The dark art of distilling with Bruichladdich Distillery
Author: Hannah Crosbie
The Bruichladdich Distillery is located on the remote Hebridean island of Islay. We speak to Master Distiller Adam Hannett about the intriguing process behind the bottling ahead of the exclusive pre-release of their Black Art 9 with Berry Bros. & Rudd.
For centuries, Islay has been regarded as the perfect place to make whisky. Its rich history spans from the times of illicit distilling to the present day.
Not only is the island fertile, it’s also astoundingly beautiful: at the peak of its hills, you can see for miles around. “That would be the other advantage of being on an island,” Adam tells me. “When the customs and tax men were approaching in the days of illicit distilling, you would see them coming and hide.”
Today, Islay is home to only nine distilleries. Bruichladdich is one of them. The Victorian machinery and old buildings remain, but the distillery continues to harbour a dark secret – and this time, it’s not from the tax man.
AN UNLIKELY CAREER
The people of Islay are steeped in the culture of distilling: it’s the second biggest sector after agriculture. As a proud Ileach, did Adam always anticipate becoming a distiller? His answer surprised me.
“I didn’t ever expect to make whisky at Bruichladdich. When you grow up on Islay, you’re surrounded by whisky and totally take that for granted.”
But when Adam came to Bruichladdich in 2004, everything changed.
“It was only when I started working there that I got a passion for whisky and what it means for Islay. I loved what was happening at Bruichladdich – the ethos, the atmosphere – it gripped me, and I fell in love with the place. To be rolling barrels, mashing, involved in everything – it was fantastic.”
Pretty soon, Adam’s interest in spirits led to him moving from the customer-facing team to a distilling role – under the expert eye of the Master Distiller of the time, Jim McEwan. In this role, Adam worked closely with Jim on many projects, and one of them was Black Art.
BRUICHLADDICH’S DARK SECRET
Black Art is a project shrouded in secrecy. The concept was the passion project of previous Master Distiller Jim McEwan– but how exactly did it begin?
“It started from an ambition and an ability to explore wood,” Adam reveals. “Jim actually started out as a cooper, and even though he was involved in everything from barley to bottle, one of his true loves was maturation, blending, and the role of the cask in making whisky.”
When Jim brought the distillery back to life in 2001 he had the freedom to source casks directly from some incredible places, including some top Bordeaux châteaux. From there, he began to experiment.
“It was a true creative storm when Jim was blending these casks,” recounts Adam. “He was bringing all these flavours together; all these things that people just hadn’t tasted before. Somebody asked the question: ‘Jim, what are you doing?’ And he’d reply: ‘I can’t tell you, it’s a secret – just trust me.’ That was when the concept of Black Art came to him.”
Unsurprisingly, Adam continues this legacy of secrecy and holds his cards close to his chest, especially when I quiz him on his latest bottling: Black Art 9.
“Black Art 9 was a bit of a reflection on the other eight releases in the series” he says. “I drew inspiration from the first few editions of Black Art where we would work on the potential components with a series of relatively short periods of maturation in new casks, one after the other. With Black Art 9 I wanted to go back to this method using short periods of maturation to build layer upon layer of flavour. It was about looking back at the methods we’d used over the years, combining those and bringing in another step.”
THE ESSENCE OF BLACK ART
The guardianship of the casks has since been passed down to Adam. He’s been at Bruichladdich since 2004, but still insists there’s so much more for him to learn. He doesn’t even consider himself a Master Distiller – it’s clear that Jim McEwan has left some big shoes to fill. I ask him whether he ever feels the pressure to deliver something spectacular.
“I suppose I don’t really see it as pressure,” he muses. “What you must remember is that distilling isn’t about making a decision in one moment. We take great care in each stage of the whisky-making process, from the barley that’s grown, to the way we distil the spirit, to the casks we fill. By the time we start that blending process you know that you have put the work in to make the whisky as good as it can be.”
“The lovely thing is you don’t know what you will end up with, but you’ve got to take risks –no one ever did anything great from repeating the same old, same old. That’s the DNA that’s been instilled in me [by Jim] to try new things and push the boundaries.”
“If you feel pressure, you’re probably in the wrong job. It should be a pleasure to have that creative freedom, try new things and see what happens. That’s the essence of Black Art.”
Browse Black Art 9 exclusively here.