was even opened, never mind what it actually nosed and tasted like. Is there a more depressing fate for a whisky?
Piecing together the details in my fragmented mind, this was opened during a whisky session with good friends. It was meant to be a Bruichladdich tasting, but the table and surrounding floor were littered with bottles. We went off on a wonderful tangent; stuff like Glenisla, Port Ellen, Tormore and oddities from the bygone days of Scotch took us in another direction. Armed with good chat and humour, it went into the wee hours of the morning. During the marathon, this particular valinch was opened and tried, and that was it. The fact that it failed to register within my biblical whisky memory bank is either a reflection of how benign it was, how much we were drinking, or maybe even that I am becoming senile. Perhaps a combination of all three?
It was only rediscovered after I went off hunting for something new to open to fit my mood. You know the score, looking at a handful of already-opened bottles, feeling that a new destination is required. Rummaging through one of several boxes, I found it sitting beside the Ukrainian Bruichladdich Super Heavily Peated. A very interesting release pre-Port Charlotte, but essentially that’s what it was, and a forerunner of a new twist. The box contained several infestations i.e. Bruichladdich bottles and clutch of these valinch releases that are exclusive to the distillery for visitors. With my faux pas discovered, the choice was already made as to which bottle was next. Stepping out into the daylight, clutching the small tin that housed this 50cl release, I was ready for an adventure and to right a previous wrong.
As I’ve already stated in a previous valinch article, these releases are a reward to those who make the trek to Islay. An opportunity to experience something exclusive, they are rolled out from the deepest Bruichladdich warehouse and brought into this world only at the visitor centre. Often the source of wacky casks and high strengths, a trek through the valinch range is arguably to discover the essence of Bruichladdich itself. Strong on branding and presentation, yet variable when it comes to the whisky, a sense of the unknown awaits.
On paper, at least, this #40 valinch is a more mundane proposition to many of you, being a refill bourbon cask, the backbone of the Scotch whisky industry. Filled on 27th February 2008 into cask #4 and rotation 17/154 and aged for a decade before being bottled at 58.2% strength, in total, 370 bottles were extracted, and this is bottle 49. The employee pictured is Michael Thomson, who has the title of product design manager.
Bourbon casks are the best vessels to allow the distillery character and spirit to announce itself on your palate and nose. These features haven’t been eroded by aggressive wood, and in doing so producing a whisky that is more like a wine composite or sherry aperitif. I’m on record as saying I don’t fully understand why Waterford are making a big deal about their French wood, or whatever vessels they are using, because this confuses and erodes the terroir character from the field, which is what we truly want to experience.
The same applies to Bruichladdich. Why people go weak at the knees for a juggernaut wine cask is beyond me. The true brilliance of whisky is harmony, and this comes from a bourbon cask. Yet I’ll say, in our era of disappointing sherry casks (seasoned or otherwise) and forceful wine vessels, the truest and rarest cask of all is becoming a superlative ex-bourbon. These are rare beasts indeed. I’ve heard distillers moan about knackered casks from America and that the quality isn’t quite there nowadays. This comes from the loss of coopers from when bourbon wasn’t as popular as it once was. Skills that take decades to rebuild and result in shortcuts within the industry to meet burgeoning demand, such as wood staves shaved to the thinnest of margins and often charred beyond an ideal spectrum. A great bourbon cask is a rare thing, or at least that’s what I’m seeing nowadays in the single cask realm.
And don’t swallow that industry line about ‘us’ having the best casks. Everyone seems to nowadays, which begs the question…
Bruichladdich Valinch 40 2008 – review
Colour: Highland toffee.
On the nose: quite tar-like with tobacco as well. A treacle sponge, brown sugar and honey-emphasising sweetness from an active cask. Rye, cardamom, worn vanilla and dried grapes. Chocolate, orange peel and tea leaves with fenugreek leaves. Water delivers maple syrup, wood spice including mace, malt and a syrup flapjack.
In the mouth: a touch of smoke, stewed apples, honeycomb and pepper. Some tarragon, chocolate, liquorice or aniseed. Toffee with a slight hint of peat and gingerbread. Water unlocks some bitter oak and harmony with cardamom and rust.
Almost an 8 in my book, and it is just the price that stops me from awarding such a score. £75 for a 50cl equates to £105 for a standard sized bottle in the UK, a little pricey for a 10-year-old, although if you think about it in Octomore terms…
That aside, there is plenty to enjoy here. If only Bruichladdich released more like this. The cask has played an active and important part in the whisky development. When you have a fine ex-bourbon cask, you do really appreciate it. None of the washed-out qualities we’re seeing more of at retail. This wood for once has something to say in tandem with the distillery character.
Ultimately, the message here isn’t about the wood, value or even Bruichladdich. The message I take from all for this is to look at the back of the cupboard, shed or wherever. Take that chance, open something new and enjoy the ride, ideally with friends.