The sound of Islay

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My first encounter with Bruichladdich was on a T-shirt. Not one worn by me, but by Joe Clark from The Whiskey Lounge. I spent a while struggling to read what it said, thinking at first it was a Broken Social Scene logo, or possibly some techno label. I was on the Irish Whiskey Academy surrounded by whiskey geeks, and completely out of my element. Then, as now, I know very little about whiskey, so I thought this T-shirt might be a good way to move the conversation towards something I did know about – music – and away from such fascinating topics as the length of Lyne arms and the best wood for a washback. Eventually Dave McCabe – then tutor of the academy and now apprentice master blender – noticed the shirt and chatted to Joe about Bruichladdich.

‘What the fuich is that word?’ was my reaction when I heard the name spoken aloud for the first time. It sounded like sean nós singing, or some Sumerian incantation. ‘I’m never going to get the hang of this whisky lark’, I thought to myself, as they spat out Hebridean placenames. Four years later, I am still fairly clueless about whisky – but at least now I have a better idea how to pronounce Bruichladdich.

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As my interest in whisky grew, I started to realise there was something different about Bruichladdich. First there was that striking brand aesthetic – in a scene dominated by marketing that harks back to an utterly fictitious pastoral dreamscape, Bruichladdich really does look like a minimalist techno label. All Helvetica (Fun fact: It isn’t Helvetica – see comments section below) and bold colour, it is safe to say that it does not look like a whisky. Their whisky, on the other hand, is very much like what whisky should be – open, honest, and unafraid of what you think. What they did with the distillery and its output is akin to what punk bands did to music in the Seventies and Eighties – strip it back to the basics, purge the bullshit, make it wild and loud, played by people with such compositional skills that all they needed were drums, bass, guitar and ideas and they could compose a symphony in three chords. Bands like Suicide, much like atonal composer Schoenberg, made music that was about music itself. Bruichladdich is a distillery that is about distilling, and it makes whisky about whisky itself.

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The Cork Whiskey Society got to sample some of these self-reflexive experiments on a wet Wednesday night recently in The Roundy. Formerly a classic old-school pub with a plywood counter, shady Coal Quay characters and a jukebox that mostly played Yeke Yeke, The Roundy was gentrified in the Nineties and now includes a compact and bijou upstairs space perfect for intimate acoustic gigs…or a meeting of a splinter cell of whiskey enthusiasts:

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Our host for the evening was Abigail Clephane, pictured above, Bruichladdich ambassador and typically unsinkable Scot, who despite nursing a broken bone in her foot (not a drink-related injury, we were assured), still managed to stand and speak for two hours.

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First up was the challenge of actually saying the word Bruichladdich. When I met Mark Reynier in Waterford he said one of the reasons they chose the striking blue for the Classic Laddie was that it was the colour of the ocean around Islay on a sunny day. This was proved by Abigail, who brought an iPad with a suitably blue image of the sea off Islay along:

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The Laddie sea.

The other reason for the striking appearance was that the name was unpronounceable. Much like Paddy whisky was once colloquially known as Map Of Ireland whisky by a largely illiterate Irish public who simply said what they saw, the Laddie was designed to create a visual title for a whisky that defied pronunciation. I’ve been cajoled, corrected and censured for my attempts at Bruichladdich – some say you go full Scot and do it ‘Brewich-laddich’, others say the more user-friendly ‘Brookladdy’ but that really seems like an oversimplification for non-Celtic markets – I’m looking at you America. The truth, according to Abigail, is that it is somewhere in between – something along the lines of Brewch-laddy. That said, she did get one Celtic word wrong on the night:  She pronounced the name of Reynier’s Bruichladdich business partner, Simon Coughlin, as the softened, Anglicised ‘Cofflin’. Coughlin is a Cork name, and any Cork person will tell you that you can pronounce it two ways, neither of which is Cofflin: If you are from the city, it is ‘Cawlan’, if you are from the county it is the more traditional ‘Cocklan’. And there is no amount of soup on god’s green earth that you can take to change that, but it does go to show that pronunciation is a more fluid concept than we like to think. 

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Abigail talked us through the backstory of Reynier’s insane dream of relighting Bruichladdich’s fires, and his refusal to take no for an answer. His persistence paid off eventually, and once he rustled up a few million in equity, he took an ancient distillery and stripped it back to basics. Abigail proudly told us that in an age that has seen many distilleries claiming to be hand operated (when really they just mean a hand pushing a button on a keyboard) theirs was as oldschool as it gets, with a bit of string and an arrow attached to tell liquid levels being about as modern as they endure.

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Once Reynier had taken the distilling technology back as far as it could go, he brought in the cask whisperer Jim McEwan, not just for his production skills but also for his ability to wax lyrical about virtually anything to do with whisky. Mark Gillespie of The WhiskyCast always says that McEwan is a journalist’s dream – ask him what he thinks of barley, or casks, or distilling, and he will proffer a profound meditation on man, nature, time, and life itself. If McEwan was the romantic lyricist of Bruichladdich, Reynier was like Phil Spector – searching for that perfect note, reducing signal to noise and then building massive crescendos of ideas.

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If there is a common theme between Reynier’s Islay project and what he is doing in Waterford – apart from the fetishistic obsession with soil and barley – it is the quiet celebration of heritage. In a scene dominated by an exploitative approach to the past, where history and legacy are seen as worlds to be plundered for marketing, Reynier cherishes, preserves and keeps the past’s essence whilst taking a stridently modern, experimental approach to the present. Everything is about progression.

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Black Art and Octomore, two heavy metal drams.

Take one of the more prestigious samples on the night, Black Art. Effectively a bit of clever marketing improv using old stock, it is a 23-year-old mix of Lucifer-knows-what (although McEwan does actually know) that comes in at a somewhat devilish price of 240 – startling given that you basically have no idea what is in it. But it is the splendour of its imperial finery that I love. Taking all of its cues from the world of heavy metal, its matt-black bottle is adorned with fonts and symbols worthy of oldschool metal bands like Venom and Bathory.

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Some peated malt and a peated dram.

But however smokey Black Art is, it is nothing next to Octomore. Effectively employing the same logic as Nigel Tuffnell’s loudest amp – ‘yes but this one goes up to 11’ – Octomore is the most heavily peated malt in the world. It is a fiery beast, but a lot smoother than I expected, and possibly my favourite of the night. I was expecting that more medicinal note you get from the excellent Laphroaig, but it had a sweetness that softened it. As Eric Ryan of the whiskey society pointed out, there was a smokey bacon element coming through – something that leads me to believe it would make an excellent breakfast dram.  Backing this note up was the jar of peated malt, which we got to sniff and even taste – and it was, unexpectedly, like a crunchy, smokey bacon substitute.

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A giant nodge of turf.

It was an evening of palate-confounding experiences from a place that confounds the tongue. Full credit to the guys of the Cork Whiskey Society for their organisational skills and for allowing me to be there, getting in the way with my camera as they got set up for the evening. Here are some of the tireless committee, trying not to ask me to move: 

Thanks also to Abigail, who was witty, entertaining, full of great facts – many about the local Islay farmer James Brown who calls himself the Godfather Of Soil – and who ignored her smashed foot to bring so many smashable drams to Cork.