One of the really outstanding things that struck Alex when he spent a week at the Bruichladdich distillery was the commitment to the past, to make do and mend, while at the same time, taking an innovative approach to the whisky produced on Islay.
Make do and mend
One of the reasons the Bruichladdich distillery, Islay home of the Botanist gin, was sold in 2000 at such a relatively low price was because the equipment was out of date. While Mark Reynier and his team were out to push the boundaries, to be progressive whisky makers moving forward, to breathe new life into whisky production on Islay, they wanted to base their production in traditional techniques and equipment. Inheriting tools of the whisky trade that had been used to distil for years, rather than shiny, up to the minute technology was, for Mark, one of the joys of Bruichladdich and representative of what he wanted to do there.
The ‘make do and mend’ tradition at Bruichladdich respects the past, while taking an innovative approach to the future. It’s refreshing that, despite the takeover by a giant in the industry, this approach continues to be honoured. The malted barley is milled in a Bobby mill dating back to 1914 – one of only 4 remaining in Scotland, and the only one with the original, unedited design is still going strong with a weekly oiling and an annual MOT. The wash backs are wooden, a more old-fashioned approach compared to the modern preference for stainless steel, but one which adds to the character of the whisky. When we visited, one of the wash backs had just been replaced, and the oldest in use dated back to the 1970s. Perhaps the most impressive, the mash tun used at Bruichladdich is from 1881 – inefficient, yes, and a self-professed nightmare to clean, but the distillery is committed to keeping it going as long as it can – how amazing to be able to say that every single bottle of whisky produced by the distillery has gone through that one piece of kit!
Innovation at Bruichladdich comes from the application of different distillation techniques, malting different varieties of barley, experimenting with different casks in the maturation process. Mark was clear when he restored Bruichladdich and began whisky production again, that although he wanted the distillery to respect the heart of traditional whisky making, he also wanted to push the boundaries. He didn’t want to make the same whisky all the other distilleries were making – he wanted to experiment and innovate, introducing different varieties of barley, different distillation techniques and different cask types.
In the same way, we feel heartened that our maverick approach is reaping rewards so early on in our journey. The distillery is up and running, we have big plans for the future, and yet we chose not to follow the traditional path to distillation. Unconstrained by preconceptions of what a gin distillery should be, we can work with each client individually. We use what is useful and appropriate, kit, methods, botanicals – and not because it is what every other distillery does or uses.
Repurposing our distillery
Rather than rescuing a derelict whisky distillery (after all, there aren’t many of those in this corner of West Wales!), we looked to what we had and saw that we could create our own craft distillery in an unloved shed attached to our family’s holiday cottage complex. It was an area we’d been using for a food business that we’d run together previously, and Alex’s nascent baking business. But baking and gluten intolerance do not make happy bedfellows, so as our thoughts turned to gin, we looked to how we could create our own distillery.
Alex’s hard work transforming this space has meant that we could create a stripped back, welcoming venue for our distillery and our gin making and gin tasting experiences. As the distillery grows, we have, as we’ve already mentioned, plans to expand, perhaps repurposing another building to house a bigger operation. Still creating bespoke spirits for business using the In the Welsh Wind approach to distilling, still welcoming people to our open house distillery, but with more opportunity to grow our community here in West Wales, and to welcome more visitors. As you can imagine, it’s exciting times for us – we like to think as exciting as it was for Mark Reynier to finally breathe new life into the distillery at Bruichladdich. Why not join us as we take the next steps on our journey?