Tasting 2015 Bruichladdich Releases with Distiller Jim McEwan

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Since Bruichladdich was reopened in 2001, just one man has been running the stills: Jim McEwan. A veteran from Bowmore (where he began working as a cooper at age 15), McEwan has overseen some 300 different bottlings of Bruichladdich during its wild first decade (and change) of production. When Remy Cointreau famously bought Bruichladdich in 2012, the distillery’s notoriously scattershot inventory was reined in, with the company focusing on a more targeted and more closely curated range of expressions.

I sat down with McEwan in San Francisco to taste through eight current and upcoming releases, and one thing was made clear. You might be able to tame the number of SKUs that Bruichladdich is churning out, but you’ll never get rid of the distiller’s sense of adventure and experimentation. Case in point: His next trick involves 100 tons of barley given to farms in eight regions within Scotland, which has now been turned into whiskey and is aging in identical barrels on Islay. The results, when these spirits are matured and released in 2018, will demonstrate exactly how terroir impacts malt whiskey.

Until then, here are some brief thoughts on a guided (but unfortunately short) tour through eight of Bruichladdich’s finest current-release spirits follow.

The Botanist Gin – McEwan’s baby. A traditional, classic dry gin with a twist. Distilled from neutral alcohol and studded with 22 botanicals. Still a gorgeous, supple spirit. Recently repackaged. A

Bruichladdich Scottish Barley The Classic Laddie – This is a 7 year old version of the beloved Laddie Ten (which you’ll see again in, well, 3 years). Made from barley grown all over Scotland. 25% aged in sherry casks. Rich and honeyed, with a significant sherry influence. Big mouthfeel, big bite on the finish. A-

Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2007 – Made exclusively from Islay-grown barley, the first such barley grown on the island since World War I. Not peated, but it offers salt and maritime notes, a lot of malt character, and a touch of iodine. A great dram. A

Bruichladdich Black Art 1990 4.1 23 Years Old – McEwan is a bit smug about Black Art, which is a well-aged whisky made from mysterious sources — involving a huge variety of barrel types of which McEwan will say nothing. It’s intended to “intrigue the consumer” and is a bottling McEwan says was made as “a protest” to the bullshit stories that distilleries are so fond of peppering their back labels with. Black Art hasn’t always been a favorite of mine, but 4.1 is drinking with a better balance, with nice chewiness and plenty of wine barrel influence to it. B+

Bruichladdich Port Charlotte Scottish Barley – The first of two PC releases tasted today, this peaty dram sees some wine cask aging, which gives it so much fruit it almost goes toe to toe with the peat. Same deal as above; this is made from Scotland-only barley, from all over the country. B+

Bruichladdich Port Charlotte Islay Barley – Made only from the Islay barley mentioned above. This is a brand new release that also sees some wine casks for aging. It’s a searing whisky with lots of peat and seaweed in the mix. Nice balance. B+

Bruichladdich Octomore 6.1 – Classic Octomore, ultrapeated to 157ppm, which gives it a dense smokiness and a barbecue-like sweetness out back. I’ve grown used to Octomore, but compared to 6.3 (see below) it’s a bit of a bore… 14 proof. B+

Bruichladdich Octomore 6.3 – In the nomenclature of Bruichladdich, .1 bottlings are global releases, .2 are for travel retail, and .3 denotes whisky made from Islay barley. This is the first .3 Octomore, and it’s easily the best rendition of this spirit ever. Peated to an absurd 245ppm — the most heavily peated whisky ever released by a mile — this 5 year old spirit (bottled in a frosted bottle instead of the usual black) is remarkably gentle on its own despite bottling at 128 proof. Some floral elements emerge along with vanilla, and it isn’t until you add a substantial amount of water that the peat really starts to kick up. Even then, it’s well integrated, balanced, and just lovely to sip on. Available April 2015 for about $225 (good luck). A+

bruichladdich.com

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Review: Clynelish Select Reserve Limited Edition 2014

Clynelish Select Reserve Bottle & Box

Our final whisky in the 2014 Diageo Special Releases is this no-age-statement offering from Clynelish, an active distillery in the far northern Highlands. The first Clynelish released by Diageo in this series, this whisky has been aged in “ex-bourbon, rejuvenated and refill American Oak, and ex-bodega and refill European oak.” All casks in the vatting have been aged for at least 15 years, “often far more.”

Lots of classic malt notes on the nose — barley, heather, and light sherried notes. A rich, sugar syrup character comes along in due time. On the palate, there’s plenty more where that came from. Bright orange fruit dominates at the start, then the whisky becomes quite drying and almost dusty on the finish. Water coaxes out more of the sweeter side of the spirit, with nougat, golden syrup, and maple notes all criss-crossing over the palate. That water helps temper that tannic, dry finish as well, lending it some lingering notes of honey-coated biscuits.

109.8 proof. 2,964 bottles produced.

A- / $800 / malts.com

Review: Port Ellen 35 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Port Ellen 35YO Bottle & Box

Our 10th review in the Diageo Special Releases series is this old Port Ellen, a classic, beloved, and regular part of this series. The Islay-based Port Ellen was closed in 1983, which makes this 1978-distilled product (now carefully allocated) unbearably rare. Aged in refill American and European oak, it’s bottled at 35 epic years of age… and priced accordingly.

From the start, this whisky’s a scorcher. The nose is racy with heat and light, tempered smoke, a hallmark of well-aged Islay malts. On the palate, fire and brimstone with hints of fruit beyond the essence of burning oil wells. Water is essential with this dram, so give it a healthy shot to open things up. With tempering, the spirit reveals its charms in full, notes of tangerines, marzipan, butterscotch candies, and light petrol. Nicely honeyed on the finish, it recalls its cereal origins alongside a lightly peaty, lightly meaty finale.

Compare to last year’s 34 year old.

113 proof. 2,964 bottles produced.

A- / $3,500 / malts.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Lagavulin 12 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Lagavulin 12 Bottle & Box

A 12-year-old expression of Lagavulin is a perennial part of the Diageo Special Editions, and sure enough, this is the 13th Lagavulin 12 to be released in the series, again vatted from refill American Oak casks.

As usual, it’s a classic expression of Lagavulin, light on its feet (and a gentle yellow in color), radiant with coal fire smoke on the nose, some vegetal undertones, and a squeeze of bright lemon. The body is pushy with peat, hot and fiery, but tempered with a sweetness akin to confectioner’s sugar and gingerbread notes. The finish is as salty as the sea, just classic Islay through and through.

It’s easy to enjoy Lagavulin 12 every year if you’re a peat fan, but at this point the experience is becoming a little old hat for the whiskies in this line. I’m just having a hard time sustaining the excitement about younger Lagavulin (with a very consistent experience) at a higher price year after year. And with that said, if something’s released annually like clockwork, shouldn’t it really get a permanent home on the release calendar instead of being a “Special Edition?” Just askin’.

108.8 proof.

B+ / $130 / malts.com

Review: The Singleton of Glendullan 38 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Singleton of Glendullan 38YO Bottle & Box

The Singleton of Glendullan (#8 in this year’s Diageo Special Edition releases) should be familiar to most American drinkers (other Singleton bottlings are targeted at other countries)… but never do we see this whisky at a whopping 38 years of age.

This Speyside whisky was distilled in 1975 and was aged fully in European refill casks.

Hot and racy on the nose (unusual for a whisky of this advanced age), this is one you can tell from the outset will benefit from a little water. Aromas of orange peel and a little sea salt muddle through, however. With lots of acidity, the body is equally punchy and quite sharp, citrus peel backed by modest granary notes. The finish is quite drying. Give it water and plenty of it and things start to open up nicely. The nose takes on an almost pretty floral character, and the sweetness on the palate really starts to develop, offering coconut and banana notes amid the spice-dusted grains. That finish remains on the dry side, though it’s less intense more accessible with a little water to smooth things out.

119.6 proof. 3,756 bottles produced.

A- / $1250 / malts.com

Review: Rosebank 21 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Rosebank 21YO Bottle & Box

It’s time for whisky #7 out of 11 in the 2014 Diageo Special Edition releases, this one a 21 year old from Rosebank, a now-defunct distillery in the Lowlands. This whisky was distilled in 1992. Rosebank promptly shuttered in 1993 — which means there’s not much left to go around.

One of the more exotic and full-bodied expressions in the 2014 Diageo Special Releases, this malt offers an initial nose of fresh-baked brioche, touched with cinnamon. Huge on the palate, it kicks off with fresh malt, caramel, and light chocolate notes, then takes a deep dive into toasted marshmallow, light citrus, and a maritime character that builds as the finish takes hold. One of the most purely pleasurable malts in the 2014 releases, the through-line from cereal to fruit to seaside character in this whisky makes it a pure delight and one worth taking a deep dive into as you explore its charms.

One of my top picks — if not the top pick — among these 2014 releases.

110.6 proof. 4,530 bottles produced.

A / $500 / malts.com

Review: Cragganmore 25 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Cragganmore 25 Bottle

Onward to the 6th whisky in the 2014 Diageo Special Edition releases, a 25 year old from Cragganmore, a Speyside distillery best known for its younger single malts.

This 25 year old was distilled in 1988 and aged in a mix of refill European and American Oak casks.

Quite malty on the nose, the Cragganmore 25 opens up after a time to offer floral notes, dried fruit, and some nuts — perhaps a bit of orange peel, too. It’s nice for a time, but it soon threatens to be overpowered by a touch of raw, pungent alcohol character. The body continues the theme, starting off with dense grains mixed with chewy malt. On the palate it’s backed up with notes of baked apples, more raisin notes, and fresh citrus on the back end. There’s an alcoholic undercurrent here from time to time, but a little water helps to temper things, revealing a nice little vanilla caramel character as well.

102.8 proof. 3,372 bottles produced.

A- / $500 / malts.com

Review: Strathmill 25 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Strathmill 25YO Bottle & Box

#5 of 11 in the 2014 Diageo Special Releases is this rarity from Strathmill, located in Speyside. Strathmill is predominantly used in blended whisky, making this old expression exceedingly rare. The whisky has spent 25 years in ex-Bourbon barrels and is bottled at cask strength.

This is classic, beautiful Speyside at the perfect age. Liquid gold in color, its nose offers heavily spiced grains — almost gingerbread in character — touches of almond, honey, and hints of fresh mint. Elegant and restrained, it’s a pretty lead-in to a body that ranges far and wide. Fresh-cut grains, cut apples, and burnt sugar lead in to cinnamon and clove notes as the finish starts to build. The finish is drying and slightly aromatic, while echoing notes of honeyed biscuits, menthol, and more spice. Fantastic stuff.

104.8 proof. 2,700 bottles produced.

A / $475 / malts.com

Review: Caol Ila 30 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Coal Ila 30YO Bottle

Yesterday we experienced Caol Ila’s unpeated expression; today it’s the full monty, and bottled at a full 30 years of age — the oldest Caol Ila ever released by the distillery itself. #4 in the 2014 Diageo Special Releases is a peat bomb straight outta Islay, distilled in 1983.

After 20 years or so, peated whiskies tend to settle down, and this Caol Ila is no exception. The nose offers notes of sweet citrus, mesquite smoke, and dense toffee. The body continues the theme, with gentle smokiness settling over notes of rum raisin, quince, licorice, and bitter roots. When the smoke settles, it leaves behind a bittersweet character that is paradoxically at once racy and soothing, a maritime whisky that is starting to feel its age — and I mean that in a delightful way.

110.2 proof. 7,638 bottles produced.

A- / $700 / malts.com

Review: Caol Ila Unpeated 15 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Caol Ila 15YO Bottle & Box

Caol Ila is an active Islay distillery, and any Scotch nut knows that means peat and lots of it. But once each year Caol Ila makes unpeated whisky, just for kicks. This is one of those releases, a 15 year old “Highland style” spirit distilled in 1998. This expression, #3 of 11 in the 2014 Diageo Special Edition series, was aged fully in first fill ex-Bourbon casks.

This is the cheapest whisky in this year’s series, and likely the most readily available. It’s also one of the least dazzling, though it’s certainly palatable.

The nose is a curious mix of oregano and fresh bread — together these give the spirit a bit of the essence of a pizza parlor. This doesn’t really prepare you for the palate, which is blazing with heat up front and rough on the throat on the back. In between there hints of golden raisins, bright heather, and, yes, wisps of smoke, but they’re hard to parse before the sheer booziness of the alcohol knocks you down a peg.

Water helps considerably. With tempering, the Caol Ila Unpeated reveals notes of fresh sweet cereal, marshmallow, almond, and a bit of rose petals. With water, the whisky becomes almost enchanting, transformed from its hardscrabble punchiness into something approaching delicate.

120.78 proof.

B+ / $120 / malts.com