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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
Nose:
  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-

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