Port Charlotte Rising

  • 6 mins

Following the release of Port Charlotte's very first 18 year old single malt, we reflect on the journey of our heavily-peated Islay whiskies.

Picture the 1990s: Islay is facing depopulation, especially among the young. Port Charlotte Hotel had been up for sale. Other distilleries are derelict. Bruichladdich Distillery, that for 100 years had been the centre of employment and activity in the village it spawned, is dormant. The gates are locked. The only sounds in the still house are from the pigeons roosting in the rafters.

Bruichladdich was closed in 1994, followed by the village shop. Just two men were employed to guard the stocks which remained in our warehouses and withdraw the barrels as required by its mainland owners. They kept the roofs intact and the records in order, not knowing whether the place would have a future.

The turn of the millennium brought the stirrings of new energy, and rebellion, to Bruichladdich. Fifty small investors, led by entrepreneurs from the wine trade, managed to buy the distillery, making it one of the few independently owned distilleries of its time. The distillery’s former Engineer, Duncan MacGillivray from Port Charlotte, came back as Distillery Manager. His ability to mend and patch our Victorian equipment, recycle spare parts, and barter for what we didn’t have, was crucial. Charismatic Master Distiller, Jim McEwan, also a football coach on the island, brought in blending and distilling expertise, and was keen to create opportunities for young locals.

The team had fresh ideas, and set course to explore what Islay actually tasted like; could it become a terroir for whisky, as there were terroirs for wine? They started to explore whether the island’s predominantly livestock farms could grow barley for malting. They bought the empty warehouses of the former distillery at Port Charlotte so that the maturing spirit could all be kept on Islay and managed in-house. They wanted to invest in a way that would keep jobs on the island, and decided in 2002 to build the means of bottling everything on site, using local spring water. This went way further than what is legally required to label a whisky “Islay single malt”. Port Charlotte was the first spirit we made in these heady, D-I-Y days.

Besides the flavours coming from the casks and the distillation, there’s always a hint of salt, of minerality, in our whisky which is a hallmark of its all-Islay maturation. The unique island locale has had a profound influence on the Port Charlotte 18 Year Old – it’s a long time to be sitting yards from the sea in a drafty stone building! The smooth, beautifully-rounded finish you get with age, in which the elegant peat smoke lingers, is made more vibrant by what Adam describes as its “nutty salinity”.

“A whisky dedicated to our island, our community, and people. So much has evolved and changed on our island while these casks have been quietly maturing in our warehouses. This 18 Year Old pays homage to our past while looking ahead to the future.”
Adam Hannett, Head Distiller

Our experiments with casks began early. Those connections with the wine trade gave us access to some of the greatest appellations in France, and contacts in Spain’s sherry triangle and in Italy, wood that had never been tried for the maturation of whisky.

“I was like a kid in a candy store,” says Jim. “I had worked with sherry casks, I knew what they did. But nobody was using wine casks. The fruit notes and colours we were getting were just incredible.” Layering such high quality wood’s tannins and spices with the poignant smoke of Port Charlotte, plus the delicate florals and barley fruits of our stills, and you had the recipe for something very interesting in Port Charlotte.

Our now Head Distiller, Adam Hannett, Jim’s successor, has used 74% second fill Sherry casks, 26% second fill French Oak wine casks to create the first 18 Year Old expression 18 Year Old expression, which is partly what makes it so complex and gentle. Port Charlotte is such a good vehicle for exploring new dimensions within the peated whisky category that Adam has also devised a dedicated Cask Exploration Series, now on its sixth iteration and counting.

In our on-site warehouses, as of February 2024, we have over 100,000, casks, of more than 260 varieties. An estimated 75% are wine casks, dessert wines or sherries. We acquire new cask types all the time, and intelligently rework the spirit we have, as we watch it all maturing on Islay.

The careful marriage of sherry and wine casks in the Port Charlotte 18 Year Old tells in the wood spice and sweetness on the palate, as well as in the fig, sweet sultanas, and raisins which open on the nose. The distillery had in recent memory only been used to create unpeated whisky, mostly for blends. Bruichladdich wasn’t associated with the smoky flavours of Islay; our tall, narrow-necked stills produce elegant, floral, light spirit.

It was with some emotion that the team quietly gathered to watch the stills running again on the morning of 29th May 2001, the first of our Fèis Ìle open days. It was the heavily-peated Port Charlotte they were watching pour off Bruichladdich’s renownedly floral stills, turning things on their head from the outset.

In 1962, our own kilns, which were possibly connected with the distillery’s own peat bank, were removed, leaving a mythology around whether there had been any peat in pre-1960s Bruichladdich whiskies. Regardless, Port Charlotte’s peating level was set to the 40 PPM so characteristic of the Islay style, so we were about to find out what the modern reincarnation tasted like.

Master Distiller at the time, Jim, still felt he had a point to prove, five years after that first spirit run, even with all the Islay-centric investment that had shown the establishment a new way to interpret what an Islay whisky could and should be. “It was so good when we brought out PC5 because all the people who said Bruichladdich is not a true Islay, because it’s not peated… Right, I said, try this! And it was just spectacular. The stills at Bruichladdich are so beautiful. Then the world started to take notice.” The PC5 “Evolution” was a small release, like the 18 Year Old, just 6,000 bottles, but it was a big milestone for us as an independent, Islay-centric company.

The depth of flavour potential created by our wood policy allows for constant evolution. Adam is still finding just how much a multi-layered, versatile spirit like Port Charlotte can be refashioned and reinvented through maturation.

"What you’ll find with Port Charlotte, 40 PPM - heavily peated whisky - the peat smoke is always held in check by the balance of the whisky, so the other flavours come through.

French oak, depending on the toast, is really, really expressive and gives us different flavour profiles than American oak, which is maybe more traditional. So, a really interesting ingredient to work with.”
Adam Hannett, Head Distiller

In Islay terms, the Port Charlotte is still a New Kid on the Block. The release of the 18 Year Old marks how it’s becoming more well-established, even while it advances the fresh script on the range and subtlety of flavours people can expect within the heavily peated profile of an Islay single malt.

“Port Charlotte is still a young spirit,” says Adam, “We’re still watching it develop, wondering what it’s going to be like as a 30 year old...” You’re welcome to stay tuned.