29 Nov
Whiskies galore
The story of how an old neglected Islay distillery was rescued and revived by a team of young private investors a couple of years ago is now familiar to whisky lovers. The new owners of Bruichladdich on the shores of Loch Indaal now call themselves the free spirits and "enfant terribles" of the whisky world. I’d call them today’s heroes; a high-spirited team of Davids fighting against a world of corporate Goliaths. The latest rash of "Laddie" bottlings are some of the best on the malt shelf today - ideal for celebrating St Andrew’s Day tomorrow.

The most appropriate Bruichladdich special release to coincide neatly with our saint’s celebrations is its first "Links bottling". If you look at the Graeme Baxter painting of the Old Course at St Andrews emblazoned across the belly of the dumpy bottle of Bruichladdich 14-year-old, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was just another cute piece of marketing for tourists and golfers. Well, I suppose it is in a way but it’s what’s in the bottle that’s different.

"There’s no monarch of the glen, tartan or bagpipe bollocks here," says Bruichladdich distiller Jim McEwan. McEwan is a clever marketeer with a fine line in soundbites, but he also knows how to make a darned good dram; with fellow directors Gordon Wright (ex Springbank distillery), Simon Coughlin and Mark Reynier (of Murray McDavid/La Reserve), he has craftily reformulated this Islay brand.

What he actually did was to go back to the way whisky was traditionally made before the Goliaths set about standardising and compromising our malts. By diluting the strength down to just 46 per cent, rather than the standard 40 per cent, he has made it a better, stronger drink. All caramel is banned from the distillery, so there are no artificial sweeteners to standardise the whiskies. McEwan also stopped the common industry practice of "chill-filtering", the result being "to enhance the flavours and increase the bouquet by leaving all the natural goodies [aromatic oils] in place," he says.

So what you actually get in this decorative Links bottle is a very fine, pure, natural drink, made as it should be made. "Nothing added and nothing taken away," says McEwan. Bruichladdich is not a classic Islay malt. It’s not all about power, seaweed and smoke. Laddie whiskies are a bit of an outsider on the island, in fact. Its tall-necked stills make a light, clean spirit. It’s all about delicacy, freshness and, dare I say, feminine charm.

If you prefer the taste of a really powerful Islay malt, a brand-new release from a nearby distillery is very impressive. It’s a cask-strength malt (a heady 54.2 per cent) bottled at the recently revived Ardbeg distillery, just a few miles south of Bruichladdich, on the rugged rocky south coast of Islay. I have raved about this malt ever since I tasted it a week ago. It’s called Ardbeg Uigeadail (pronounced "oog-a-dal") and it’s new on the shelves this month.

Strangely enough, the Laddie team actually tried to buy Ardbeg distillery a few years ago. They lost out to the heavyweight financial muscle of Glenmorangie, so bought Bruichladdich instead. But even though Ardbeg is now part of a large corporate plc, it has not been compromised too much. Master distiller Bill Lumsden of Glenmorangie seems to be getting things right. His Ardbeg 17-year-old has been so popular that it is now being phased out and replaced with this new cask strength house blend called Uigeadail, named after the loch that provides the distillery’s water source.

Uigeadail is a totally different animal to the Laddie. It’s also bottled unfiltered. However, this malt is all about peat, power, richness, earthy backnotes - with a definite masculine streak. It’s got the Ardbeg "housestyle" cunningly married into a gorgeous smoky nutty richness: it’s a blend of smoky 1993 casks, nutty earthy 1990 casks and older sherry casks to really give it luscious richness and depth. Gorgeous stuff -and all that for under 35 quid.

On the subject of new releases, it’s not all glitz and excitement from Glenmorangie. There is one malt that I have found very disappointing from Glenmorangie’s own distillery in the Highlands, near Tain. Their new Burgundy wood finish may be cheaper at £26.99, but this ten-year-old malt finished in barrique lacks character; it is spirity and disjointed without depth and flavour.

More interesting, as it should be at £125, is the new Glenmorangie Tain L’Hermitage cuvee; a pun on the same name of the nearest town to the distillery and the Rhone valley town. This new release is actually a 28-year-old malt, the oldest Glenmorangie on the market. It has distinct pepper, spice and cherry fruit notes of the Syrah grape coming through from its red wine finishing in Chapoutier’s Hermitage casks. I think this whisky is overpriced, but as a wine lover it’s a fascinating whisky to taste.

If you are going to splash out on a £100 bottle, it has to be a very memorable cuvee. I was disappointed with the Murray McDavid Mission II Lagavulin 1979, which comes from the Laddie team and was selected by Jim McEwan. It’s caramel free and bottled at 46 per cent but, again, it lacks the wow factor, the depth of character and class I’d expect from a whisky at that price level. I preferred his Mission II Glenlossie 1975 bottling, which is more alive with flavour, with sweetness, richness and depth.

And there’s McEwan’s own special single malt bottlings. His old distillery was Bowmore, so no surprise to find one of them is from Bowmore - a 1968; the others are Highland Park 1967 and Macallan 1968, all chosen to celebrate his 40 memorable years in the whisky business. There are only 722 bottles of each - so get one if you can afford £200 a shot. McEwan is a legend in his lifetime but these special bottlings will eventually become collector’s trophies.
Article Courtesy of The Scotsman