Most Scotch single-malt distilleries pride themselves on tradition, on doing things the same way generation after generation, on sons succeeding fathers at the stills and in the bottling plants. Not so with Bruichladdich, the iconoclastic Islay malt known to its fans as “the Laddie.” The distillery was built in 1881, and much of the original equipment is still used to make its whisky today. But the story of Bruichladdich really begins in 2001, when, after several years in mothballs, the distillery was refurbished and relaunched with visionary Jim McEwan as master distiller. He made what he wanted to make and didn’t care whether it fit with notions about what he was supposed to make. Islay is the capital of peated whiskies so of course, in keeping with this rebellious spirit, Bruichladdich’s flagship whisky, the Classic Laddie, is unpeated. Unlike virtually all other Islay brands, Bruichladdich uses locally grown barley. It’s almost taboo in the industry to bottle a single malt that’s less than 10 years old, yet some of the Laddies are as young as five. Hell, Bruichladdich even makes gin: The Botanist.
McEwan’s most notorious creation is the Octomore series. It’s the world’s most heavily peated whisky, by a long shot; its phenol content (phenol is the stuff that creates the distinctive smoky flavor) is about triple that of Ardbeg, the peaty runner-up. Bruichladdich Octomore 7.4 Virgin Oak Single Malt Scotch Whisky ($250) is the first release in the tenure of new head distiller Adam Hannett, and it’s unlike any previous Octomore in that it’s aged in virgin French oak rather than the traditional used-bourbon or -sherry barrels. It was laid down as an experiment, and it succeeds and then some. The virgin oak transforms what could be a one-dimensional peat bomb into a complex layered whisky with sweet citrus and honey complementing cinnamon and clove from the wood and, of course, the ashy barbecue notes of the peat. Octomore bottles tend to disappear quickly once they hit the shelves; if you see one, snap it up. If you see two, better still. (bruichladdich.com)