Origin: Isle of Islay (Scotland)
Type: Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Ageing casks: 75% 1st Fill Bourbon, 25% 2nd Fill Syrah & Figero
Added coloring: No
Owner: Bruichladdich (Rèmy Cointreau)
Average price: € 72.00
Official website: www.bruichladdich.com
This time our young colleague has come up with an even more unusual bottle than those available to mere mortals. Since you tell us that we are monothematic, I had thought of reviewing something really different… But no, this time you get the most Islay-centric bottle you can buy without too many difficulties.
Historically famous as one of the few unpeated distilleries on Islay, which unfortunately fell into disgrace during the 1990s, Bruichladdich was relaunched in 2001 by the skilful hands of Murray McDavids. As well as reinventing the main brand, Murray also had the great idea of reviving the history of Port Charlotte, a town on Islay that was home to one of Scotland’s largest distilleries from 1829 to 1929. The idea was to create an innovative project of 100% made-in-Scotland peated whiskies, and then to become even more ambitious by aiming to produce everything on the island of Islay, a real attempt to codify the concept of terroir for whiskies. This French term indicates, in the production of wines, the special relationship between climate, soil, forms of plant breeding, harvesting, fermentation, and so on, which has come to be closely linked to a precise geographical territory for historical-production reasons. McDavids’ first experiment came out in 2006 and continued until 2012, when Rèmy Cointreau took over the property, fortunately continuing the initial project, with large-scale bottlings of whisky produced from a percentage of local malts in a quantity never before experienced in Scotland. Amongst these are the three Islay Barleys finally presented to the public by the new ownership after suitable ageing. The Bruichladdich website is extraordinarily rich in detail on all aspects of production, and I invite you to browse through every single one of its splendid pages (it’s perhaps one of the best sites I have come across). Incidentally, this policy of total openness at Bruichladdich has also helped to create a small revolution in the confidential relationship between production and information for the enthusiast public.
So, with the Port Charlotte Islay Barley 2011, the second bottling but with seven years of ageing instead of five, we can indeed speak of a terroir whisky. In order not to make the reading heavy, I’ll leave the details about the barley’s agricultural production to the very rich website, and I’ll move on to what characterises this whisky most when tasting it: the high peatiness. All Port Charlotte whiskies report a phenol presence of around 40 ppm, so not too excessive if we compare it with Ardbeg or the Benromach Peat Smoke that I presented last time. But in this PC the peat is grafted onto a locally produced and malted barley (currently still at 42%, but soon to reach 100%), distilled with water and peat exclusively from the place, and then aged and bottled on Islay. For obviously insurmountable reasons, the only thing used that doesn’t come from Islay are the barrels for ageing. Now we’ll see what happens when you try to capture the most genuine spirit of a terroir in the bottle.
The 2011 Islay Barley is of a barely perceptible sandy colour, with greenish veins and an almost dazzling clarity. It has a relatively smooth body, with well-delineated, oily arches that extend in a nice latticework on the sides of the glass. As anticipated in the review of the Benromach Peat Smoke, this Bruichladdich has a similar approach to naturalness of colour, though then obviously different in reflections and body.
It has a very intense and distinctive nose, even compared to its more illustrious island counterparts. Here the peatiness is not so much a technical matter as a matter of vitality. At first, the typical Islay coastal note predominates, then with a little attention you can notice almost all the possible nuances of peat: from the more delicate ones of sea breeze to the more toasted ones of tar and even smoked rind (if you know the Finnish Jellona liqueur… well, you know what I mean). The 50 degrees of alcohol are noticeable, but they are soon lifted by the lively salty aromas of liquorice, aniseed, and then underneath some vanilla, lemon cream, and yellow peach. Being young, it certainly has a very vertical, almost stormy nose, but it doesn’t lack an interesting structure from the Bourbon and wine casks. As a lover of peat, what really surprised me were the infinite colourings of the same tone it can offer.
In the mouth, the storm of peaty scents actually transforms into a very pleasant salty sensation on creamy apple and chocolate chips, topped with hints of liquorice, aniseed, white pepper and nutmeg. Keeping the distillate in the mouth and salivating carefully, the salty sensation intensifies into a very particular flavour of kombu seaweed. Fortunately, the finish is very clean, quite prolonged, even if it’s more vertical than broad. There are no medicinal iodine or cough syrup exaggerations, nor are there any easy sweet vanilla overtones. The combination of olfactory intensity and pleasantness of taste is, in my opinion, very successful and seems to express to the utmost the ideal type of Islay that I personally have built up.
Actually, I have to admit that it took me several tastings to fully understand the characteristics of this whisky: it suffers a lot from ambient temperature, obviously I’m talking about heat and humidity, and in my opinion it doesn’t perform well when diluted with water. Now, however, I’m convinced that it’s an excellent product, despite the fact that its price is certainly higher than its blazoned and older island colleagues such as Lagavulin, Ardbeg and Laphroaig. But this Port Charlotte (of which there is a more accommodating 10 year old version, but made with Scottish malts and not just Islay) focuses on the extreme typification of the unique scents of the beloved little island. Mind you, this is not an extreme of taste, but of the Islay style: ocean, iodine, peat very intense accompanied by a great drinkability, without granting discounts in terms of sweetness and dilution. Is this really down to local production? Well, I would say so, since it has such a typical character and yet is so unique compared to its colleagues: in a way, it ‘s the most typical of all, for better or worse.