Briuchladdich is probably the most prolific whisky distillery in the northern hemisphere – last year 22 expressions of the malt were released, thanks to the experimental (some might say just mental) efforts of Production Director Jim McEwan. This is one of those, distilled in 1989 and bottled in 2005.
The nose is rich with sweet but subtle peat. It’s been ages in a sherry cask for 16 years, and you can really feel that influence with the soft, warm, polished wood feel. Imagine a football team without its goalie – things are going to be rough no matter how good the other ten are. Whisky is a bit like that. I’ve talked about balance before and that it can be a tricky skill to master, so the dram can easily be knocked down from great to just good if one part of the ensemble is slightly off. I’m not necessarily saying it’s the case here, but I think if you take an average whisky, stick it into a good sherry cask, you can bring something up from average to pretty good and easy drinking. The cask can also cause problems – if you don’t have good casks, that’s as good as a key player in your team just not showing-up for the game. There are a whole host of other reasons for what can sink or save a whisky, but back to the Bruichladdich…
As I was pondering the merits of the sherry cask, the nose opened up slightly with sweet and salty cheese and the scent of a wood fire being carried by a gentle breeze. In a blink and you’ll miss it way, a fresh fruit salad is hanging about the edge, so far away it’s almost not there. The palate wraps you up in that old leather jacket you almost forgot you own in a polished warmth that lingers until there’s suddenly a team of gingerbread men running across your tongue.
Water, because remember, this guy is 56.1%, completely turned it on its head. The nose reminded me of a lot of Australian Riesling, it was full of fresh lime juice and petrol minerality with an oily edge. This quickly gave way to orange peel and cherry tree sap. The palate became a little candied with sweet morello cherries on a gravel path. The finish wasn’t as lengthy as I would have liked, but there was a clean salty sea spray that almost cleansed the palate, and gently finished with soft creaminess. After a while a little cereal warmth drifts along, but like I say it’s a wee bit short on the finish.
I really like this whisky, but I know that many wouldn’t. it’s a challenging dram, there doesn’t seem to be a lot going on, but in fact it’s so subtle that if you’re not careful you’ll miss a lot of what it has to offer. It’s also a bit difficult – you could work your way through several measures and still be unsure if you like it or not. It sits somewhere on the fence between two different worlds. Some Speyside distilleries have experimented with peat – they weren’t bad, but neither were they great. It usually reaffirms the notion of sticking to what you do best.
This does the same – it’s an Islay, but not quite, and seems to be hovering somewhere over the mainland. Having spent 16 years in a sherry cask I expected that character to be much more noticeable, but it was as delicate and subtle as Bruichladdich usually is. Maybe that’s, the secret weapon. You bring on the wee quiet reserve keeper who does his job, and is just enough to hold the other ten together.