DIALOGOS Debate: A Legacy in the Making

IN

PART ONE: BOOM & BUST

Islay has a long tradition of whisky making. In many circles, that carries a weight and gravitas that heritage equals quality.

Beyond the borderline cheesy marketing used in today’s sales literature, the tradition of whisky making on Islay means that knowledge is passed down from generation to generation, sometimes within families. It can offer a unique perspective, if you choose to take it, regarding the contrasts in techniques from then ‘til now.

“Whisky used to be made with time and care and respect”, you’ll hear. “It wasn’t forced through a still and made as efficiently as possible. There weren’t people sitting in front of a control board pushing buttons under air-conditioning.” If you go back far enough, to the 19th century say, there are documents supporting the suggestion that whisky-making in ‘the good old days’ was done with more effort, increased labour but also increased uncertainty. The workforce was thrice what it is in most Scotch distilleries today, and practices that kept spirit consistent were seldom applied. The process was far from ‘optimised’ with modern machinery but gradually marginal gains were sought, including where high-yielding barley could be sourced.

The older generation here will proudly comment on barley being brought from India, even as far afield as Australia, due to the large pea size, the ease of malting and the ultimate yield per tonne of alcohol. That’s not to say that all barley was grown outside of the country, but by the 1960s, a global supply chain that was commercially driven, it was commonplace to buy the component that was most beneficial, rather than what was reared on your doorstep. Think along the lines of today’s steel supply.

To give context to the time and place of when this barley was brought to Islay, distilleries were still being used as factories to produce the component parts for blends. The price of whisky was often dictated by another in the chain, and owners were forced to make whisky cheaply and in favour of consistency. The spirit was to be placed alongside other spirits, from other producers; a mixture of cheap grain spirit with a few single malts included for robustness and flavour. There was no starring role for single malts within a blend necessarily, and so the temptation to make alcohol outgrew any desire to make that spirit as flavoursome as possible.

It was a boom and bust industry, where trends for specific types of drinks, world wars, and a prohibition movement could open and close distilleries in a matter of weeks. The commercial agility of distillers determined their survival but an industry left jaded is a necessarily ‘lean’ industry, one where a room for error is no longer tolerated, and where the safe path is the only path.

Part 2: HIGH RISK STRATEGY

When Bruichladdich was purchased by the company that made all but two employees redundant in 1994, they did the present day owners a favour. Not the community of course, that was catastrophic, but whisky’s future was far from secure during that decade. Mass amalgamations prior to the 90s meant many businesses sat with a portfolio of distilleries under their wing, with little need for them. There was no requirement for Bruichladdich to be running a half week, let alone a full one, and critically, no need to upgrade it.  In a laterally kind turn of fate, the decision to close Bruichladdich and focus production in elsewhere saved our traditional Victorian machinery from being ripped out and replaced with control boards with buttons, closed topped mashtuns and stainless steel washbacks.

The (re)founders of Bruichladdich purchased a sorry state in the year 2000. The rest of their story is well-documented. What is not as obvious, is that single malts were still gaining traction. It certainly was not the sophisticated and booming global business it is now, and it was arguably dominated by just a few key players.

So in 2000, it was a high risk strategy to introduce a distillery that bucked the trend of efficiency over yield and invest heavily in quality not quantity. Spending hundreds upon thousands of pounds on good quality wood, flavourful barley – not necessarily that with the biggest return in yield, and keeping things as slow as slow could be, would just have been considered bad business. Include the quaint fact that you had to wait at least three years, often longer, to see any monetary return on these choices and you can imagine why the industry looked on in bemusement at Bruichladdich. And perhaps why the distillery teetered on the edge of profitability for years

This present trend of eating local and having transparency over ingredients didn’t exist on any great scale either. In fact, what most people wanted was consistency and recognition of the same product from Beijing to Bogota. The thought of introducing variety and nuance, abstaining from processes of chill filtration and caramel colour was ludicrous.

Part 3: UNCOMPROMISING MAVERICKS

Does this have anything to do with Octomore? Well, yes. If you take the world’s most heavily peated whisky, bottle it at a high strength, low age, add nothing and take nothing away, you could well have a recipe for disaster. Octomore now, with the benefit of hindsight, is a success. It has evolved into a full series, with a huge legacy behind it, each expression a sensorial exploration of knowledge gained. But had it not been for those original uncompromising decisions, the sheer, stubborn belligerence to always invest in the best flavour possible, you may well have a one dimensional peat explosion. There’d have been no fatty unctuousness of local barley, no supply of European oak in the warehouses or the top-tier selection from cooperages. There’d be no long slow fruity fermentation, no trickle distillation and no manual cutting points that relied on a stillman’s knowledge over timings set on a computer. There’d be little control over our desired, balanced flavour if we were producing to a number on a spreadsheet rather than a flavour in a glass.

Had all of the ideology been different, that first bottle of 01.1 may have failed miserably, before Octomore ever made a name for itself.

This is a long-winded way of saying that when Octomore was first created, it was a massive risk. Only a distillery that was truly entrepreneurial, with a huge tolerance for experimentation and failure could have made it into the series it is today, with a range that questions the fundamentals of each stage of the whisky making process. Characteristics celebrated in this 9th series of the world’s most heavily peated single malt, especially those which embrace variety and pioneer provenance, could only be created by uncompromising mavericks far and away ahead of their locavore time.

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