The Demise and Rise of Bruichladdich The Revival of Bruichladdich

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Built in 1881, Bruichladdich distillery has been an important of Islay’s history for 140 years. The distillery was built by the Harvey brothers, a dynamic trio who inherited both the Yoker and Dundas grain distilleries in Glasgow from their father. In 1881, the brothers came together to build Bruichladdich, adding a third distillery to their portfolio with the intention to blend the three outputs and begin their own blending and bottling business. Combining their expertise, the distillery was designed by the youngest of the brothers, Robert. Built during the Victorian era, Robert Harvey designed a state-of-the-art distillery – unlike anything that had been seen on the island before this. Sibling rivalry is inevitable and a feud amongst the trio left just one brother to operate Bruichladdich independent of the Glasgow distilleries.

A standalone operation, Bruichladdich’s beginnings were small with many blending houses already supplied with Islay whisky for their blends. Bruichladdich scraped by, just, and struggled to generate a profit for many years also experiencing several periods of closure.

In 1937, Bruichladdich was acquired by one of whisky’s most colourful characters, Joseph Hobbs. Hobbs was a founding member of the Associated Scottish Distillers – a consortium which included distilleries such as Glenury Royal, Fettercairn and Benromach. The distillery changed hands numerous times over the years with Invergordon Distillers acquiring the distillery in 1968. Following the ‘whisky loch’ of the 1980s, it became part of Whyte & Mackay’s portfolio after a hostile takeover bid. Bruichladdich was soon deemed “surplus to requirements” and its stills were switched off in October 1993.

In the year 2000, the distillery was reopened by a private party of investors led by former wine merchant Mark Reynier, and Jim McEwan was appointed Master Distiller to raise the phoenix from the ashes. Born on the island, Jim began his career at Bowmore, starting out on 1st August 1963 at the age of 15 as an apprentice cooper, he worked his way up to cellar master at the distillery’s famous warehouses before moving to Glasgow at the age of 28 to train as a blender for parent company, Morrison Bowmore. After eight years, Jim returned to Islay at the request of Suntory to become its new distillery manager at Bowmore before ending his illustrious 38 year career as an ambassador for not only Islay’s oldest working distillery, but the island itself.

When the offer was made to reopen and manage the redundant Bruichladdich, Jim leapt at the chance to reawaken this mothballed giant, and revitalise both it and its importance to the island. Jim describes walking through the gates of Bruichladdich in 2000 to be shocked by what he met; a distillery abandoned and falling apart, he details a “disaster site”. Despite this, Jim could still feel a heartbeat amongst the rubble, and set out on his mission to “take this Cinderella whisky to the ball”.

Jim led a revival for Bruichladdich from despondent obsolete Islay distillery into the powerhouse it is today. Over the next decade and a half, he helped transform the image of the distillery, breathing new life into its existing stock with a pioneering new wood policy, and reviving the historic tradition of peated single malt production by introducing the Port Charlotte and Octomore brands, and of course, the acclaimed The Botanist gin. 

Like its island neighbour Bunnahabhain, Bruichladdich has traditionally been an un-peated single malt, mostly owing to its requirements by the blenders who owned it. Many claimed that Bruichladdich could not be a “true Islay” with a distinct absence of peat, however, McEwan and his crew have stood firm on their philosophy that there is more to Islay than a flavour profile provided by peated malt. Their Bruichladdich single malt is the best representation of the distillery’s house style: floral, fruity and elegant. Driven by an unwavering ambition to create the highest-provenance Islay malts, these are exclusively distilled, matured and bottled on Islay.

Just five months after refurbishment of their Victorian equipment, and following five years of silence, production of a heavily-peated spirit commenced on 29th May 2001 at Bruichladdich. In the hands of the new distillery team they set out to commemorate the old Port Charlotte distillery and prove to non-believers that Bruichladdich could produce a quality peated malt. Five years on in 2006, the first limited release of this highly peated whisky came to fruition. A historic bottling, the ‘PC5 Evolution’ realised the vision of master distiller Jim McEwan and was the beginning of a new dynasty. Heavily peated to 40PPM (just under Laphroaig’s average 45PPM), this much heavier version of their standard output has undeniably been a hit with both collectors and drinkers.

Octomore is the super-heavily peated single malt produced by Bruichladdich distillery, the most routinely heavily peated in the world. The whisky is named after the farm of the same name, located on a hillside north of the town of Port Charlotte. The Octomore single malts were first distilled in 2002 by Jim McEwan as a single experimental project to challenge the status quo and see just how peaty they could make whisky (a curious feat for a distillery originally not known for their use of peat). This pilot was just the beginning and as Jim and his team set out on their mission to creating the world’s peatiest whisky, they created a third distinct brand for the distillery. Now an annual release, the team succeeded and Octomore has claimed its position at the top of the peated pedestal. A peat monster at its heart, Octomore is by no means one-dimensional with the balance of peat with depth, complexity and expressiveness of flavour an equal goal in the process.

With a plethora of successful experiments they re-created the distillery a step away from the rest of Islay and created a unique range of products and an iconic brand identity. The phoenix from the ashes did not go unnoticed and in 2012, Rémy Cointreau purchased the distillery.