Bruichladdich has radically reshaped the whisky manufacturing process by combining its 19th century distilling heritage with advanced technology to distribute spirits to more than 60 countries.
Founded in 1881, the Isle of Islay-based Bruichladdich distillery was brought back to life in 2001 after a shutdown period of almost a decade. From then on, the mission to make the distillery fit for the future again has always been clear: “producing the finest, truly artisanal, most thought-provoking single malt whisky with an honest, young, and undisguised image”.
At an exclusive tasting event, Simon Coughlin, CEO of Bruichladdich, explained to The Manufacturer that one of the main drivers for revolutionising the whisky manufacturing processes was his concern that the traditional industry in Scotland was stifled by “industrialisation, self-interest, greed of gain and the mentality to produce the maximum product with the minimum input and variation, all to the lowest unit price”.
Whisky in the UK now employs upwards of 40,000 people, contributing around £1bn to the economy annually – a clear reflection of the sector’s industrialisation. That comes with its own challenges, according to Coughlin; namely that businesses are seen as being more important than the product.
Since the first spirit ran from the still in 2001, Bruichladdich has sought to remain true to itself and serve as an antidote to so-called market “homogeneity and blandness”. To ensure this continues long into the future, Coughlin and his team have entrenched four principles into every facet of the business – hand-crafted, natural, innovation and progress.
Embracing the future by respecting the past
Handcrafted is integral to Bruichladdich. In the words of head distiller, Adam Hannett: “There are no stainless steel washbacks or flashy computerised control systems. This gives real meaning to the term man-made.”
A common way to cut costs in the whisky business nowadays, according to Hannett, is the use of caramel food colouring E150A, which give the whisky a darker colour and can make the spirit appear older than it really is. Artificial colourings aren’t a part of the Bruichladdich manufacturing process, with the colour derived entirely from the cask in which the whisky is matured.
Another prevalent industrial process is chill filtration, said Hannett, which reportedly strips the naturally occurring oils from whisky. Hannett noted: “Retaining these oils gives Bruichladdich its characteristic rich texture and mouthfeel. You can taste and feel the difference.”
The complete natural environment (known as ‘terroir’) is also a decisive factor in Bruichladdich’s efforts to create a “unique and honest” taste. Coughlin explained: “[Terroir] is an esoteric concept that we too have embraced to describe the influence of soil, sub-soil, exposure, orientation, climate, and micro-climate on the growth of barley.”
He added: “To Bruichladdich, barley is so much more than a commodity from which to extract maximum yield. Barley is the most flavour complex cereal in the world. It is where the flavour in our whisky begins.”
Bruichladdich currently manages relationships with 18 barley farmers on the Isle of Islay who provide all its barley requirements, enabling it to distil single malt from 100% Islay barley for the first time in the island’s history. Coughlin said that this micro-provenance is hardly industrial distilling, but he believes it’s vital – “land and dram reunited”.
Currently, all the steps in the manufacturing process occur on the island, apart from malting. The distillers currently still send the locally grown barley to the Scottish mainland to soak the grain in water for two to three days, allowing it to germinate. However, Bruichladdich is already preparing itself to conduct this last step on the Isle itself.
Open to technical innovations
Bruichladdich’s appreciation for the traditional and the ‘craft’ manufacturing processes doesn’t mean that Coughlin and his team have closed their minds to technical innovations, provided they make sense.
When the distillery reopened, there was only one phone and no computer system in the office. That was a challenging environment in which to track and trace every litre of whisky the business produced – from maturation to bottling and dispatching.
To address its need for a process manufacturing system, Bruichladdich selected Epicor’s Tropos, which offered the much-needed headspace needed to consider more efficient ways of working.
Since implementing the system, Bruichladdich has grown significantly. It now exports to more than 60 countries around the world, from a base of just 20.
Coughlin concluded: “We are focusing on the growth, and with Tropos in place, we are able to continue looking forward. It supported us along the way, and it will continue to be a vital resource in our future.”