Whisk(e)y Files: ‘Clachan A Choin!’

19 Nov

This morning Robyn and I attended a fine single malt scotch tasting at Victoria Jane’s Lounge in the lobby of the Chateau Victoria. We had the privilege of hearing from one Mr. Grey, a knowledgeable and passionate employee of the Bruichladdich distillery (already my new favourite single malt producer), and of sampling five of the Islay distillery’s quality single malts. I must say I have not enjoyed a tasting so much in some time and my knowledge of single malt scotch production, of the region known as Islay, and of Scotland itself has improved dramatically as a result of this morning’s two-hour presentation. Here, I hope to share some of what Robyn and I learned this morning.

Bruichladdich is a privately-owned Scottish distillery producing single malt whisky from barley to bottle on the isle of Islay. It is still made by islanders as it was in 1881, matured beside the Atlantic, and bottled naturally at the distillery. Alone it benefits from the island’s wild climate and pure spring water. It is acknowledged as the purest spirit in Scotland (whisky directory 2005) thanks to the combination of the distillery’s original simplicity of design, long-neck stills and natural bottling. Together they produce a whisky that is fruity and floral with multi-layered complexity. Only pure, Islay spring water is added to reduce from cask strength to 46%. Nothing is taken away – all Bruichladdich whiskies are non chill-filtered and are colouring-free. The Bruichladdich house style is pure, floral and fruity with medium weight and body. American (bourbon) oak casks provide vanilla notes to most whiskies, though Sherry, Madeira, Port, and wine barrels are also used, depending on the whisky. Peating ranges from 5ppm to 30ppm, meaning a range of smoky characteristics to suit any taste. I’ve now had the opportunity of tasting no less than six Bruichladdich whiskies. Here are some of the highlights:

The Ten, “the aperitif” – Light and fresh with marine notes, but no iodine. The Ten is the youngest in the current Bruichladdich core range, but is no longer being produced, making it a great choice for collectors. Very fresh, crisp flavour with surprising floral, green apple and citrus notes. With little of the rich, caramel sweetness associated with some whiskies, Bruichladdich’s Ten makes an ideal summertime whisky. Easy-drinking, yet subtly complex, balanced and harmonious. Excellent value.

The Fifteen, “the contemplative cuvee” – From Bourbon (85%) and Oloroso Sherry (15%) casks, the Fifteen has a bit more attitude with more sweet malt, tropical fruit and butterscotch notes. Again, the long-neck stills allow for lashings of sea-salt without the medicinal iodine aromas of other whiskies. I first tried the Fifteen in Calgary (where it’s just over $60 cad) and it blows other whiskies in this price range away. A bit more expensive in BC, but still well worth it.

The Seventeen, “the reflective cuvee” – This one comes from 100% American oak casks and the wood plays a larger role in the overall spectrum of flavour. Still, the oak doesn’t overpower the fresh pear and gooseberry. The whole works are layered with cedar, vanilla, spice and maple. This one is a bit more pricey, unfortunately making it a special-occasion-only Scotch (at least in my income bracket), but definitely something to have on hand, in case the occasion should arise. All of these whiskies (and the rest of the Bruichladdich line) have a wonderful oily fullness, a result of master distiller Jim McEwan’s distaste for chill-filtering. Caramel colour is never added, and the three I’ve reviewed are deceptively lightly coloured. These three are also quite lightly peated. Try the 3d, “the peat proposal”, a blend of whiskies from the last three decades, if you are into a smoky, peat-heavy whisky.

Tasting whisky: Tasting whisky differs from tasting wine in three distinct areas. First, the swirling of the wine glass is discouraged when sampling single malt Scotch. Aeration disturbs the alcohol, and with a high-alcohol spirit like whisky it can cause unwanted “hot” aromas. Sniffing in general is not a necessary part of the whisky tasting experience. The flavour and sensation of whisky comes more from the palate than the alcohol-sensitive olfactory. Whiskies that are not chill-filtered should get a few drops of purified water to help open up the aromas. If a brief smell is desired, now is the time to quickly pass the glass under the nose. Don’t cram your face into the glass as you would with wine. Again, whisky is a more concentrated concoction – subtlety is the key here. The same goes for tasting – “just a wee sip” is suggested by Bruichladdich’s Mr. Grey. Taking a full swallow may prove one’s masculinity, but does little for the whisky taster but burn his throat. Like wine, good whiskies linger. A “breakfast” whisky is one that stays with you all day, making your otherwise unpleasant work day a flavourfully happy experience.

The motto of the Bruichladdich distillery refers to its ongoing passion for perfection. Translated, it means “the dog’s balls”. Fantastic. This whisky is “a true cracker”. Clachan A Choin!

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