Interview and tasting with Bruichladdich Head Distiller Adam Hannett

Bruichladdich has long been an Axis favorite. We admire the Islay distillery for their blend of iconoclasm and tradition, their sense of adventure–and most of all for their malt.

Bruichladdich Head Distiller Adam Hannett brought all of this with him on a recent U.S. tour. Thane, J.T. and I had the great pleasure of catching up with him in Chicago.

It’s hard not to start with the obvious question: How did a man of his tender years reach such lofty heights so soon? (Adam’s in his mid-30s, but could still be mistaken for a university student.)

Adam Hannett
Photo from bruichladdich.com

“To be honest, I worked hard,” he said. “I wanted to be there. I had a passion for it.” That said, “I recognize I’m very fortunate.”

An Islay native, Adam started work at Bruichladdich as a tour guide in 2004 after dropping out of university. He remembers being given a bottle of Murray MacDavid GlenDronach at the end of his first day as part of his single malt education. It was a very good bottle.

“I was hooked,” Adam said.

Then-master distiller Jim McEwan and General Manager Duncan McGillivray became mentors, feeding Adam’s growing hunger to learn every aspect of the craft and the business.

He first voiced his larger ambitions at a Bruichladdich Christmas party “after a couple of drams.” He was several years into his tenure at the time, and working in Bruichladdich’s warehouses. Then-CEO Mark Reynier (who founded Bruichladdich in 2000 and left in 2012) asked Adam about his long-term goals.

“I’d like to be manager,” Adam said. Somewhat to his surprise, Mark replied: “You should do it!”

It was a reflection of Bruichladdich’s ethos of “creating opportunities for young people, for local people. The approach is: Go for it! Give them a chance!” Adam noted Allan Logan as another example: Logan rose from “shoveling shit” as a groundsman in 2001 to being Distillery Manager at age 28–the youngest in Scotland–and is now Production Manager.

Allan Logan and Adam Hannett
Allan Logan and Adam Hannett. Photo by bruichladdich.com

Adam is now two years into his time as Head Distiller. What has it been like filling the shoes of Jim McEwan, a 50-year industry veteran and whisky legend?

“The honest answer is: I try not to think about it,” Adam said. “Jim said to me, ‘You’re your own man. You’ll do it your own way.'”

Speaking of which. Adam was eager to share his first four releases while we talked. Fittingly, three of them were 10-year-old bottlings of whisky that came off the stills in 2006, when Adam began distilling: the Laddie 10 Second Edition, Port Charlotte 10, and Octomore 10 Second Edition.

Bruichladdich 10s
Photo from bruichladdich.com

“It’s amazing to see the journey the spirit’s gone on from being a blank slate,” he said. “And it’s quite special because of the journey I’ve been on myself.”

What a way to begin! All three are bottled at a hefty 50% ABV.

The Laddie 10 Second Edition is the comeback of a release so beloved that Bruichladdich couldn’t keep it on the shelves. It was discontinued in 2014. (I’ll confess to doing my small part in contributing to the shortage.)

The new Laddie is every bit a worthy successor, and has a heft and density that set it apart from the no-age-statement Classic Laddie. The unpeated malt was matured in 60% first-fill bourbon, 20% second-fill sherry, and 20% second-fill Syrah casks.

I got banana chips on the nose. Orange saltwater taffy. Vanilla and jasmine. On the palate, lemon custard and creme brulee. Buttery texture. Grape brandy. Very subtle smokiness–from the oak char, not peat–on the finish.

The Port Charlotte 10 is all about “sweet and smoke,” as McEwan would tell Adam. It’s peated at 40 ppm–a healthy level, though sub-Ardbeg and well below Bruichladdich’s Octomore. Matured in a mix of first-fill bourbon, sherry, Tempranillo, and French wine casks.

The nose is quite light at first, with caramelized banana, Meyer lemon, and buttery biscuits. The palate has sweet toasted grain, toffee, and distinct but still subtle peat prickle. The finish is earthy and warming, with the peat taking a turn toward the bonfire.

The Octomore 10 Second Edition is one of the oldest of the notorious cask-strength peat monsters. (A previous 10-year-old release came in 2012.) Peated to 167 ppm, matured in first-fill bourbon and second-fill Grenache Blanc casks, bottled at cask strength of 57.3% ABV.

Naturally, any Octomore is going to lead with the peat. But it’s fascinating how much the extra time does to tame the beast. (Other things being equal, the younger a peated whisky is, the brasher is tends to be.) The nose on the Octomore 10 Second Edition leads with creamy, buttery vanilla, followed by morello cherries, and a tickle of the peat that will rush forth on the palate. The palate also has toasted sweetbreads, and the peat twines with cinnamon spice. The very long finish adds sweet barbecue pork.

To my palate, all three 10-year-olds were and are unequivocal successes.

Then Adam brought out the bottle that kept him up at night.

Jim McEwan took special pleasure in brewing up a periodic limited release called Black Art, for which he would disappear into the warehouses and emerge with a very mature, cask strength bottling that no one else at Bruichladdich had the recipe to.

Bruichladdich Black Art

“It was Jim’s creation,” Adam said. “It was his baby.” Naturally, when Adam set out to make his own Black Art, “I approached it with trepidation. To follow Jim, it’s got to be the best thing you can do.”

It was a true passing of the torch when Jim approached Adam one day in 2015, jotted down the secret proportions on a post-it, and handed it over.

And what could’ve been more in the Bruichladdich spirit than Adam’s thanking him, then tossing out the recipe so he could make a Black Art that was truly his own?

The Black Art 5th Edition is unpeated and bottled at 48.4% ABV. It’s a massively complex, coiled, enigmatic dram. Like previous Black Arts, it draws on malt distilled in the pre-Reynier/McEwan era, before the distillery was shuttered in 1993 (to be reopened by Reynier 2000).

Those old stocks have their eccentricities, Adam said. “They were working with old, imperfect casks. The spirit was excellent, but the casks were poor. They needed to be recasked, which Jim set about doing. His approach was to add layers.”

It shows. The nose is dense, with sherry and dry red wine notes predominating. The age is unmistakable, but there’s a freshness to the dark berry scents that’s a welcome surprise. The palate is dark and brooding, with mushrooms, old leather, and decaying parchment. The finish takes you from the library to the wine cellar, with cool wet clay and old-barrel funk. And like the best older malts, it constantly evolved and unfolded in the glass.

Not a beginner’s whisky, but one I loved–and I actually preferred to Jim McEwan’s Black Art 4. The memory of it stayed with me for days.

Back at the start of Adam’s whisky journey, his father encouraged him to take that first tour-guide job with Bruichladdich. “He said, ‘You’ll get a free bottle of whisky every month if nothing else.'”

He’s gotten much more than that. And so have we.

Cheers, friends! – BO

Thanks to Bruichladdich for the opportunity to interview Adam Hannett and sample the four whiskies mentioned above. As always, our opinions are 100% our own.

Barrell Bourbon Batch 12 Review

Producer: Barrell Craft Spirits. Distiller: undisclosed Tennessee distiller. ABV: 54.25%. Age: 9 years. Mashbill: 70% corn, 25% rye, 5% malted barley. Price: $80.

Batch 12 is the latest bourbon from Joe Beatrice’s Barrell Craft Spirits, which has been stunningly consistent in the quality of its releases–all cask strength, mostly bourbon, but also including several non-bourbon whiskies, a rum (spectacular), and a rye I’ve yet to try.

Barrell Bourbon Batch 12 shares the same mashbill with Batch 11, and almost certainly the same undisclosed Tennessee distiller, though 12 is a full 3 years older. Side-by-side, the two provide an interesting study in the differences that come with age and barrel selection.

Thane’s review of the Batch 11 highlighted the vanilla, caramel, butter, and peanut brittle profile. The Batch 12, to my palate, forefronts the citrus and spice.

The nose on the Barrell Bourbon Batch 12 is intensely lemon-y, followed by dark heavy oak and saddle leather. Strong black cherries in syrup follow, then intense bitter chocolate–think of those 85% cocoa bars for the truly jaded chocolate geeks.

The caramel and vanilla lead the palate, then comes the spice attack: cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. As always with Barrell bourbons, there’s all the room in the world to add water and dial in the intensity however you like. I found Batch 12 most enjoyable with a bit more water than I tend to give even its higher-proof predecessors.

The finish is extraordinarily long. On the dry side, with orange pith recalling the citrusy start.

Batch 11 was a very tough act to follow, winning Best Bourbon at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Batch 12 may not surpass it, but it’s another top-quality powerhouse by the man with the golden palate.

Cheers, friends! – BO

Barrell Craft Spirits graciously provided a sample for review. As always, our opinions are 100% our own.

Buy Barrell Craft Spirits online at Mash + Grape

Koval Four Grain Single Barrel Whiskey Review

Distillery: Koval. ABV: 47%. No age statement. Mashbill: oats, malted barley, rye, wheat (proportions unspecified). Price: $50

Chicago, to me, remains the quintessential American city. Diverse, insular, innovative, slow to respond. Chicago can be everything at once. Many faults, to be sure. But there’s greatness in its neighborhoods and the people and creations that stem from them. Chicago gave us the greatest newspaper columnist of all time in Mike Royko and it’s given us a damn fine and innovative distiller in Koval.

Like Royko, who blended high satire with gritty reporting , the Koval Four Grain Single Barrel Whiskey is a wonderfully singular expression. Jim Murray thought so as well, having named it as a runner up for U.S. Micro Whisky of the Year in his 2017 Whisky Bible. (See our Koval Millet Whiskey review for another intriguing release.)

The nose of the Koval Four Grain reminds me of a great cookout where cornbread, amber beer, and honied ham take a place of honor. There’s a faint medicinal waft to the back of the nose that balances out the sweetness.

The palate is earthy and light at once. An initial viscous mouth feel gives way to sensations of the whiskey literally popping on your tongue. There’s roasted yam, tart orange, and a hint of pig roasted on a spit. At the end, dark cherry, wood chips, and lovely dark, dark cocoa.

If I have any quibble with the Koval Four Grain, it’s the finish, where the medicinal note predominates and overwhelms. But this is a superb expression of a new-classic distillery, one that I’m proud to have in my home town.

Here’s to home and the drink and food that makes it one. – TM

Buy Koval Whiskey online at Mash + Grape

Koval graciously provided a sample for review. As always, our opinions are 100% our own.

Feature photo from http://www.noblespirits.com.au

Whiskey Acres Sweet Corn Bourbon Review

Distiller: Whiskey Acres. ABV: 43.5%. No age statement. Mashbill: 75% sweet corn, 15% wheat, 10% malted barley. Price: $30.

Distilleries come in all shapes and sizes, and that applies to their approach to distilling as well as their physical characteristics. Some, like my beloved Lagavulin, focus on a few core expressions. Others are more willing to play and see what works.

Take, for example, the DeKalb, Illinois-based Whiskey Acres. They could’ve easily sat on the laurels with their superb rye and bourbon. But they believe that the breadth and depth of corn varietals is equal to that of grapes, and they’re determined to show what the crop can do.

Well, after the Artisan Series Sweet Corn Bourbon Whiskey, I’m a believer. The whiskey’s mashbill (75% sweet corn, 15% wheat, 10% malted barley) is evident throughout the experience. It’s like a trip back to the fall harvests I remember from my uncle’s farm.

The nose sweeps me into memories of the corn casserole my grandmother made; not overly sweet, rich, slightly oaky. There’s vanilla as well, and a hint of baked apple. The palate continues with the baked apples, without being overly sweet. Buttered corn glides alongside streaks of vanilla. Ever so faint roasted chicken.

The finish achieves the near impossible for a young whisky. There’s no flameout into oblivion. Instead, all the elements come back to play. The apple is now a lovely pie, the corn a just-out-of-the-oven cornbread, and there’s leather and pipe tobacco for good measure.

I figured I’d like this distillery-only juice after my previous Whiskey Acres experience, but I didn’t expect to like it this much.

Here’s to those who dare. Cheers, friends! – TM

Glenmorangie Signet Review

Distiller: Glenmorangie. Region: Highlands. ABV: 46%. No age statement. Price: $150-200.

My journey from Chicago to the Glenmorangie Distillery was of near-epic length, but man, was it worth it. The opening night of my trip to cover the British Open at Glenmorangie’s invitation offered tastings of the entire Glenmorangie range, more than a few Ardbegs, and a personal tasting of the Glenmorangie Signet.

If there’s anything I learned about Glenmorangie during this tip, it’s that the distillery thrives by balancing experimentation and persistence. The Glenmorangie Signet, the 2016 World Whisky of the Year, is a fine example. The no-age-statement whisky is based on the use of heavily roasted chocolate malt, which Master Distiller Dr. Bill Lumsden insisted GlenMo could make work. He was right.

It’s matured in casks made from Missouri oak that’s air dried for two years before the liquid ever touches the inside. The result is a whisky unlike any I’ve had.

There’s chocolate-covered ginger on the nose, along with barley, roasted coffee beans, and vanilla. It brings to mind walks I used to take through the fields at my uncle’s farm.

There’s more ginger in the palate, but it’s more akin to ginger snaps. It melds beautifully with a rich vanilla and caramel that brings to mind a creme brûlée. Whisks of coconut dance along as well, and there’s a lovely stout note that increases with a splash of water.

The finish is stunning. Long, sustained, rich. The stout remains at the forefront, but by the end, there’s a glorious caffè corretto experience that makes me laugh with joy.

These folks love the process and it shows in the result. Cheers, friends! – TM

Buy Glenmorangie whisky online from Mash + Grape

Great King Street Artist’s Blend Review

Producer: Compass Box. Distillers: undisclosed. Regions: Speyside & Highland. ABV: 43%. No age statement. Price: $35-40.

The Great King Street Artist’s Blend was my first Compass Box whisky a few years back, and it opened my eyes to how good a blend can be. Founder and master blender John Glaser calls it “blended Scotch for whisky geeks,” which is just about the perfect description.

In line with Compass Box’s usual eye for quality, the Great King Street Artist’s Blend is just under 50% malt (an unusually high proportion), and matured in first-fill bourbon, sherry, and new heavily toasted French oak casks. It’s 43% ABV, not chill filtered, and priced at an exceedingly reasonable $35-40.

It has a gorgeous nose with strong wild honey. Sweet oak, new leather, vanilla tobacco, dried apple. The honey leads the palate too, but is beautifully integrated with the grain whisky backbone–sufficiently mature to add weight and heft. Canned peaches and pears. Surprisingly long finish with sweet leather and tobacco predominant.

A whisky geek’s blended Scotch, a blended Scotch skeptic’s blended Scotch…this one can win over just about anybody. Three cheers for Compass Box! – BO

Buy Compass Box whisky online from Mash + Grape

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