What is the smokiest whisky in the world? Mike takes his lad to taste it.
I’m waiting for my son Franklin in the Princess Louise in Holborn. It’s a fine old pub with many bars let down by having just two lacklustre bar staff – why are pubs with magnificent old interiors often so lazy about staff? I hope I just caught them at a bad moment. I've worked a bar and I know most try to work as fast as they can to get to you.
Franklin arrives interrupting my internal moanologue. He's a tad late and chewing a large mouthful of something. I'd said to grab some food en route as we’re off to a scotch whisky tasting. He’s only nineteen and I don’t want him felled by the booze like a badly tossed caber. What did you have? I ask. Cheeseburger, two Cheeseburgers, 99p each. Well done Ronald, that should have enough chemicals to line anyone’s belly.
I'd never noticed the huge impressive Rosewood Hotel behind Holborn tube let alone known about Scarfes Bar inside. It is an unabashed homage to Gerald with many of his original scratchyly scribbled caricatures on walls. Their anarchic style is at odds with the interior designed gentleman's club décor, but the clubby feel fits with whisky drinking, and we sit to meet Abigail, brand ambassador for the Bruichladdich distillery who's wares we are about to enjoy.
She’s as bright, smiley and chatty as you would be if you had that job. Bruichladdich is the second smallest producer on the iconic whisky making island of Islay in the western Highlands. They refer to themselves as “the flea on the back of the Scottish whisky industry” in that they may be wee, but they get noticed.
We first try a whisky cocktail whipped up by the head barman at Scarfes: Bruichladdich, lime juice, roots mathica infused with grapefruit, topped up with herbal tonic and decorated with apple blossom. It’s delicious and refreshing – why aren’t there more whisky cocktails?
Bruichladdich are the only major distiller to mature and bottle everything on the island and clearly revel in that, they still use the same Victorian design as they did in 1881 with only a few small changes, everything is still done without computerization - all by touch and sense. Remember then?
The whisky is named after the tiny village of Bruichladdich it dominates, but Abigail tells us all the staff go drinking in the Lochandal hotel in the next village Port Charlotte, it’s affectionately known as ‘The Ditch’. You can tell from the way she tells the stories they have a good team spirit (pun intended).
We now sample the 'Classic Laddie', an unpeated single malt, first neat then with a dash of water. They an unpeated whisky to be experimental and go against the tide, cheeky mavericks. Barley, water and yeast are the only ingredients but cleverly they leave in the natural oils from the Scottish barley (mostly Islay) too, for texture and taste. It’s light, floral and malty and to my surprise my laddie likes it as much as I do. Maybe that’s why you don’t get too many cocktails made with this stuff, it’s too good on it’s own.
They use natural spring water from nearby Octomore Farm. Abigail tells us animatedly about the 7ft tall and 4ft wide owner, James Brown, they call him 'The Godfather of Soil'. You'd have to.
The distillery passed through many hands in its recent history and at some point a water treatment plant was added so the ancient spring got forgotten until 2001 when Bruichladdich was bought for 6.5million by Mattel Quantreau and allowed to operate as an independent again. So Carl Reavey, the new ‘Content Creation Manager’ got big Jimmy Brown and they went to dig out the spring together.
This seems to be their style; Abigail says if they need something doing they almost always know someone in their tiny community who has the necessary skills, or at least says they do before figuring it out.
Finally we are treated to a very singular tipple; Abigail produces a special bottle from her handbag, (she says she always has something stashed there), It is their 'Octomore 500', a 10 year old 50% bourbon, white grenache, heavily peated single malt. Jesus - It's more smokey than Winston Churchill's Water closet, having 160 Phenol parts per million – that is it’s official quotient of smokiness to me and you. As a reference Ardbeg rates a mere 50.
Abi says it is the most peaty whisky in the world, another badge they love to wear. I love it too being a fan of all things smoked. Franklin is not quite so sure but he's just loving the free booze nature of things so, as he and other young people seem to say; he's 'golden'.
They are obviously an engineered ‘cool’ brand owned by a larger company with the funds to push their boutique story with the slightly alternative attitude, but I buy it from Abi that they care about this wonderful juice and have fun making it and living the life up there.
As we head off I note no weaving gait or slurring words from Franklin, like there had been a year ago from a few pear ciders, he’s definitely got his drinking legs now, my wee lad.