Archive for News

Stills, Waste and Other News

In late 2009, Bruichladdich released the fourth (and final) Port Charlotte whisky: It’s 8 years old and is bottled at 60.5% ABV (cask strength). The name of this expression is “Ar Dùthchas” and it honors the long history of human habitation on this island (it literally means “land of our heritage”). PC8 will be available in the US no earlier than mid-2010 (presuming that this year will be like past years…), with 2500 cases having been released for worldwide distribution. Readers in the UK can already buy it.

You’ll remember that Port Charlotte is heavily peated (40 ppm), a description that was apt when it was first distilled on 23-Oct-2001, though the “peat explosion” of the first decade of the 21st century has seen Bruichladdich produce 125+ ppm whisky (known as Octomore; there have been several releases at different stratospheric peating levels), while Ardbeg has released the 100 ppm Supernova.

In other news, Bruichladdich has installed an unusual Lomond still (the spelling might be “Lomand”…) for undeclared purposes (though their press release did mention that Jim McEwan has designed some enhancements for it). It should be obvious to the most casual observer that the Bruichladdich team has enthusiastically embraced whisky production in all its forms. We’ll have to wait and see what they produce in this new/old still.

Bruichladdich has also taken a further step toward sustainable operations by installing an anaerobic digester device that will convert spent barley into fuel to generate electricity, possibly heating water for mashing and/or directly fueling their stills.

Bruichladdich has made admirable strides in producing a 100%-Islay product, including providing a reason for Islay’s barley farmers to grow organic grain. Now they are trying to make their whisky “green” by reusing/consuming their waste products. If their experiment proves successful, their initial capital outlay will create benefits in reduced operational expenses downstream. The whisky business creates a lot of organic waste products and it would be excellent if they could be turned into a local source of energy instead of just…wasted.

Bruichladdich “DNA” – Maybe the Rarest Bruichladdich

A relatively new expression, and a very very rare one, consists of about 900 individually numbered bottles at cask strength (in this case, 41%…these are, or were, very old casks!). What makes this expression rare, besides the fact that this is some of the oldest Bruichladdich spirit in their warehouse? The DNA expression was finished in fine French oak barrels that previously contained some of the [sometimes] most expensive red wine in the world: Château Le Pin.

Very Very Rare

Very Very Rare

The finished product is approximately 40 years old. Before being finished in the Le Pin casks, 80% of the constituent whisky in this expression was aged in Bourbon casks, the remaining 20% in Sherry butts.

One reason that Bruichladdich is able to use wood in creative ways (their ACE process) is, I think, the fact that Jim McEwan has a background as a cooper, in addition to his subsequent distilling experience. He really knows what kinds of wood will bring out the best in a particular whisky. The Bruichladdich management team’s familiarity with the wine business is also strongly at play here (as it was with their Bordeaux “First Growth” series) because they knew that the Le Pin casks would be perfect for this particular, very old, Bruichladdich spirit.

Given the rarity, I was bowled over by the price: It’s under £500 — the Laddie Shop offers it for only £391.48 (at current exchange rates, that’s “only” $567.10). That’s about 3x my comfort level for a whisky, but given the rarity it sounds extremely reasonable. Bruichladdich only has 12 available for online ordering. If you do manage to try it, please taunt me with a description. Definitely don’t just buy it and keep it on the shelf, or to pass along on eBay. In my opinion, I am not in favor of people collecting whisky just to keep it — I think that does a disservice to the fine folks that made it when you don’t enjoy the fruit of their labors. Also, I never miss an opportunity to share really special whisky with my friends (and they do the same for me).

Bruichladdich Sixteens: The Bordeaux First Growth Series

Bruichladdich has, since October 2008, been producing a very limited edition range of 16-year-old whisky. When I say “limited edition” I mean that there are 12,000 bottles; given that there are six related expressions, that probably means 2,000 bottles of each will be produced. Each of these expressions started as identical 16-year-old lightly peated bourbon-aged Bruichladdich spirit. Each of them is bottled at 46% ABV (standard Bruichladdich bottle strength). There the similarities end. From this picture, you can see that their additional cask evolution in French oak from distinct Bordeaux châteaux has really made a difference (note that each expression is clearly a different color!):

The six expressions in the First Growth Series.

The six expressions in the First Growth Series.

Why is this range referred to as “First Growth?” That has to do with the classification of Bordeaux wines in 1855. I am not a wine person, but even I have heard some of these names: Château Lafite Rothschild is one that I have 1) definitely heard of, and 2) probably can’t afford. The list of the six expressions is below. The first five are literally from the “Premier Crus” (i.e.,  “First Growths,” hence the name of this range of Bruichladdich expressions). The last one is from the Bordeaux region, but not from that 1855 “Premier Cru” designation. You can read all the details in the excellent wikipedia links I have provided. If you are a wine aficionado, you will get more out of the descriptions than I do.

Finally, we have:

It’s pretty clear that the Bruichladdich folks know their wine: Mark Reynier came out of that business. It’s literally in his blood. This is most definitely a very cool experiment. I wish I had $1500 (that’s my guess…$250/bottle) so I could compare all six. As a Scotch person, what my eyes tell me is that each of these expressions is visually different, so I expect nosing and tasting differences as well. Another thing that’s different about these casks is that they are made of French oak, which is similar but not identical to American oak. Mark Reynier expounded on the differences between various types of oak on John Hansell’s blog recently. John Hansell is the editor of Malt Advocate magazine.

Kudos to the Bruichladdich team for acquiring comparable wine casks for this experiment and for continuing to make very interesting whiskies. And again, thanks to the wikipedia for providing an invaluable and accurate resource.

Two Silos, One Silo, No Silos

Diageo’s Port Ellen malting facility on Islay is now completely devoid of storage silos. When one of their two silos collapsed on 14-November (a rude awakening for the neighbors at 0600!) it damaged the other silo. I wrote about the first silo collapsing as soon as I heard about it. Because of the collateral damage, the second silo was demolished a few days later. Thankfully, no one was injured or killed. I have no idea what was done with several hundred tons of spilt barley or malt.

Diageo says this event will have little to no impact (no pun intended) on their whisky production.

The best coverage of this story is on the Islay blog, which ran several stories on the topic. There was some coverage in the BBC as well, but not nearly as detailed.

Three Recently Announced Bruichladdich Expressions

Golder Still: Aged in rare “squat-hogsheads,” innovative casks tested in the late 1970s by US coopers who were trying to create the optimum cask shape. (The idea was to create a barrel shape that has more surface area enclosing a given volume of whisky, to increase the barrel’s ability to impart wood notes to the contents.) According to Mark Reynier (one of Bruichladdich’s executives): “There’s not much and it’s unrepeatable – but it’s a glorious, old-style whisky; a classic Laddie, all barley-sugar flavours with a golder hue.”

Sounds yummy. This expression is aged 23 years and is cask strength (bottled at 51% ABV). This is a limited edition; there are only 4,900 bottles (each is numbered) and should be on sale now, at least in the UK. If it makes it to the USA, expect to pay around $300 for a bottle.

Sherry 21: This also comes from the last of a line, but despite this it is a larger scale bottling which replaces the successful Twenty series of Bourbon-matured Bruichladdichs. The stocks of Sherry 21 are scheduled to last until 2010.

A bit of history on Sherry: The UK historically consumed a lot of it. Most Sherry, until about 1980, was shipped in bulk transport casks to be bottled closer to the consumer, e.g, in the UK. This practice was gradually phased out in the early 1980s and today virtually all Sherry is bottled in Spain, so it’s now much harder to get Sherry butts.

Think about it: Prior to the 1970s, empty Sherry butts almost literally littered the landscape in the UK. Storing aging whisky in them was a no-brainer (when distillers wanted to produce a Sherry-influenced dram). The reason that this Sherry 21 expression is the “end of the line” is that it’s much more difficult to get fresh Sherry butts today. I suppose that the real point about Sherry butts is that they used to be trash, thus cheap, and now they are still available much more expensive.

Again, quoting Mark Reynier: “Decent condition, authentic Oloroso butts are now almost as rare as hens’ teeth. […] This is the natural, real deal – rich, mellow, and warming whisky; an ideal winter night-cap with it’s hints of orange, apricot, plum, fig, and dates. For connoisseurs, these are two delicious extremes of Bruichladdich.  For us, they are  the end of a run. For both, they represent the end of an era.”

Sherry 21 replaces the Twenty series. So if you liked the 20, make sure to run out and get some while you still can! The Sherry 21 is bottle-strength, which for Bruichladdich is 46% ABV, and it will retail for around $175.

2001 Resurrection: Besides Port Charlotte, which was also first distilled in 2001 by the re-commissioned Bruichladdich, that is peated at ~40 ppm, another whisky was distilled in 2001, and it’s being bottled now as the 2001 Resurrection expression.

A very brief [recent] history of Bruichladdich: Bruichladdich was closed down In 1994. Stocks were still aging in warehouses, but the rest of the distillery (which had stood since 1881) was no longer producing new make spirit. Luckily for Bruichladdich, it was acquired by new, private ownership that re-awakened it in 2001 and spent six months refurbishing the Victorian-era machinery. All the many Bruichladdich expressions on sale by the new ownership since 2001 have been constructed from the stocks that were distilled prior to 1994 (with the exception of the “Sherry pair” that I wrote about a few months back here and here that was distilled in 1998; regardless, all spirit before 2001 was not made by the current owners).

The 2001 Resurrection expression is the first spirit that was distilled in the new/old distillery. Now this 2001 Resurrection expression takes its place alongside the other new spirits: Port Charlotte, Octomore, X4, and presumably many others to come.

Port Charlotte News

PC7 has been bottled! I’m counting down to its arrival in my corner of California at Beltramo’s. BTW, the name of this expression is “sin an doigh Ileach which is Gaelic for: ‘it’s the Islay way.’ Sales of PC7 will probably be boosted by the fact that PC6 just won two awards in Jim Murray’s 2009 Whisky Bible. Presumably, PC6 sales will also be boosted by the awards. 😉

In other Bruichladdich news, Octomore and X4 are available if you act soon.

Diageo Malting Plant: Silo Collapse

I was sad to learn that the Port Ellen malting facility on Islay was damaged yesterday. Luckily no one was hurt, but hundreds of tons of barley was in the silo when it collapsed.

Grain elevators in the US mid-west frequently explode because of airborne dust which is highly flammable, even explosive. Presumably we’ll know in a few weeks what the cause of this silo collapse was; it could have been explosive dust, or perhaps a structural failure.

What’s a malting plant? Malting is one part of the whisky production process that is centralizable. Malting is the process whereby the barley is sprouted by wetting it and letting it sit, historically it was spread out on a large malting floor, for several days. The need for a large floor was why malting benefited from economies of scale, however modern malting has improved upon the floor malting which can be adversely affected by weather (variations in humidity, primarily). Malting is still, for the most part, centralized even though floor malting has pretty much disappeared.

Malting is how the whisky producers crack open the barley to expose the sugars to the yeast that will be used in the next phase of production. If the barley seed were sprouting in a farmer’s field, the carbohydrates inside the barley seed would be used by the nascent plant to provide energy for its initial growth. Whisky producers need those carbohydrates (sugars), so the plant can’t be allowed to grow beyond its initial sprouting. The sprouting process exposes the tightly locked complex carbohydrates and enzymes. To stop the growth process before it goes too far, the barley is heated and dried which stops the growth and preserves the sugar for the yeast.

The malting process involves both sprouting (germinating), then drying the barley. The drying is facilitated by heat produced by burning coal and/or peat, which may impart desirable flavors to the malt. Once the malted barley has been produced, it can be shipped to a distillery for the next phase of the production process, wherein the malted barley is ground and mixed with hot water, which facilitates the action of the enzymes which convert the complex carbohydrates in the powdered malt into simpler sugars that are palatable to yeast. If you are familiar with the production of beer, you’ll recognize much of this process. Once the yeast is added, it produces, over the course of several days, a weakly alcoholic solution at about 6-7% ABV (as the alcohol concentration is increased, the alcohol kills the yeast, which puts an upper bound on the amount of alcohol that the yeast can produce). The next step, distillation, concentrates the alcohol.

How does distillation work? It’s not magic. Alcohol is more “volatile” than water. This is a term that has specific meaning for chemists, and it basically means that alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water. If you have a liquid that contains some alcohol and some water, and if you heat it in a precisely shaped container (e.g., a pot still), the alcohol vapor can be induced to condense back into liquid form.

If the condensation process were allowed to reach equilibrium, e.g., in a vertical tube, the alcohol would condense on the walls of the cylinder (if it were tall enough) and drain back down to the bottom, from where it would be heated enough to evaporate again. The reason it condenses is that the tube is cooler as one moves farther away from the heat. No matter how tall the vertical tube is, some alcohol vapor will escape over the top. My sense is that this is why the pot still is bent at the top, so the whisky producer can contain the alcohol and control the rate and amount of condensation within the still.

Also, keep in mind that the vapor that goes up the tube is a combination of water vapor and other volatile chemicals that boil at less than the boiling point of water. Even if the liquid is only kept at the boiling point of alcohol, there will still be water vapor present in the atmosphere above the liquid, since water evaporates even when the liquid is less than 100 °C.

Per wikipedia: “The boiling point of the alcohol ethanol is 78.29 °C, compared to 69 °C for the hydrocarbon Hexane (a common constituent of gasoline), and 34.6 °C for Diethyl ether.” The initial condensate, then, will contain lots of other volatile chemicals that may have foul odors or tastes (these odors and tastes come from fusel oils and other chemicals associated with alcohol production that may remind one of paint thinner, acetone, etc. — you wouldn’t want to drink them!). The tough part at this phase of production is that the foul odors and tastes will be soluble in water or alcohol, so they may be difficult to separate from the more desirable esters and phenolic compounds that whisky producers may want to retain in the finished product.

Once the pot still (actually, a pair of stills) has effectively burned off the more volatile components, the refined alcohol is allowed to freely flow to the “spirit safe” where the amount produced is measured very carefully for tax purposes. The operation of the still involves the careful attention of the stillman who determines when the proper product is ready to be collected, and who knows when to cut off the production before the still runs dry.

The spirit is usually distilled at least one more time before going into oak barrels for aging. Bruichladdich has produced “X4” that is quadruple-distilled and due to the concentration being increased at each stage of distillation, the ABV of the final product was well over 90%. Some Scotch is triple-distilled, as is most Irish whisky. The initial alcohol concentration of the spirit that goes into the oak barrels is about 70% ABV. Then the aging process reduces that concentration as the alcohol gradually escapes the semi-permeable membrane that is the wood while the wood works its magic of imparting its flavors to the liquid. As long as the alcohol concentration remains above 40% ABV, the liquid in the casks can be bottled and sold as Scotch whisky, provided it’s also at least 3 years old and meets a slew of other technical requirements.

Now that I have written some basics about distillation, I will go into some more detail about types of distillation and explain in a bit more detail why distillation works at all.