Bruichladdich Islay Barley Rockside Farm 2007 and Organic Scottish Barley comparison



 


It was exactly this time last year that we visited Bruichladdich distillery, a couple of miles up the coastal road from where we were staying in Port Charlotte. It is a stunningly beautiful place and I strongly recommend using Google Streets to look around.


The tour was excellent and I was particularly impressed by their Victorian era massive open top mashing tun.
 
 
 



The Wash Backs where they add the yeast....


 
 

The still house....
 
 
 
 
 
 



The walk around their dunnage warehouse was also highly enjoyable. They seem to have used almost every kind of cask imaginable. Afterwards we sat around a table in the Laddie shop and were taken through the current range.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

After the tour we entered the Laddie Shop to begin the advanced tasting session.


 
 
 
 
 

I had already requested ahead of time not to receive any sherry cask influenced whiskies for the tasting session and they very kindly gave me a tasting sample of the Islay Barley, (which I will be reviewing below), The Laddie Sixteen, the Octomore 6.1 and Octomore 7.1.
 
 
 
 



Review of the Islay Barley Rockside Farm 2007 and Organic Scottish Barley



The background story to these special Barley expressions begins back at the very beginning of the Golden years when Bruichladdich was an independent distillery.

It was the year 2000 that Mark Reynier, London wine retailer and whisky enthusiast took a trip to Islay. Seeing the potential of the then mothballed Islay distillery near Port Charlotte, (then owned and long forsaken by Whyte & Mackay), he quickly raised the money and purchased Bruichladdich distillery for £6m.

One of the first master strokes of Mark Reynier was to hire Jim McEwan, not just a master distiller but renowned genius and larger than life character to put his plan for a new progressive and innovative style of distillery into action.

Terroir Matters

At the core of Mark’s philosophy was something he borrowed from his wine days, that is that “terroir matters”. The theory is that just as grapes from a particular place with its own unique climate and soil affect the raw ingredients and the final taste of the wine, so the “terroir” of the raw ingredients of the whisky have an equally important affect upon the taste of whisky. Even after Mark’s departure (see below), you can still see from the Bruichladdich Internet site, his legacy of “terroir matters” and his insistence on distilling (as much as possible), with locally sourced raw ingredients.

The newly independent distillery began a whole new and exciting era by experimenting with all kinds of weird casks. (Indeed, there was even an Israeli Carmel Wine expression at one time). Then Mark and Jim, following their “Terroir matters” philosophy, next turned their attention to what they said was the next key flavour ingredient, that is barley. They began experimenting with different types of barley, particularly barley traditionally locally grown on Islay’s farms or to reach production demands, at least insisting on 100% Scottish barley.


Sadly, he should have been more selective as to who he borrowed the money from, for just 12 years later, being outvoted by his investors wanting a quick return on their investment, he was forced to sell his beloved Bruichladdich distillery to the French multinational spirits company, Remy Cointreau who gave them an offer they literally could not refuse! A whopping £58 million! Mark packed up and moved from Islay to Ireland where he now once again, runs his own distillery, Waterford distillery.


and continues his unique ground breaking whisky innovations there.  Actually, looking at the Waterford Internet site, the things he did at Bruichladdich seem quite tame compared to what he’s got planned for his new baby!

For more of the background of the Mark Reynier story, see this article:


 


These two Bruichladdich whiskies which I am about to review are part of that legacy. However, there is one very important difference between these two expressions. The Islay Barley Rockside Farm 2007 was produced during Mark Reynier and Jim McEwan’s reign. The Organic Scottish Barley was produced after the Remy Cointreau takeover.

Pre-Take Over Verses Post Take Over


Ralfy.com has a very interesting YouTube video where he interviews Duncan, the distillery manager at Bruichladdich who comments a number of times how proud he is to be managing a small independent distillery and not a distillery owned by a large company. The small independent distilleries he says, is the future. I think he was right but sadly, Bruichladdich was not going to be one of them! This was back in 2010, just 2 years before the Remy Cointreau takeover. The big question that everyone is asking is, despite the French company’s assurances, will we begin to see overall quality compromised at Bruichladdich?

The Age of the whiskies

Neither of these expressions state an age statement but in actual fact, only the newer, post-sale, expression is a true NAS. The older Islay Barley has a vintage statement of 2007, which, as explained on the label, was the year of the barley season (2006/2007) when it was grown and harvested from Rockside Farm and subsequently malted, mashed and distilled soon after. We also know, from the bottling date, that the whisky was bottled in in 2015 which therefore makes it a 7 to 8-year-old whisky.

The Organic Scottish Barley on the other hand has no such barley vintage stated, neither does it have a distilled date so there is no way of knowing how old the whisky or whiskies in the bottle actually are. I Emailed the distillery and received a reply from Becky Codd, PA to Production Director, that the bottle I had was from a specific Scottish barley vintage from 2008 which would make the whisky around 7 years old being that it was bottled in 2016. It puzzles me why unlike the Bruichladdich’s “Bere Barley” expression which also has a barley vintage of 2008 stated on the bottle, why did they decide not to put a vintage on this Travel Retail version if, as Becky informs me, it is also a specific barley vintage from 2008? Is this an oversite, a marketing decision or a sign of the policy of the new regime?

OK, without further ado, let’s start the reviews……



Islay Barley Rockside Farm 2007, 50% abv.700 ml


Packaging
The expression comes in Bruichladdich’s now signature metal canister. This one comes in a lovely Barley coloured yellow. The bottle, also instantly recognisable as a Bruichladdich bottle, comes in a clear glass bottle, unlike the newer expressions which come is solid colours matching the canisters. More about this later.









The canister and bottle is covered almost entirely in text. A small percentage of it is marketing waffle but the larger part of it gives you some very interesting information about about Rockside farm and important facts like vintage age, distilling, bottling date, abv, non chill filtering, natural colour etc. All wonderful stuff.

Smelling Notes

Even at 50% abv you can tell this is a classy dram. Sweet coastal sea breeze with fruits and honey. Adding water confirms and magnifies this impression. It took me right back to when my wife and I were standing right by the barley fields at Rockside farm.  Sweet fresh ripe yellow barley blowing in the salty sea breeze emanating from the coast only a few hundred metres away.

Luscious fruits, honey, oaky chardonnay wine. Most importantly, what the water reveals is a whole new layer of aromas with fresh creamy malted barley like the smell of a distillery malting floor. You have that fresh green smell of water soaked germinating grain. It reminds me of a fresh vegetable salad with green sprouts. After this you become aware of rich vanilla wood spices.




Letting the whisky settle down in the glass there is an overriding sense of freshness and sea air. This is not a smoky or peat influenced saltiness but a kind of a coastal nose like fresh seawater spray coming over the barley fields.


I know this sounds like romantic marketing nonsense but to me, this whisky took me right back to Rockside farm where, before you enter the Kilchoman distillery, there is a smell of coastal sea spray and fresh ripe grain crops, swaying from side to side in the field. It is a recognisable smell and really very dominant and unmistakable. If you have ever walked in a field of fresh ripe crops, whether corn, wheat or barley, you will recognise a similar smell instantly. For me, it is worth the purchase just for the aroma alone.

Getting past the sea coastal notes there is a lovely green grape like a summery Sauvignon Blanc fruity wine tartness about this whisky. A bit of grapefruit and a hint of sour green apple dipped in creamy heather honey. You know, the kind of white honey you can stick your spoon in and the spoon doesn’t move. However, the dominant aroma of fresh ripe juicy barley in the fields remains. It is truly delightful.

Tasting Notes.




Taking my first “swig” you get a delightfully delicate creamy mouth fill of oily alcohol. Cream of lemon grass and barley, honey, some dry woody spices, yellow apples, pineapple, oh, dominant honey dew melon definitely but with all those creamy sweet barley flavours mixed in. It is like eating a melon and apple crumble pie. Yellow fruits with sweet honey digestive biscuit crumbs. This is a dram to sip and saviour over a long period of time.

Finish is medium to long leaving a woody honey and stodgy wet apple and yellow melon pie in the mouth. Delicious!

The Islay Barley Rockside Farm 2007 gives you a taste compilation unlike any other whisky. I feel honoured to have owned a bottle, now sadly very quickly emptying, I might well try and get another bottle in the UK before they are gone. There is a 2009 version as well so maybe I’ll try and find that?

 

Bruichladdich “Organic Scottish Barley” 50% abv, 1 Litre


The first difference you notice about this whisky is that it is termed “Scottish Barley” from a number of farms. In other words, this expression does not come from a single farm or for that matter exclusively from Islay! This doesn’t seem to be within the spirit of the philosophy of “terroir matters” if you ask me. (Just saying!)

Seeing as the Bruichladdich “Organic Scottish Barley” claims to be made from organic barley I thought that some thoughts on Organic food were in order.

 

What’s the deal about Organic Products?

Organic barley would suggest that the grain has not been genetically modified and has been grown by only approved natural pesticides. That doesn’t mean that the pesticide is any less poisonous to humans, just that the substance is considered a natural and not artificial chemical. Personally I’d much rather the farmer used the pesticide that combined the most effective method of insect and virus control ensuring healthy crops with the lowest level of health risk to humans. This might not necessarily mean an organic solution.

Moreover, in all blind tests carried out between organic and non-organic products, they show that people cannot tell any difference in taste. What does seem to be the major factor in taste is how fresh the food is. The lesser the storage, transport and refrigeration time the food has gone through before it is eaten, the tastier that food will be. I remember the last time we had a holiday up in the Golan Heights and we were staying on a moshav producing its own fruit and vegetables. We were amazed at the difference. Fruits and vegetables had about 50% more fruit and vegetable taste to them, compared to the supermarket equivalent. We were also involved by the local farmers that the best of Israeli products for immediate export leaving grade B products for local consumption in Israeli shops. We were however being served the export Grade A products. You really could tell the difference.

As regards organic verses regular, I personally remain unconvinced. Regarding wine and organic grapes, I once had a conversation with a wine blender in the Binyamenia region who said that grapes specially modified for wine production made by far the best wine. Organic wine was a waste of time he said.

Regarding whisky, my feeling is that it is not so much the fact that the barley is organic and much more important a factor that the product is locally produced and therefore fresher that would translate into a more favourable whisky.

Bruichladdich Marketing

There is a YouTube video put out by Bruichladdich advertising the Organic Scottish Barley.


At 2:40 it is amusing to see the saleswoman take a sip and her face screws up as the alcohol burns. She lets out a Scottish “Huuu, It gives me a wee hot flush…”, she exclaims.

I think she just experienced what I did when I first tasted this. A massive fresh raw alcohol punch!

They describe in the video as “very very simple, very straight forward”. I would agree. That it is, but not in a good way. This is raw under matured spirit!!! But I am jumping ahead. Let’s do things in the right order shall we.

 
 
 
 


Packaging

The bright sea blue colour of the canister, like the “Laddie” series is quite outlandish and certainly stands out on a shop shelf which is after all the purpose. Being a 1 Litre Travel Retail exclusive the bottle looks huge next to the Islay Barley 70 CL bottle. I however am not impressed with the bottle which is the same solid bright blue solid colour as the canister. It is quite off putting looking more like a medicine jar or a bottle of floor cleaner or bleach bottle. Moreover, being that it is a solid colour, you cannot see the level of whisky left in the glass which is annoying.

Like the Islay Barley expression, both the canister and bottle are packed with columns of text but most of it is marketing fluff with little actual useful information. Shame! What happened to Bruichladdich’s policy of transparency?

Nosing

Putting the glass to my nose for the first time was not a pleasant experience. I got an aggressively fiery assort on the nostrils. There is a harsh alcohol burn with an unmistakable acetone like smell as well as some cheap white table wine. Not a good start.

Adding water improves things somewhat. There is still some bathroom sink acetone like smell of young immature alcohol but it is greatly reduced now. The water brings out some nice hints of sea air, mango/apricot fruits -  pineapple and banana. That’s on the plus side. The problem is that the water also brings out some not so nice aromas. There is a smell of stale barley grain in an old farmyard hayloft. It is as if the barley has been hanging around for a few months before being mashed. Interesting dominant barley notes but unfortunately not agreeable ones.



Tasting

The palette feel is nice. You do get a nice full mouth feel with creamy / oily / damp malted barley but it is overpowered by that harsh rough new spirit.

There are some nice flavours fighting to get out while you swell the whisky around your tongue but the overall impression is that it is far too spirit driven with hardly any wood influence there at all. The finish leaves your throat slightly burning. That acetone in the smell never really goes away and affects the taste as it goes down.

It might actually be easier to describe what IS missing. No sign of honey or vanilla which you would expect from Ex-Bourbon matured casks. I will stick my neck out here and surmise that they have used a second or even third fill American oak cask here that has simply given all that it could to the previous whisky and is basically worn out. There is not even a hint of any wood flavour transfer even after the supposed seven or so years in the cask. That is the only explanation I have for this really disappointing Bruichladdich. I cannot believe that the previous owners would have allowed such a thing to happen but it seems times have changed.

I have now been drinking the Organic Scottish for some weeks now, hoping that with time and oxidisation, the whisky would improve but in all honesty, there aren’t that many redeeming features. It is pretty poor stuff and in my opinion should not have been put out on the market even as a Travel Retail exclusive. I believe that this whisky will do serious damage to the reputation that Bruichladdich has worked so hard to build up over the past decade. Is this as a direct result of the 2015 takeover from small independent owners to multinational Remy Cointreau owned today? Have we seen the last of the great classic Bruichladdich expressions? I really hope not.

Some Final Thoughts






The Islay Barley Rockside Farm 2007…… is the second best Bruichladdich I have ever tasted, only beaten by the superb Laddie Sixteen with its character that only 16 years of maturity in top-top quality casks can bring. Sadly, it is becoming almost impossible to obtain a bottle outside the specialist auction houses today. If you happen to come across a bottle of these classic example of the heyday of independent Bruichladdich, then grab them. You won’t be disappointed although you will have a bit of a dilemma on your hands. Do you open them to enjoy with family friends for an unforgettable non-peaty coastal Islay experience or do you put them away in a dark cupboard as an investment for your old age?

As you have just read, I opened the Islay Barley Rockside Farm 2007. I also purchased from the same retailer in London the last bottle of the Laddie Sixteen he had. I tasted this a few times, once in Islay at the Bruichladdich distillery itself. I had tried a few whiskies there at a tasting session including the Octomore 6.1 and 7.1 but it is the delightful Laddie Sixteen that remains in the memory, stored under best nostalgic moments. I have not as yet opened my bottle of Laddie Sixteen. I wonder if I ever will? I suspect it could be worth a pretty penny in years to come.

If this bottle of Organic Scottish Barley is any indication of future expressions, then this bottle of Islay Barley, a masterpiece of a whisky, is sadly a last remnant of the wonderful golden era of this once independent Islay distillery.

Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope? I understand from a new video produced by the distillery that Bruichladdich do intend to reintroduce the Laddie Ten after a few expressions of Non Age Statement bottlings under the “Laddie” name.  Maybe, just maybe they have some older whiskies ready to release soon but post takeover era, I do not believe they will ever again reach the heights of uniqueness and industry innovation of its previous owners. I’d love them to prove me wrong.

The days of Bruichladdich under Mark Reynier and Jim McEwan partnership have however left their influence on other distilleries like Kilchoman, Benromach, Arran, Daftmill, Wolfburn, Stathearn, Annandale, Kingsbarns, Ballindalloch and other thriving small independent distilleries who still insist on age statements, natural colour, non-chill filtering and bottling at higher alcohol levels. The spirit of the spirit of those days lives on in these distilleries even if the physical spirit of those days will increasingly only be found in the whisky auction rooms.

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