Does it matter where whisky is matured?

All our whisky is Islay matured, the majority kept at Bruichladdich itself, or in warehouses two miles further down the Rhinns coast at the village of Port Charlotte.

We believe that Bruichladdich benefits from maturing in such a volatile climate. But it was never intentional.

The distillery was built at Bruichladdich for its water and access for back in 1881, little whisky was matured on the island, most, in keeping with other distillers, was warehoused more conveniently in Glasgow.

Bruichladdich is located on the western side of the island on the shores of Loch Indaal. it is completely exposed to the full force of Atlantic storms, particularly the prevailing winds of the south west. Blasted by hurricane force winds, the vapourised, salt-laden, sea-spray permeates the very fabric of the distillery. Windows and car windscreens are covered in a layer of salt, glass-less warehouse windows allow free circulation of marine air.

Vaporised salt molecules are smaller than the grain of oak. Salty, marine-enriched air oxygenates the spirit as the casks 'breath' day in, day out, over decades, while the barrel's metal bands are corroded by rust. Salt corrosion is a big problem at Bruichladdich.

But it's not just the salt. Seaweed and shorelines play their part in making the fresh smell of the seashore.

The mystery was unlocked by Professor Andrew Johnston, Professor of Biology at East Anglia University, who has isolated the gene responsible.

The distinctive fresh, ‘ozone’ smell associated with the coast is not ozone at all, but a gas known as Dimethylsulphide (DMS) – in highly diluted concentrations.

DMS is a little known but important gas produced in the sea and on the coasts. Tens of millions of tonnes of it are released by microbes that live near plankton and marine plants, including seaweeds and some salt-marsh plants.

It is a highly important negative greenhouse gas, once in the atmosphere it promotes cloud formation which reduces the amount of sunlight and heat reaching the earth’s surface.

DMS is also an effective food marker for ocean-going birds such as shearwaters and petrels. It acts as a homing scent as the birds sniff out plankton in the lonely oceans at astonishingly low concentrations.

So what does DMS actually smell like? Depending on concentration and purity there is a wide range of odours: from the unpleasant cabbage aroma to the gourmands’ holy grail - the black truffle. But in very low concentrations it smells like ozone, that fresh, healthy, briney seaside air.

DMS is likely to play its part in the marine characteristics associated with Bruichladdich whisky. According to Professor Johnston: “it would not wholly surprise me if there was some diffusion of DMS through the oak in the barrels and that this contributed to the wonderfully distinct aroma”.

See more about the importance of place in our whisky-making >

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