Hosted by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, Australia
I’ll start and end this post with the same basic comment. If you ever get the chance to go along to a tasting hosted by Bruichladdich’s Jim McEwan, don’t think about it, just do it.
I had such a chance the other night when the Sydney branch of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) held an evening with Jim McEwan at the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) in Sydney. If you’re not too familiar with the SMWS, who they are and what they do, check this out.
I wasn’t too sure whether I was going to blog about the evening. Part of me just wanted to just sit back and enjoy it like every other punter in the room. But in the days following, when I looked back at the pictures I couldn’t help but crack a smile. That made me realise, yeah, I’ve got to have a go at sharing this with those who couldn’t make it and to also put something up for those who just want to relive it. Here’s my account of how the evening unfolded.
Bruichladdich + SMWS
Walking into the Macquarie room at the RAC, waiters roamed with substantial canapés and gin and tonics. G&Ts at a whisky tasting aren’t really the norm I suppose, but these were made with Bruichladdich’s very own The Botanist Gin. I can tell you now, they were as good as any G&T can be and absolutely no one was complaining!
I soon found my seat and eyed off the evening’s tasting lineup, consisting of six core range expressions from the Bruichladdich distillery and something a little bit special from the SMWS’s archives.
Everyone loves a dram or seven, but truth be told, the whisky would be playing second fiddle for me this particular evening. The real reason I was there was to hear from a man – a legend – who I’d heard so much about. This guy.
Cellarmaster of the SMWS, Andrew Derbidge, soon took to the microphone.
“There are three people in the whisky industry you should move heaven and earth to see – one is Dr Bill Lumsden from Glenmorangie. The other is Richard Patterson from Whyte and Mackay – and even those two would go out of their way to see this guy here with us tonight. Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr Jim McEwan”
It was at this point Jim stepped up and got right into it. We heard about the whisky, but perhaps more importantly – and this would become a theme of the night – we heard about the people. From the Dux of the local school on Islay who works as a Mashman to the inspiring Christine, who’s perhaps a little less fortunate than some of us. We learnt a lot about the institution that is Bruichladdich and how they’re very much a part of the community of Islay.
Bruichladdich: The whisky
I’m not going to weigh in with all-out, whimsical tasting notes, because I didn’t spend the night writing them down. Plus, Jim didn’t sound like the biggest fan of the things anyway! One thing you should know though, is that all Bruichladdich is non chill-filtered and bottled at its natural colour. It’s real whisky, made for drinking.
Laddie Classic Edition_01
First up was the Laddie Classic. Although a No Age Statement whisky, Jim tells us that it comes in at around seven years of age.
Really fresh, light and clean on the nose. Lots of vanilla, a slight sourness and some faint tropical notes that I often associate with younger, ex-bourbon matured whisky. This all translated pretty accurately to the palate – light and fresh with sweet vanillin finishing clean and creamy. I honestly think you could use this to introduce anyone to the world of proper whisky.
Islay Barley 2006
A pretty self explanatory one here, but Islay Barley is made with – you guessed it – barley grown on Islay! Barley to bottle, this one is all done on Islay.
Slightly more heat on the nose this time (50% ABV vs. 46% ABV on the Laddie Classic), but it also has this lovely, distinct cereal note that reminds me so much of porridge with honey. A stronger tropical fruit note – apples, pears, pineapple and banana – but pretty well balanced. Fuller mouthfeel, vanilla, citrus and malt on the palate finishing quite long and warming. Lovely stuff.
Black Arts 03.1
This next one was something I’ve been hanging out to try for a while. What can I tell you about it? Not much really. Jim won’t give away any details of the Black Art 03.1 other than its age (22 years) and its ABV (48.7%).
Nosing it and tasting it my initial reaction was ‘ah, ex-sherry’. But then I remembered that Bruichladdich probably have the biggest range of wacky wine-finished whisky on the planet, so who really knows what this is comprised of!
I found it sweet and jammy on the nose with berries and a touch of spice. It’s rich, fruity and dense. Thick and viscous on the palate, layered with all sorts of red fruit flavours, a slight nuttiness and sweet vanilla toward the end.
I may not know what it is, but it’s a pretty tasty dram, that’s for sure. I’m leaning toward a decent whack of wine cask in there, moreso than Oloroso or PX cask.
Port Charlotte 10 year old
‘Jim, this is the fifth whisky, what about number four?’
‘the fourth whisky – you missed the fourth whisky!’
Yeah, yeah we’ll get to that one.
Okay then?.. so we moved on to whisky number five, the classic Port Charlotte 10 year old, peated to around 40 ppm.
If there’s one note I personally get from all Port Charlotte whisky, it’s a distinct rubber washing-up glove note. That, or the smell of taking off powdered latex gloves, then sniffing your hands. Sounds weird? Try it! Some also describe this note a putty.
Don’t judge me, but I personally love the smell! Add in some vegetal peat, smoking coals, pepper and a certain freshness and that’s the Port Charlotte 10 year old to me. This all translates to the palate (minus the rubber glove note), along with charred meats, a big salty saline tang and a touch of something sweeter. Lovely stuff.
SMWS 127.39 ‘Intensely tasty’
This next one was a bit special. It’s an 11 year old Port Charlotte, distilled in 2002 and bottled by the SMWS at a whopping 66.7% ABV!
There’s no hiding from that ABV, though it’s nowhere near as ferocious as you’d expect on the nose. A light prickle with some vanillin; it’s sweet, juicy and malty. I almost feel like this could be from the same base as the Port Charlotte Scottish Barley variant, but I guess we’ll never know. I thought it took a few drops of water quite well, bringing out my rubber glove notes.
Oh so warming on the palate, a fair whack of citrus tang and sweetness up front, with some spice developing up the back. It’s called ‘Intensely tasty’ and it certainly is – especially the ‘intense’ part. I currently have its younger sibling at home (SMWS 127.37) and I love the stuff.
If there’s one line of whisky that the modern-day Bruichladdich distillery is best known for, it’s probably their fabled Octomore line, which pushes the boundaries of peating to a whole new level.
Octomore 06.1 weighs in at 167 parts per million (ppm) of peat. How much higher can they go? Jim tells us that they’ve just had their latest batch of malt tested and it has registered at a slightly crazy 240-245ppm!
I’m happy to admit that I haven’t enjoyed every Octomore that I’ve tasted, but I do rather like this one. I found it sweet and malty on the nose with well integrated vegetal notes. Nicely balanced in my opinion with some citrus, lemon sherbet and peppery spice. The kicker for me is the mouthfeel though. It’s so oily and sweet with this lovely smoke and char on the finish. More restrained than previous iterations, but I’d happily have a bottle of this one at home.
Mystery malt time
If that wasn’t enough, Jim had one further dram to share with us all. Waiters soon circled with trays of official society tasting copitas. In them a golden mystery malt of some description.
A quick nosing delivered a big waft of sweet peat, toasted wood chips, toffee and creamy honeyed vanilla. Marvelously oily, sweet and full on the palate with some tannins and loads of wood character which just seemed to work so well.
We’d go on to learn that we were actually tasting a work in progress Octomore, sitting at around 5.5 years in age, 67% ABV and peated to 175 ppm. What made this extra special though was the fact it was solely matured in Virgin French Oak (Limousin Oak) casks. Not only that, we were the first group in the world to be tasting it.
I can assure you that it wasn’t the whiskies before it talking, but this was genuinely lovely stuff. Jim assures us it will be bottled – and bottled soon – so watch this space. My only hope is that it’s a mainstream release that makes it way to Australia. Truly fantastic stuff and my personal whisky highlight of the evening.
A highland toast
It was at this point of the night where Jim invited everyone to get up and join him in a Highland Toast. One foot on the table, one on your chair, glass charged in your right hand.
And so with great gusto the room chanted. “up with it, down with it, away from me, towards me, drink it off and no other shall ever drink from this glass again”
I’m pretty sure we were saying it in Gaelic. But if you can actually speak Gaelic, then you’d probably say we were all chanting gibberish. Whatever we did, I think we did an alright job of it.
As an aside, the whisky used in the toast was the Port Charlotte Scottish Barley, whisky number four that we missed earlier. And it was bloody fantastic. All the cracking elements of the Port Charlotte 10 year old, plus that malty porridge note from the barley just works a treat. Tasty underrated stuff in my opinion.
Jim stayed around for a good while afterwards, signing bottles, chatting to fans, posing for photos and just being an all-round nice guy.
And so the evening came to a close
I hope this post doesn’t make it sound like we sat through a simple tasting and presentation. Because it was so much more than that.
It was the stories and the banter that made the night as enjoyable as it was. From Jacky losing his teeth in a cask, to Jim’s finger sniffing lost in translation moment in Japan, to Günter, the Nuremberg Highlander. It’s the kind of stuff you can’t really convey in pictures or words. You just had to be there. I could go on and on about the institution that is Bruichladdich and the legend that is Jim McEwan, but it would do neither of them justice.
Although Jim was billed as the evening’s guest, when he speaks and presents, it almost felt as though you were the guest at his tasting.
A sincere thanks to Jim McEwan and SMWS Australia and Southtrade International for making the evening a truly memorable one. To Jim, I genuinely do hope our paths cross again at some point. Perhaps in your hometown of Islay next time, instead of mine here in Sydney.
As I said at the beginning, If you ever get the chance to go along to a tasting hosted by Bruichladdich’s Jim McEwan, don’t think about it, just do it.