Murray Campbell loves to talk shop. As a brand ambassador for Bruichladdich, you’d think that’s par for the course. But with Murray, the roots run a little deeper – his uncle was a former distillery manager, and Murray, as it turns out, loves to shoot the breeze when it comes to discussing all things whisky.
So what started out as a formal interview to discuss their Islay Barley range of whiskies soon became a rather candid discussion that shed a lot of light on the distillery and its practices – cue the Craig Ferguson-esque question sheet ripping, which is rather refreshing. For that reason, this is posted as an almost-unabridged interview (with some editing for simplicity and clarity), simply because merits a read. Warning though, it’s going to be a long one.
Kind of like that friend who overshares and you just wanna hear everything, though. In a good way.
We’re kind of used to seeing the Octomore pop up here with each release. Is that the case for the Islay Barley Series now (for Singapore)?
This is the fourth official release of Islay Barley. The first was in 2004, second one 2006, third was 2007, and next was 2009. The difference between the four was that 2004, 2006 and 2007 were all single farm, this one (2009) is multiple farms combined. This originated in 2003. We had this idea where we wanted to encourage the local Islay farmers to grow barley for us. Because up until then they didn’t grow barley. All the farmers there were cattle farmers and sheep farmers – they didn’t grow barley. And they raised cattle and sheep because that’s what their fathers and grandfathers and so forth did. So in 2003, we said to them, if you grow barley for us, we promise we would buy the barley from you for a good price and between your barley and our distillery, we will make good whisky together. We’ll mature it, and we’ll bottle it, and we’ll send it out of here as Islay Barley.
We thought this was a great idea. But unfortunately, in 2003, of all the farmers, we asked, only one guy said yes. Because for them, it was risky. If you got good weather this year, then you get a good harvest; you get more barley, you get more money. You get a bad harvest; less barley, less money. So they were a bit apprehensive at the beginning, which is understandable, but this first guy in 2003 – he did it, the results were successful, and year after year after year, more and more guys signed on. This year (2016), we just finished the harvest in early September, and we had 15 farmers growing for us. So it represents about 25 percent of all our barley needs.
So all of their barley goes to Bruichladdich?
Yes, they weren’t growing barley before. So they’re growing barley exclusively for us. On Islay, there are only two distilleries using Islay barley, and that’s ourselves and Kilchoman. Again, Kilchoman is producing 200,000 litres a year; we are 1.3 million litres a year. So yes, they’re doing it, but we’re doing it on a much larger scale. So it’s a lot more effort.
So do these growers supply Kilchoman as well or do they have their own growers?
Kilchoman grows some of their own – I have to double check with Kilchoman – but I do know that our 2007 edition was called the Rockside Farm; last year Kilchoman bought Rockside Farm (ed: officially changed hands end 2015). So this year, Rockside Farm barley didn’t go to us. I don’t know who else is growing for Kilchoman, but they’re only using a very small amount of Islay barley (ed: according to Kilchoman’s site they source their remainder from Port Ellen Maltings). So probably our 25 percent of Islay barley would be enough for Kilchoman’s complete production actually.
Any reason why Islay Barley isn’t an annual release?
Well, 2004 was the first edition, 2005 – I don’t know why – it probably may have been a bad harvest, and then there’s 2006 and 2007. 2008, all the Islay that we got, we made them peated barley. And because Bruichladdich is unpeated, it means we didn’t have a Bruichladdich 2008. So the next year was 2009. We do have a Port Charlotte Islay Barley, which is first produced in 2008, but not available in Singapore. And so the next one would be 2010. It won’t be 2009.
Does any of the local barley go into the regular releases?
About 25 percent. So this year we have about 1,350 tonnes of barley from Islay. And that we split between Bruichladdich Islay Barley, Port Charlotte Islay Barley, and Octomore Islay Barley. None of that will go into the Classic Laddie, the Port Charlotte Scottish Barley, or the Octomore .1 (i.e. 6.1, 7.1 etc). It only goes into Islay Barley.
So as you probably know, apart from malting, we do everything on Islay. We do the distilling, maturation and the bottling there. The malting of the barley we don’t do on Islay; we do that on Inverness – Bairds malting (Bairds Malt). That means all the barley that we have on Islay, has to be sent on a boat for two hours. It has to be sent 250 miles up to the Northeast, malted, and sent back on a boat so we can use it. So it’s very, very time consuming, very labour intensive. So what we want to do in the next two to three years, is, we want to do our own maltings at Bruichladdich for the Islay Barley. Because the other Scottish barley we’re getting from Inverness; it’s only coming one way. This stuff here is going up, and it’s coming back down again. So we want to be able to malt it on Islay.
It’s going to be quite a big project – so we’ll need maybe three years to get it up and running, but it’s something we’re very serious about.
Do you find this a challenge? Undoubtedly you’ll have higher costs than most.
It does. It absolutely does. Our costs are higher, and again, the fact that at Bruichladdich distillery – I know that our packaging looks very modern – we’re a very traditional distillery. Since Bruichladdich opened in 1881, and until it closed down in 1984, none of the previous owners had invested in machinery; they never invested in upgrading machinery. So when we closed down in 1984, we closed down for two reasons. One was that industry was at a low point, the second was the owners at the time did not want to invest heavily to upgrade equipment, to make it cheaper to make whisky, so they decided to close down the distillery. So when we opened in 2001, we still had that same old equipment and continued using it to make whisky the same way as they did in 1881 so because we don’t have any computers it means we have to rely on the people – on the distillers and the warehousemen and their experience. So yes, of the eight distilleries on Islay, there’s probably about 200 people employed by all eight distilleries combined. We have 80 of them. Kilchoman have 20. The six big guys, who are much bigger than us, they have about a hundred.
Every bottle that you see comes blank to Islay. We put on a label, throw in the whisky; we put it into the tin, we send it off the island again. It’s time-consuming, but the reason we want to do this is because we want to provide as many jobs as possible. And again, lots and lots of young people on Islay don’t want to leave Islay – they don’t want to leave their friends and family behind to find jobs. So if we can create jobs for them on Islay, it’s a good thing for the community.
Do you know the map of Islay well? On the west coast is Bruichladdich and Kilchoman. So prior to 2001 and 2005, there were hardly any jobs on that side of the island. Now there’re 200 jobs between them and us. It completely revitalised that side of the island. So for us, it’s not all about making a profit and reducing costs; there’s a human element there as well. They always say, people matter. And people make whisky.
For the 2009 batch of Islay Barley, was there a reason why you went with four barley growers?
Yes, there is. So the previous versions were all single farm, this one is four farms. So what happens is if you want to have a single farm variety, you need to be able to give us 112 tonnes of barley. 112 tonnes of barley equals four truckloads of 28 tonnes, and you drive all the way up to Inverness. By the time the barley is dried and malted, it loses 18 percent moisture, and that equals three truckloads of 28 tonnes going back. So it’s for practicality; to be more practical we need 112. So these guys here, individually, they could not give us 112. So we took all the barley and combined them together.
Is there a discernable difference between the barley from the farms within Islay?
It’s hard to say. For example, the 2007 was Rockside Farm. So Rockside Farm is where Kilchoman is, right on the west coast, right beside Kilchoman beach. Right beside Machir Bay. Because it’s right beside the Atlantic Ocean it’s been bombarded with salty air and sea spray, and that means the soil will be affected as well; which means the barley is saturated in salt. These four here are more inland, and that means they’re not as exposed to the ocean. So we believe that again, the terroir will be different; the soil will be different, the growing conditions are different. Exposure to the elements is different as well.
So these four farms are sheltered by this bay, so they’re not as exposed to the same kind of weather. So, we think it’s too early to tell if 2007 is better or different from 2009 (and so on).
Terroir is something you believe in. In that respect, what best represents Bruichladdich?
One interesting thing we started doing two years ago; we did something called regional trials. So what we did for this – we selected four regions from Scotland. Islay, representing the west, Aberdeen, representing north; Black Isle, east, and Lothian and Borders, South. So we took identical batches of barley, 100 tonnes of barley, planted in Islay, planted in north and southeast at the same time, harvested at the same time, distilled one after the other, and after the new make spirit came out, we could taste differences in the spirit.
So everything was the same, apart from the location it was grown in. We then put the stuff into casks, we then put the casks – identical casks – into the same part of the warehouse, side by side by side, and then we tried them after three years at the whisky festival last year, we noticed even after three years, they’re still different. What we do believe, though, is that after five years, seven years, the differences will get smaller and smaller and smaller; but we’ve seen at three years old, four years old they’re still different. That proves that terroir is a real thing for whisky.
What we’re going to do with that we’re still unsure, because if we release it at ten years old, it’s just going to taste the same, and then people would be going: what am I trying to taste here? Why are you doing this? So to demonstrate this we’d probably have to release it quite young. So maybe – I’m just guessing – we’ll do like 200 ml bottles of North, South, and East or something. And that said it’s an ongoing experiment, we think it’s going to take us years to build up enough information to prove this, but we’re convinced it’s a thing and it’s not made up.
Actually, I think open experimentation suits the image of Bruichladdich, doesn’t it?
I think whisky drinkers are only going forward in the future. They’re only going to want to know more information. They want to know more about what they are eating, what they are drinking. They’re not going to suddenly start asking less questions; they’re only going to start asking more questions, like: why do you say this, what does this mean, why do you do it this way? We are very fortunate to be in a position where we have answers for all of these questions. Some of the big brands might have to scramble for answers because they don’t always give you the big picture – they like to show you pictures of glens, and rivers, and castles. Whereas we are all about transparency.
I know guys that have studied distilling, and worked at distilleries hands on and have worked at distilleries where you’re not really working – you’re operating a console. And they’re getting great salaries, but they’re not being stimulated or challenged, because they obviously studied, having loved the science behind it and then getting the hands on experience. And then suddenly, they’re working in a place where they don’t get to utilise it. For me, the first distillery I ever went to was on Islay; it was Bruichladdich. And in my mind, I thought that was what all distilleries were like. It wasn’t till I started to know more, then OK, we’re unusual. That’s normal; we’re not normal.
I think we’re positioned for the future. At the moment, we’re still favoured among the whisky enthusiasts, who love to ask their questions. For some people who – I go to some markets, and I’ll say them, we’re from Islay, have heard you of Islay; some have not even heard of Islay. So, for us, that is a bit more difficult. Because if you don’t have the base knowledge of whisky, then sometimes it’s hard for us to explain what it is exactly that makes us different from the rest. So that’ll take time, and it takes education. It’s going to take time.
To be honest, the way that we talk to people has not changed since we got bought by Remy. The way that we spread Bruichladdich in the past was we went to markets, we talked to people, we did presentations, we told them our story, our values, and that’s exactly what we’re doing now. We’re not doing big billboards we’re not doing TV commercials, we’re still getting in front of people and telling our story. And hopefully if you talk to enough people, you’re going to find a couple of people in that group who’d go, you know, I find that interesting, I like the way they do that.
It’s not for everybody. Like for this one here (Islay Barley), some people don’t want to know the names of the farms. They don’t want to know the farmers’ names. They don’t want to know the names of the farmers’ wives names. Whereas some people will think, oh that’s interesting, I want to know where my whisky is coming from.
I was fortunate to meet Jim McEwan once. The core values seem to be the driving force behind everything the company does. Is that so?
Everyone who works at the distillery is 100 percent – one million percent – behind what we do and believe in. We believe that one day we will – we’re growing slowly; ever, ever so slowly. And we believe that one day, people will be like, now I get what you are doing, now I know why you don’t chill filter, now I know why you don’t add caramel. Now I know why you choose local ingredients. Now I know why you employ local people for this old style of distilling.
All of these things are just for us; we’ve always done it; it’s the way it should be. It’s a huge human element to making whisky. We don’t make whisky following recipes on a piece of paper, you know. We make it through taste, through experience. Now it’s up to our master distiller, who is now Adam Hannett (he prefers head distiller) to take the casks and make something he thinks is representative of our distillery.
It’s hard to capture that feeling when you are so far away, but when you ever get to Islay, and you go around the distillery, and when you’re in the warehouses and you’re smelling and tasting the whisky, and you’re beside the sea, everything comes together, and you say, now I get it.
Now that Adam has taken over, has anything changed?
I would say, at the moment, not too much. When we were bought by Remy in 2012, at that time Jim McEwan started travelling more than he has done in many, many, many years. Because he was our Percival, he was going to do launches in this country, in this country, in this country, and while he was gone, Adam was running the distillery. Adam was the guy who put these whiskies together. He’s the guy who goes into the warehouse every day. He’s been walking with Jim side by side every day for five years, six years, opening casks, tasting whiskies. Going into the tasting room, the blending room, putting some whiskies together. So when Jim was away, Adam was quite at ease, doing the day to day running, putting new products together. So when Jim left – I think one of the reasons Jim left was he thought, OK, Adam’s ready to take over this place.
Jim wouldn’t have left if he didn’t think Adam was ready. But he was absolutely confident that Adam and Allan Logan – Allan was the guy who took over my uncle as distillery manager – these two young guys are ready to lead us into the next 25 years.
Adam is just about to bottle a couple of 10-year-olds of Bruichladdich 10, Port Charlotte 10, and an Octomore 10. Each one is going to be 18,000 bottles, Singapore has about 50 bottles of each or something – a very small allocation. And these are products Adam has put together himself.
What’s going to be very interesting, is the new Black Art: the Black Art 5.1. So obviously the 4.1 was Jim and Adam together, looking at casks, putting casks together. This time, it’s been 100 percent done to his selection. So of course, he’s going to want to make something awesome, cause he’s going to want to show Jim that you know, I can do this too. He’s going to want to make sure this is something that people remember.
The Black Art has been in the market for quite a few years, so it’s gonna be great to get a 5.1 in here. We’re only going to do 12,000 bottles of it; it’s all going to be individually numbered. It’s probably going to disappear quite quickly. And all the bottles from now on are going to have Adam’s signature instead of Jim’s signature.
It seems like a family-driven enterprise. Did that have any bearing on how Adam was chosen?
I think it was very important that the person who replaced Jim was from Bruichladdich. Because if we’d taken someone from a distillery with 30 years experience to come over to Bruichladdich and start taking over Bruichladdich, it wouldn’t have felt right. Because, like Adam and Allan, they have like, this sort of Bruichladdich DNA, you know; they’ve been through every single stage. They know exactly our philosophy and what we believe in.
Back to the scotch. Why is the Bruichladdich range bottled at 50%? That’s not a typical ABV from a distillery.
It used to be 46. In the past, out of the whole range, only the Bruichladdich Islay Barley was 50 percent – and one or two others, but our Laddie Classics and Port Charlottes, they were all 46 in the past. But now they’re all 50 percent. Jim McEwan said that after several years of experimenting with Islay Barley – using Islay Barley as an example – he knew where the barley was coming from, he knew the growers, and he knew the quality was consistent year after year, and when he compared 46 percent with 50 percent year after year, he felt that at 50 percent, the flavours were more pronounced and more focused. He just thought that there was more texture at 50 percent. I think 46 percent is that is the lowest you can go when you do non-chill filtration. If you go below 46 percent, your whisky may go slightly cloudy. You have to keep it at 46 percent to keep it clear and keep the oils inside.
Can you do a breakdown of the types of casks the distillery gets?
We get 95 percent bourbon, four percent wine, one percent sherry, and a few little bits in between. We got some port casks, maybe some calvados casks, some rum casks. Our bourbon casks we get from the Speyside Cooperage in Speyside. So that means all these bourbon casks are being sent from America to Speyside Cooperage to be checked to make sure there are no leaks and are of proper quality. The wine casks we’re buying from another source; sherry casks we’re buying from a bodega called Rey Fernando de Castilla, and we have a very, very good connection with them, because he (Jan Pettersen) is a whisky drinker, so he knows our whiskies very well, and we know his casks very well. And the fact that we know him so well means that we trust the casks that he’s giving us.
Was it commercial decision to focus almost entirely on bourbon?
We’re always bourbon-first.
The last time I was at the distillery in August, we filled 25 sherry butts. Big, old, black, fragile sherry butts. And actually, after we filled up 25 of them, 19 of them were leaking, because they were so old. So Adam looked them and said, look, guys, let them sit overnight and see what happens to all of them. And so it happens they stopped leaking. The wood expands, it stopped leaking when we let them sit. They’re very, very delicate and sometimes if you don’t use them properly, the results aren’t always good.
We’re not that into sherry casks, to be honest. We’ve got a lot more wine casks than sherry casks, and I think something that we might do in the future is to highlight or just outline the history of wine casks in whisky. I think that’ll be pretty interesting.
Speaking of interesting, Octomore seems like a novelty, but it’s an ongoing series. What’s the origin?
Octomore, as you know, started off as a what-if idea. When we looked at the industry in 2002, we saw that everybody was making heavily peated whisky at 40, 50ppm. So at Bairds Malt in Inverness, we found out that to make Port Charlotte at 40ppm, they were taking unpeated barely (for regular Bruichladdich) and heavily peated barley and mixing them until they were 40. So we basically said to them, well, can we just buy the 80ppm stuff? They were like, no, you don’t want that. It’s not any good. It’s going to be too strong; it’s going to be unpalatable. We said to them, just give us some. We’ll try it, we made it, and that was the first batch of Octomore at 80ppm. We went back to them next year and said, could you make it higher? They were like, we don’t know, but we’ll try. And certainly every year it was a little bit more, a little higher. And so that’s how the idea for Octomore was formed.
So Octomore 7.1 was bourbon cask matured Scottish barley. But for .3 we’ve actually used the barley from Octomore farm. So James Brown (owner of Octomore farm) supplied us in 2008 for the 6.3, 2009 with the 7.3. So, five years old, 169ppm, 63 percent alcohol. Bourbon and Ribera del Duero Spanish wine casks.
Have the Octomores always been five years old?
1.1 to 7.3 have always been five years old; we’ve had a 10-year old. We’ve also got the 7.4, which is seven years old (virgin oak). The majority is five years old. And we’re going to have a new 10-year old. The first 10-year old was 50 percent alcohol, 80ppm. This next one (7.3) is 169ppm, cask strength. It’s going to be much more intense than the old 10-year old: Octomore whisky using barley from Octomore farm, using Octomore spring water – the Octomore of Octomores. And as I mentioned before, we usually ask for 112 tonnes of barley; only James is allowed to give us less. He gives us 80 tonnes a year. Whatever he can grow, whatever he can harvest, and we’ll use that, regardless. That’s why it’s a little more expensive; it’s very, very limited.
It’s a very intense whisky and not for everyone. I’ve taken Octomore to birthday parties before and out of 20 people only four or five people liked it, because it’s an extreme whisky. And we believe that even on Islay, it’s one of your final destinations on Islay.
Is there anything that you did differently this time round for Octomore?
The casks are different every time. The 6.3 was bourbon and French wine. This one (7.3) is bourbon and Spanish wine. So they’re very different. If you compare the .1s and the .3s, they’re very different as well.