Trois Couleurs: Bruichladdich

I’ve had a trio of Bruichladdich bottles on my shelf for some time now: Blacker Still, Redder Still, and Golder Still. These are largely gone, but occasionally you’ll see one on the shelves or push through the sales channel, as Golder did with K&L a while back. I’ve had these for a while, but at a recent lunch with Sku of Sku’s Recent Eats, I passed him samples of each of the three. Not much happened; he suggested that we do a joint review (is that still a thing? Maybe it’s retro-revival time). A couple months passed because I still am subject to the whims of the germs my son brings into the house; and then I managed to get briefly snowed under with work.

Finally, though, here we are. The three colors of Bruichladdich. This review will in no way live up the Kieslowski trio, but as a semi-regular reader of S&I, you knew to expect that it was just a cheap culture reference, right?

These three whiskies were released in 2006, 2007 and 2008, anywhere from 3-5 years before the first “New-era” spirit from the McEwan era of Bruichladdich would be released. Blacker Still apparently hails from oloroso casks and was in wood for 20 years; Redder Still was bourbon cask aged and then was in Chateau Lafleur casks. (Bruichladdich notes — interrogatively — that this is favored by Robert Parker.) Finally, Golder Still was aged in “dumpy” bourbon hogsheads; apparently this promoted additional wood contact and an “older style”. Fantastic. Now that we’ve recounted the thumbnail sketch of these whiskies, there’s little left to do but drink them, make some cheap jokes, and assign them a place in the pantheon of Limited Edition Whiskies We Have Chatted Enjoyably About.

Golder Still is the one I have the most experience with; I first purchased a bottle in the dying days of my association with a music startup in 2011. It was both a luxury buy and evening companion to help unwind in the hotel rooms, but I think it also helped me escape the unpleasant truth that I was going to be moving on. In spite of that, I still have only good memories of it. But that was several years ago. How about now?

The nose of Golder Still leads with a slight caramel sweetness with some straightforward malt; there’s some subtle floral hints and a little faint herbaceous grassiness. It’s a little more plain than I remember it being.  The palate leads with a sort of half-waterlogged oak, watery and woody but kind of lacking focus. There’s pepper and a considerable malt profile, and heat grows.

The finish is more oak but drying out and getting a bit of focus, some Sichuan pepper for that pleasant tingle in the lips, and some fairly sweet malty notes. It’s agreeable but not really unique. That’s not to say it’s not worth a try, but at the prices this one is going to command today (unless you’re the benefactor of a Driscollian blowout), it’s not really a great bang for the buck. Golder Still was distilled in ’84 and bottled in ’08 at 23y.

Redder Still was probably the biggest enigma of the bunch for me. I’d heard people call it out as an oddball in the past; though certainly not in the same tone as the late stages of the Chenin Blanc… thing. This has the dubious distinction of a wine finish; a great gimmick for a while (and occasionally successful, even at the House That Remy Bought) but frequently just a way to mask a substandard casks. For a while we even kind of, sort of dug it. I think it’s a much tougher sell these days. Redder Still was distilled in ’84, bottled in ’07 at 22y and 50%.

The nose of Redder Still has a moderately woody backbone, but some fruity roundness smooths it out a bit – Gala apple’s taste kind of jumps out at me. There’s some white pepper and pear; it has this almost quasi-sherried dimension, but the fruit notes aren’t as dark and deep, nor as dimensional. With a little bit more air, it gets to be a bit more floral and shows a light vanilla character. It’s gentle at first in the palate, with a little heat growing, kind of mixing the tingly lip feel of Sichuan pepper and more of a white pepper quality as well. There’s the apple/pear sweetness from the nose, a faint bit of honey, and then some oaky, spicy flavor. The vanilla note from the nose is lightly present here, but the palate eventually is dominated by the drier oak notes, as well as a bit of tobacco.

The finish isn’t amazing. It starts fairly dry and bitter with oak and pepper, but it resolves to something a little less bitter, and the late-palate tobacco shows up. It’s an interesting and layered whisky, but the fruit hinted at on the nose gets overrun by the heavy oak presence on the palate. It makes for an uneasy attempt at balance, and I’m not sure it really works. It’s an interesting drink if you’re in the mood for what it has to offer, though.

Finally, Blacker Still. This one has been the star of this trio for some time; its high reviews at LAWS  (from the early days!) brought Bruichladdich as a whole to my attention.

It’s an interesting thing in this day and age: the two-decade-old cask with a heavy sherry component. We see less of these than we did even a few years ago; though occasionally it’s seen. Usually these are slam dunks for A-range whiskies, generally regarded as great stuff. There have been some slam dunks; the most recent winner in my mind was the K&L/Exclusive Malts Longmorn that was an absolute winner.

Blacker Still has that nose out of the gate. It’s rich and deep, slightly sticky-sweet fig quality, some molasses and brown sugar. It’s faintly leathery in a good way (more and more sherried whisky smells like cheap patent leather, it seems) and overall syrupy. The palate continues that syrupy character; it’s thick, rich and coating. It’s got a full mouthfeel and just screams “sherry” with dark fruits,  a little white pepper spice and a faint dab of cayenne. More figs and molasses.

The finish is again – surprise! – stamped with a sherry influence, some leather, molasses, and caramelized sugar. There’s a lingering dark fruit presence as well. It’s just a great whiskey. Is it a staggering, world-beating, grab-this-at-auction-price-be-damned one? No. It’s the best of the Still series by a wide margin, but it’s probably not in my top five sherried whiskies of the last decade. Maybe top ten? I’d have to think on that. This is worth a try but I’d say the hype has exaggerated its legend slightly. I think there are cleaner, better sherried whiskies out there — Glendronach, Glenfarclas, the aforementioned Longmorn and Tun 1401 come to mind.

It’s a fun experiment to look at these whiskies from the period when Bruichladdich was still trying to establish itself. It differs markedly from the lighter, apple-forward stuff from the 1970s; it doesn’t have the lactic character that (to me) defines much of the modern Bruichladdich output. Also fun will be reading the conclusions reached at Sku’s Recent Eats, with his companion review up now. 

At a glance:

Bruichladdich Blacker Still 20y 50.7% ABV
  Rich, deep sherry on the nose, slightly sticky-sweet fig, maybe a touch of molasses, some brown sugar. faint nice leather, syrupy.
Palate:  Syrupy, thick, rich and coating; very full mouthfeel, great sherry presence with some white pepper spice, maybe a faint dab of cayenne. Figgy, molasses again, with some dark fruits.
Finish:  Tons of rich sherry influence, a little faint leather, a touch of molasses sweetness, some caramelized sugar; lingering dark fruit.
Comment:  Everything you want. Just a fantastic whiskey.
Rating: A-

Bruichladdich Redder Still 22y 50.4% ABV
Nose:  A backbone of moderate wood, with some fruity roundness – a touch of Gala apple. A little white pepper and a touch of pear; with a kind of quasi-sherry dimension to it, but not quite as much dimension as a sherry-aged whisky would have. With some air it gets a touch more floral and exhibits a light vanilla note.
Palate:  Gentle on the mouthfeel, moderate with a little peppery heat growing – a mixture of sichuan and white peppers. Some apple/pear sweetness, with a little faint hint of honey, and then a little more oaky, spicy richness. The vanilla note from the nose is present but in the background, dominated by the drier notes as well as some tobacco.
Finish:  A bit bitter and dry at first; some oak and lingering pepper; eventually resolves towards a little less bitter oak and some tobacco.
Comment:  Interesting and layered, but a bit of an uneasy balance between the fruit and sweetness and the drier oak and tobacco.
Rating: B-

Bruichladdich Golder Still 23y 51% ABV
Nose:  Light slightly caramel sweetness with some straightforward maltiness, a subtle floral hint. Ever so faint grassiness.
Palate:  Semi-waterlogged oak, a little pepper, fairly malty against an increasing heat.
Finish:  Drying oak, a little sichuan pepper, fairly malty sweetness.
Comment:  Generally agreeable but not incredibly unique.
Rating: B-


Riding Shotgun With The Ear-Splitting Symphony Of The 1%

I pressed the accelerator as I neared the second tunnel of Kanan Dume, heading south toward Malibu. The midday sun of the Conejo Valley beat down on my wife and I; the wind rushed through our hair, but all that was secondary to the immediate sensory rush we were experiencing. Milliseconds after I pressed, the engine of our Maserati GranTurismo leapt to life, and a wild roar heralded our entrance into the tunnel. We shot past a few cars that had merged right, sensing that the car was going to open up at the next opportunity.

I’d only been in the car for about three hours, but I’d completely fallen in love. The first 80 miles or so were a dead panic: “Please don’t hit me.” “Please don’t run into anything.” “… Please GET OUT OF MY LANE SO I CAN DRIVE ALREADY.” In the afternoon sun, emboldened by some open stretches of the 101 in the far northwest reaches of Los Angeles, I’d finally gotten comfortable with driving it. Only on our return leg back into the city proper was I comfortable “giving it the beans”, as James May has said on occasion.

Now, I unfortunately haven’t seen any of my stock options come through, and I didn’t otherwise stumble into massive wealth that would enable me to own such a beauty as this Maserati. It was a saucy, fun idea my wife had for us to spend Valentine’s Day together in a little style.

Life with a toddler means scheduling around day care availability and sitters; moreso when I’m working on a project. Shortly after deciding we wanted to rent the car, we both took the day off work so we could have the maximum time together and in the car.

I’m a practical car guy. Playing drums and needing to lug stuff around, I opted for a Honda Fit – a tiny car that has a shocking amount of cargo space. Great for lugging an oversized kick drum around, or a feisty toddler and some toys. At the time, the $22,000 seemed like it was a ridiculous sum. I grew up riding in Cavaliers, driving a (very) used S-10 pickup truck, and a succession of used cars. While I could appreciate cars from afar, I kept myself away from any close up experience, for fear that I’d have some urge to rearrange my life around owning something insane – insurance, maintenance and garaging be damned.

My attitude softened in Will’s early days, watching tons of Top Gear in the evenings as he showed an interest in cars and things that go fast. More time and softening of the attitude brought me to Friday morning, when I sat in the Maserati and the agent handed me the key. “Go ahead and turn it on,” he said.

A high whine came out of the car for a half second as the starter turned, and then the engine turned over. That’s a bit unfair and clinical though – this car didn’t feel like it “started up”, but rather “came alive” with a bold growl that echoed through the silent garage. It felt like I was sitting in some sort of living beast – an elegant, dark presence (ours was a black car with black interior, broken up only by red contrast stitching) with just a hint of brutality. I pulled out of the lot and immediately pulled over so I could fix the mirror adjustments and set the GPS.

A very uncool diversion out of the way, I then hesitantly nudged the accelerator and headed north. What’s different about renting a car that retails for about $150,000 is that you don’t get that “nothing can go wrong” assurance of the damage waiver. YOUR insurance is involved. So if you decide to try drifting through Malibu Canyon and go over the edge or into the wall, you’re gonna be dealing with the fallout for a while. The end result is that you spend a while driving like the proverbial little old grandmother, and as Civics and Jettas pass you by, you wonder if you’ve made a terrible mistake.

That’s heightened when you’re in the city, close up with other people. With the top down (the only reasonable way to drive this car), there’s no hiding that you – yes you – are sitting in a car well in excess of most people’s annual salary (likely your own included). The center console proudly shows you that you’re getting 12.4 miles to the gallon. The guy in the Tesla next to you just rolls his eyes. “But my other car gets 36 miles to the gallon,” I wanted to shout. I figured that was the least cool thing to do in this car.

As the day unfolded, we drove north on PCH, the cooler ocean air whipping through our hair and helping combat the sun a bit. A brief stop in Malibu for lunch, and we cut through the canyons and hit the 101 with the intention of really opening  it up. As I turned from Las Virgenes onto the 101, I buried the accelerator. I shot down the onramp at ever-increasing speed, meeting and then surpassing highway speeds in no time at all. A beastly chorus of engine nose echoed through the car, immediate sensory feedback that you are living life as it’s supposed to be lived. It’s a feeling I could only liken to standing next to a guitar amp when it’s at max volume: The sound just cuts through you but it makes you feel alive.

I punched the accelerator more and got up to about 100 before I eased back – the county sheriffs hand out tickets regularly and I’d been a victim. I didn’t really want to do that 30 miles over the limit in an exotic car.

There’s something about the experience that turned me into a little boy. It’s so primal: the engine has this all-consuming growl around you, but it’s this loud low-mid range unlike the grizzly-bear-like growl of a classic American muscle car. It just sounds like finely tuned power. I said to my wife at one point, “I feel like [my son] when he’s really excited – it’s such a pure feeling.” After having gotten over the yips, it was just a delight to rev up at every opportunity and hear that engine sing.

I’ve driven stuff with more power than the econoboxes with four cylinders of fury that I listed above. But nothing ever compared to or prepared me for the GranTurismo Sport. There was never any hesitance, it never wanted for power. 80 miles an hour up a fairly steep grade? No problem. We can do a hundred if you’d like. Wanted to get past a sketchy driver? Just punch it and he’s in your rearview mirror. And all while surrounded in a fantastically well-appointed cabin.

Standing 6′ tall, I found it to be totally comfortable to drive. Even though the clearance with the roof wasn’t great, and while the interior was somewhat close, it never felt like tight or awkward quarters. I’ve driven cars far larger that felt vastly more claustrophobic.

At the end of the day I got to return the car to the lot, a scant 12 miles shy of the allotted mileage for the day. Returning to a quiet Nissan was a bit of an adjustment, but it was fun to play with and live out a recent dream. No doubt insurance, registration and maintenance is more than I’m willing to deal with, so a Maserati isn’t in my near future (who knows; maybe I’ll save my pennies for a Ghibli) – and I just like my humble little compact family hauler.

But if you’ve ever entertained the dream of driving some otherwise unattainable car, I highly recommend checking out the rental options. It’s not cheap (though it’s not much more than two really high-end older bottles of single-cask scotch (err… or maybe not single cask?) but sometimes you have to just live life and not sweat the money.

And, as Ferris Bueller said, “If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.”

Until the next time I do this — who knows what will be the next ride? — it’s back to the happy, humble Honda.

Maserati 2013 GranTurismo Convertible Sport. Price as driven, approximately $153,000.00 USD


It’s been a while since I last wrote. Apologies! A January of family illness gave way to a hectic February of work. This is the first in what will be a series of pieces that broaden the focus of this site in the weeks and months ahead.

Whiskey will still be front-and-center, but while I enjoy tasting and sampling, I’m finding that writing about how I’m being ripped off by the industry and how the PR machine is tiresome — while spending all my writing effort supporting that — isn’t really satisfying.

If you want just the whiskey, there are links to whiskey-only feeds in the sidebar. Check ‘em out. And happy new year!