"One's Own Cask of Single Malt" -- WSJ

From today's Wall Street Journal, at
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One's Own Cask of Single Malt By ERIC FELTEN May 6, 2006; Page P14
ISLE OF ISLAY, Scotland -- It's not usually a good thing when a distinctive Scotch whisky distillery goes out of business, but it was the best thing that could have happened to Bruichladdich (pronounced brook-laddie). Over the past decade, many single-malt distilleries have been transformed -- though rustic and rural on the outside, most are now highly automated and computerized on the inside. Where once 40 or 50 men would have been needed to work the whisky from grain to bottle, many plants now have only two or three monitoring the machinery.
Not so Bruichladdich. The distillery here, west of the Scottish mainland, was passed from conglomerate to conglomerate in the early '90s in the endless reshuffling of Big Booze assets. Bruichladdich landed in the lap of Jim Beam Brands, which shuttered it in 1994. Except for a brief flurry of distilling in 1998, the plant was quiet until December 2000, when an investment group led by Mark Reynier bought the distillery -- and its 6,000 casks of aging whisky -- from Beam. Mr. Reynier brags that Bruichladdich is "state of the art" -- the state of the art c. 1881.
Mr. Reynier soon encountered the problem facing anyone who starts up a single-malt distillery: You have to sink in about a decade of costs before you start to see any revenue from the new whisky. Bruichladdich has been able to dole out the fine whisky from the old stocks in the warehouse to keep afloat, but Mr. Reynier has had to look for creative ways to generate immediate cash-flow. One approach has been to sell whisky by the cask to connoisseurs willing to pay for it when the spirit comes off the still. Also among the distilleries making "cask offers" are Isle of Arran, which opened in 1995, and the recently revived Bladnoch.
The folks at Bladnoch quip that their cask offer is for people "with more money than sense." But if you've got a use for a few hundred bottles of whisky, the price is right. It costs about $1,500-$2,700 to buy your own cask of whisky, depending on the size. This price includes 10 years of aging in the warehouse, but not bottling, labeling, delivery and taxes -- which cost three or four times more than the stuff in the cask. Add in all the back-end expenses and the total cost per bottle works out to about $27. Not bad given that my local liquor store is selling Bruichladdich's 10-year-old whisky for $55 and Bladnoch for $53.
But why just buy in bulk, when you can also have a hand in making your own whisky? From April to December each year, Bruichladdich runs a whisky "academy." Up to six people at a time stay for a workweek at the old distillery-manager's house; each day one shadows a different employee, learning every task at the plant, from milling the grain to rolling barrels in the warehouse.
The distillery does have a few modern touches -- the steam engine that originally drove the machinery was long ago replaced with an electric motor; and Mr. Reynier has just installed a slick new bottling line. But the whisky-making itself is still done the way it was during Queen Victoria's reign, right down to the record-keeping. The making of Scotch whisky for centuries has been a highly regulated, sternly taxed enterprise. An extensive accounting must be kept for the excise man. At Bruichladdich, the counting is still managed by knots on a rope, scratchings on a chalkboard and careful ballpoint entries in a decades-old ledger.
And then there are the vintage machines. The whisky-making gets going in earnest in a great cast-iron tub, where the malted barley flour and grist gets cooked up with boiling water. Stirring the pot is a frightful array of mechanized metal rakes straight out of a Tim Burton movie. From there the barley soup runs downhill into the "wash back" room, where the liquid -- the "wort" -- ferments in a half-dozen larch-wood vats for about five days. Finally it drains down to the stills, where it is boiled and the alcohol-rich steam gets condensed into spirit.
What is that spirit like? Islay single malts have a reputation for being liquid smoke -- prime examples being the wonderfully peaty drams Laphroaig and Lagavulin. Bruichladdich bucks that island trend with tall, narrow-necked stills that produce a whisky lighter and more floral than its chest-pounding neighbors.
In their version of "A Fine Romance," Louis Armstrong sings to Ella Fitzgerald that she is his "strong, aged in the wood woman." It's a nice metaphor for the good effects time can have on us -- the pleasant notion that aging isn't just about decay. I like the idea of putting away a cask of whisky upon some significant event in one's life -- the birth of child, say, or a 10th wedding anniversary. Let the spirit mature, marking the time that scurries along so furtively. Bottle it up to celebrate one's 25th anniversary or the kid's graduation from college. And be sure to share it with your friends -- after all, you'll have plenty to go around.
============= -- Larry
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