Scotland: Slow road to success

Whisky enthusiasts and spirited workers are turning a neglected Islay distillery into a world-beating brand.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

There's a revolution taking place on Islay. A quiet revolution, perhaps, but then the Hebri-dean island is a quiet place. The home of some of Scotland's finest malt whiskies, in recent years, Islay has seen its traditional distilleries falling to multinational companies concerned more with the balance sheet than the whisky maker's art.

There's a revolution taking place on Islay. A quiet revolution, perhaps, but then the Hebri-dean island is a quiet place. The home of some of Scotland's finest malt whiskies, in recent years, Islay has seen its traditional distilleries falling to multinational companies concerned more with the balance sheet than the whisky maker's art.

For the past year, though, one small company has been going against the corporate grain. Last May, the Bruichladdich distillery began producing old-style single-malt whisky for the first time in seven years, after a small group of enthusiasts and private investors bought it from the US giant, Jim Beam Brands, and resurrected it from the mothballed state it had stood in since 1994.

"We produce unchill-filtered, uncoloured, natural whisky," says Mark Reynier, Bruichladdich's new managing director. A London wine merchant, he and his two partners, Simon Coughlin and Gordon Wright, bought the distillery in December 2000 with a small group of similarly enthusiastic shareholders. "We want to make whisky as it used to be made. Not computer-driven, commercial whisky; we want to make the real stuff."

Bruichladdich (pronounced "Brook-laddy") is the island's most westerly distillery. Dating back to 1881, it sits on the windswept shore of Loch Indaal, a sea loch that brings the Atlantic Ocean right to its doorstep. Running next to it is a small stream that carries the spring water used in the whisky's production. The only independent distillery on Islay, and one of the few left in Scotland (all but four of the 85 still working in the country are owned by a handful of international conglomerates), Bruich-laddich is one of just seven distilleries remaining from the 22 the island once boasted.

Whisky, and whisky-making, is the life-blood of Islay. For hundreds of years it's been the island's mainstay, the combination of peat and sea giving rise to distinctive, classic malts including Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Bowmore. With a population of only 3,000, if the islanders – or Ileachs – don't work in a distillery themselves, it's odds-on they have a relative who does, or can cite a father or grandfather who was a mashman or stillman.

So when a distillery closes, it takes with it the heart of a community, and another chunk out of the island's heritage and sense of self. And when one comes back to life, particularly when it promises a return to the old style – and values – like Bruichlad-dich, it's a cause for celebration. "Perhaps the biggest boost it's given is psychological," says Carl Reavey, owner of the Port Charlotte Hotel and Restaurant, the nearest pub to Bruichladdich. Above his bar are almost 100 bottles of Islay whiskies – what he calls "different expressions" of the island's distilleries. "Everybody's bouncing round with a smile on their face. There's a huge, huge difference in the community. Bruichladdich is our distillery."

Reynier and his partners – all fans of Bruichlad-dich – had been trying to buy the distillery since it was closed in 1994. They'd joked about owning their own distillery, and their company, Murray McDavid, was already buying casks of selected single malts to bottle without such modern adulterations as caramel or chill filtration (which removes the natural oils).

When he heard that Bruichladdich had closed, Reynier quickly approached Jim Beam Brands, albeit more in hope than expectation. "Each January I wrote to them, and each January I got a reply saying no, they wouldn't sell," he recalls. "Then in January 2000 I got a letter saying yes. It nearly blew me off my feet. I couldn't believe it."

Almost another year and £7m later, Bruichladdich was theirs. As well as the bricks and mortar of the distillery, the deal included 5,000 casks of maturing whisky. It's these casks, some of which date back to 1964, that now have to be eked out until the new distillings are ready for bottling in 10 years' time (whisky can't even be called whisky until it's three-years old).

To handle the task of selecting which casks should be held back and which bottled, and to oversee Bruichladdich's new production, Reynier and his partners brought in Jim McEwan, one of the most experienced whisky-makers in the industry. An Ileach himself, Mc-Ewan had worked at the Bowmore distillery (which faces Bruichlad-dich from across the loch) for 37 years. After starting as an apprentice cooper (the person who makes the casks), he'd worked his way up to distillery manager, and eventually global brand ambassador for Bowmore's Japanese owners. Despite being just two years away from retirement and a healthy pension, McEwan jumped at the offer of becoming production director at Bruichladdich.

"I wanted to go back to making whisky," he says, simply. "When Bruichladdich closed it really was a heartbreaker. I used to drive past it every day, and if you've any heart as a whisky-maker you can only drive past for so long. It was always a dream that if ever I got the opportunity to do something with this distillery, to bring it back, then I would."

Another incentive was that, unlike their corporate counterparts, the new owners were happy to take a back seat and let McEwan get on with the business of making whisky. The first thing he did was re-hire the team who had been laid off seven years earlier. "They all came back, to a man. It was quite amazing to watch these guys move back into the distillery. It was as if they'd never been away."

They decided to make two different styles of whisky: a typical Bruichladdich, more delicate than the robust malts typical of Islay; and a new, heavily-peated malt called Port Charlotte (after the next village to Bruichladdich, where McEwan's wife is from). The plan was to start production in five-months' time, to coincide with the Islay Whisky Festival in May. But after lying fallow for seven years, it was clear that the distillery needed a lot of work before it could produce anything.

An expert from London's Kew Steam Museum was brought in to attend to the creaking boilers; another was needed to rescue the ancient mill. Other than that, all the repair and renovation work was done in-house. "I don't know how we did it. We just worked and worked and worked," says McEwan. But the work paid off; on 29 May 2001, right on schedule, Bruichladdich began making whisky again.

Today the distillery is a model of old-fashioned efficiency. Its white walls are trimmed with the aqua and blue of Bruichladdich's new livery (chosen to reflect the colours of the loch), its copper pipes and stills polished to a warm gleam. Webcams are situated at strategic points so that anyone can log on and watch the slow process of whisky being made. They are incongruous alongside the Victorian machinery, but Bruichladdich doesn't have anything against modern technology; it just doesn't want to use it to make whisky. "That's our computer," McEwan says, pointing to a blackboard covered with chalked figures.

His pride in the distillery is obvious, and it's shared by everyone. John Rennie is a cooper and head warehouseman, in charge of storing and tending the casks that, for the next 10 years, hold the key to Bruichladdich's success. "I don't bullshit in the slightest, this last year is the best working year I've had," he affirms, beaming. At 62, he's been working for 46 years; 23 of them at Bruichladdich.

It's so rare to encounter this much enthusiasm, let alone such a feel-good story in today's global market, that a cynic might wonder if the free hand McEwan and the rest have been given isn't just a calculating ploy to encourage productivity. But the 12 men and women who now have permanent jobs at Bruich-laddich don't see it that way, and – having experienced the alternative – they should know.

"We're all in it for the same thing," says Duncan McFadyen, a stillman (he distils the spirit from the huge copper stills) known to all as The Budgie. "If we don't do our job then the shareholders have got nothing. And if they don't back us up, then we've got nothing. Everyone's working for the same aim."

That goes further than just producing what they hope will be fine single-malt whisky. The intention is to broaden the distillery's scope, creating more jobs and boosting a local economy that's badly in need of it. Work is already underway in the distillery yard on what will be Islay's first bottling plant, making Bruichladdich the only whisky to be entirely produced on the island. And there are also plans to create a whisky academy, where enthusiasts can come to learn the production process themselves.

It's too soon to say how successful these long-term plans will be, but early signs are promising. Bruichladdich has won the distillery of the year award in New York, and had its 20-year malt come first in a blind tasting of 3,000 whiskies. And, in February, Jim McEwan was voted distiller of the year by one of the industry's top magazines. Not a bad start for a distillery that little more than a year ago everyone had given up for dead.

"Forget the smoke and mirrors, we're not about that. We're about heart," says McEwan. "This is about the heart and the hand. And if we can get that message across, we will sell enough whisky to make this distillery survive." *

Bruichladdich is available from the company's website, www.bruichladdich.com, or Oddbins and selected stockists, at around £24.99, £35.99 and £52.99 a bottle for 10-, 15- and 20-year olds. Casks of the new Bruichladdich and Port Charlotte can be bought direct, from £775 for bourbon to £2,195 for a sherry butt (storage is free for the first 10 years), tel: 01496 850 221

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