Whisky is all about time. Not only the long years spent maturing in damp warehouses, but the time spent in distilling. Or it should be, but in these days of modern distilling, where most whisky is destined for cheap blends, time is money. Distilling has become about ultimate efficiency, computerisation, high-density fermentation etc. The quicker, the cheaper.
Our distillery does not produce whisky for blends, everything is retained for our Bruichladdich single malt. We have the time, space and the philosophy to run our charismatic old Victorian equipment in our own idiosyncratic way. This is no sci-fi, Blade Runner set up bristling with steel, pipes and motors, and lit by the glow of computer screens. The simplicity of the Spartan layout is the proof of a beautifully simple philosophy. Less is more.
It starts with the maceration of barley in hot water to extract the sugars, in our open-topped, cast-iron mash tun. This venerable tank, the last of its kind, was built in 1881; it groans, squeaks and clanks in an unashamedly lugubrious fashion; this is the natural, ancient Celtic method that simply cannot be hurried. We could use a bright, shiny, steel, spaceship-like extractive mash tun to speed things up, but we prefer the ponderous, delicate, more natural way that the sweet, viscous ‘wort’ percolates away by gravity alone to be fermented.
The distillery was built on a gentle slope to take advantage of gravity. Any delicate pre-fermented wort needs to be handled gently, the minimum artificial manipulation the better.
Fermentation is the visually unimpressive part of making whisky. But it is the most important - and mysterious - of all: sugars, dissolved from malted barley grist into Islay water, are consumed by yeast giving birth to over 100 different flavour compounds. It is here that a single malt whisky becomes the most flavour complex spirit known to man.
Around 60% of the spirit’s flavours are created during fermentation, consequently, like winemakers, we believe the slower and more gentle, the purer and better - so we use half the yeast and take twice the time, as long as nature decides, for we are in no hurry; what’s a few extra days out of 15 years? It is these flavours, supplemented by flavours from the oak casks, which will be developed by micro-oxygenation during the long years of maturation.
Stainless steel vats are of course cheaper to buy, easier to clean and simpler to maintain than wooden ones. But this efficiency was rejected by the great wineries of the world who have returned to wood because of its thermal qualities: fermentation generates heat, and by absorbing and redistributing it, the fermentation can be naturally extended to achieve extra purity and flavour. The ancient wood pores house our own indigenous yeast that influence the added cultures, providing a calm, smooth, gentle simmer as they go about their bespoke business. By fortune, rather than design it has to be said, we still have our time-consuming, 130 year old wooden vats.
It is in the still house, where the “weight” of the spirit is created, and there that we have our experienced stillmen: there is no formula, no software that decides the all-important middle cut. In our view there are simply too many variables and idiosyncrasies to defer the art of distillation to a microchip. The stillman’s knowledge, acquired over decades, of each still’s peculiar ways allows the distillation to be finely balanced, like a surfer riding the crest of a wave, with the heat sensitively controlled to slow the spirit run to a gentle gurgle, a trickle distillation.
All we take of the middle cut is a mere 8 percentage points of alcohol, a floating margin, determined and interpreted by the still man to obtain a more viscous, pure spirit, free of impurities.
We have the time, the inclination, and the stubbornness, to be totally uncompromising.