To the ancient Greeks the Hebrides were Hyperborea – A mythical land beyond the North Winds. To the Viking Norsemen these islands were Havbredey, “Isles on the edge of the sea”; curiously, they have always been an other-worldly place… a far-off land of mystery, both exotic and fearsome but often also held to be a land of peace and fulfilment.
Today, while most distilleries are controlled from corporate management offices in London, Paris, Tokyo, New York - even Trinidad - Bruichladdich is owned by a small number of private investors – many with island connections - and is registered on Islay and pays UK corporation tax.
Since its creation in 1881, Bruichladdich distillery has led a chequered, almost fated life. Family feuds, recessions, industry cartels, deception, world wars and sheer bad luck all took their toll, and in many ways it’s a miracle that the distillery is still here today. In 1994 Bruichladdich was bought by Jim Beam Brands and finally closed down, its staff made redundant – on an island not noted for its employment opportunities - and just two men kept on to rattle the locks.
Budgie & John were the night watchmen during that closed phase. Budgie is our stillman today, while John started work in the warehouses at the distillery in 1980. He was originally a cooper, and learnt his trade alongside Davie Bell, who was himself a cooper at Bruichladdich in 1934.
Lineage, pedigree, connection, continuity.
In 1974 Duncan MacGillivray started work at Bruichladdich as stillman. He went on to become engineer, and then brewer in 1978. He left in 1984 when the distillery went on to a one day week… was back again in 1990 until 1994. When we bought Bruichladdich we had to persuade Duncan to give up running his garage to come back for one last time to help us out. He’s now our General Manager.
This fascinating little distillery has always been at the heart of the community on the Rhinns of Islay. Today, Bruichladdich is the biggest employer on the island after the State - 50 islanders are employed along with a hard working host of contractors, farmers and friends without whom we simply couldn’t make our whisky. We pride ourselves in creating jobs that can keep young Ileachs on the island – our Distillery Manager, Allan, is the youngest in the Scotch whisky industry.
Chrissie, our export manager, is also a crofter, and in lambing season is known to be out in the field before dawn and then at her desk for 8.30. The inimitable James Brown – farmer, athlete, contractor, holiday house-renter, lighthouse-keeper, policeman – owns nearby Octomore farm - when it comes to bottling our whisky, it’s from James that we get our soft spring water, and he grows Octomore barley for us – barley grown on the island for the first time for a century.
Mary, our Shop Manager, is the third generation of her farming family to work at Bruichladdich; her grandfather would unload the puffers of their barley with horse and cart.
Why does this matter? To many it doesn’t – much of the Scotch whisky industry seems content to produce single malt by industrial process – super-efficient production lines, the cheapest litre of alcohol possible… computers in place of human eye and ear, technicians rather than stillmen, laboratory analysis rather than human taste and smell. And many whisky distilleries – many here on Islay – for the sake of economy, choose to mature their Islay whisky in huge centralised, industrial warehouses on the mainland – losing all connection with this unique island, its place of origin.
We believe the consolidation of the Scotch whisky industry has led to a loss of soul, identity, of character… we believe that single malt whisky, like any artisan, living product should speak of the place from which it comes, of the people who have created and nurtured it; of the soil, the air, the geography that influence it – of PLACE. We believe it should be a reflection of the soul of those who have laboured to produce it.
All very “Local Hero”, we appreciate. But in an age when 60% of the Scotch whisky industry is controlled by just two global corporations, surely there is room for a little innocence, a passion, a belief in time, the “specialness” of place, and a belief in people?