Bruichladdich: Reading the Bottle

You can tell a lot about the Bruichladdich just by noting the ABV (percentage of alcohol by volume). All “bottle-strength” Bruichladdich expressions are shipped at 46% ABV. When it’s time to bottle the whisky, they mix the cask-strength whisky (when it’s higher than 46%) down to bottle strength using the appropriate amount of local Islay spring water. I noted the 46% number in an earlier article in which I discussed the “mood malts.”

Sometimes, when whisky is ready to be decanted from older casks, the ABV of the cask is lower than 46% due to those busy angels. In these cases, you’ll see ABVs lower than 46%. You can almost immediately infer that the whisky is rather old (20+ years, probably).

Of course, two whiskies that are both 46% ABV won’t necessarily taste anything alike, but if you can’t tell how old something is, it can be helpful to note the ABV. I was able to point out to someone that the ABV was less than 46% so the contents were probably rather old. This was a $425 bottle of the Bruichladdich “1966” expression. The 1966 is probably the year of distilling, but it wasn’t clear when it was bottled (I’m sure it was on the bottle, but it was locked in a case and the small print was too far away to be readable).

Knowing that the Bruichladdich label was of current vintage, I figured it was bottled sometime after 2001 (the distillery was restarted in May, 2001), so the whisky is 35+ years old. The fact that it was about (IIRC) 40.5% ABV corroborated this suspicion. Upon returning home this afternoon, I poked around online and confirmed: This whisky was 36-years-old when bottled at 40.6% ABV, and a price of $425 is quite good.

You might think this is obvious, but there are lots of bottles of Bruichladdich on offer at Beltramo’s that are independent bottlings (IBs) and that date to that era, and which could have been bottled any time between 1969 and today (it’s not whisky unless it’s at least 3 years old…). All the post-2001 Official Bottlings (OBs) share common bottle shape, and packaging and labeling style elements.

Note on ABV: Scotch whisky can’t legally be sold below 40% ABV. There is no practical upper limit (the Bruichladdich “X4 – Perilous” is about 90% ABV, due to being quadruple-distilled). There is no reason to pick whisky by ABV. A higher ABV doesn’t mean a better quality whisky, nor is the opposite true. The best way to decide if you like an expression is to try it. I highly recommend going to places where you can sample lots of whiskies. I share with my friends (and vice-versa) and I love going to whisky tastings, dinners, etc., and visiting distilleries. Some retailers even will let you try before you buy. A friend in Chicago lives near such a place. He’s a lucky man!

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