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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.

Wolfburn Whisky Review & Interview

Wolfburn Northlands Single Malt – Distillery: Wolfburn. Region: Highlands. ABV: 46%. No age statement (3+ years old). Price: $55-60.

Wolburn Aurora Sherry Oak Single Malt – Distillery: Wolfburn. Region: Highlands. ABV: 46%. No age statement (3+ years old). Price: $55-60.

Even before my first taste of Wolfburn, I had questions. Why go through the massive expense and effort of setting up a new Scotch whisky distillery at a time when even the big boys have to fight to keep their market share?

“Fortune favors the brave,” Wolfburn founder Andrew Thompson told me. “Put it all on black and spin the wheel.”

Once I’d tasted, the question became: How did they make whisky this good this fast?

“I spend my life doing two things,” Andrew said. “One, convincing people to try a 3-year-old whisky–well, now mostly 4, but only just. Two, then explaining why it is good. The first one is irritating but the reward comes with the second one after they try it.”

They don’t have a secret, but they do have a method. Andrew’s full explanation deserves a staging as a one-man show–or at least a trip to the far-northern Highlands distillery, opened in 2011, to hear it yourself.

In a nutshell, it involves custom stills from legendary coppersmith Richard Forsyth, zero automation, 25-year industry vet Shane Fraser (ex-Oban, ex-Glenfarclas) as distiller manager, and a relentless focus on producing the best new make they can.

Wolfburn Distillery Manager Shane Fraser. Image from wolfburn.com

A little more than 3 years later, they’ve got a product that is changing people’s minds about just how good a very young single malt can be–mine included.

“There really are no secrets at Wolfburn, hence people like Ichiro Akito from Chichibu, amongst others, send their people to chat to us and learn,” Andrew said.

“A fully automated system creates one kind of consistency. A man using his nose and hands creates another. By no means a better one, just a different one. For us, as a new start up, obsessed with looking after the whisky above all else, with no pre-programmed set of rules, it’s the later type of consistency we look for.”

“So now we have our new make–it’s really good new make,” Andrew said, “Let’s now put it in the best casks we can possibly find and then put it in our own warehouses and stack it, dunnage style, ourselves.”

Image from wolfburn.com

On to the results. Both current releases are 46% ABV, $55-60, just over 3 years old (the minimum by Scottish law).

“Would we have delayed if it wasn’t ready?” Andrew said. “Absolutely. Look after the whisky and it will look after you.”

Wolfburn Northland is matured in Quarter Casks that previously held peated Islay whisky. Nose: fresh grain. Salted caramel. Almond croissant. Faint lime custard. Palate: sweeter than the nose. Nice spice. Lemon tart with graham cracker crust. A suggestion of toasty peat from the cask, which compliments the brashness of the young malt wonderfully. Finish: salty. White chocolate. Charred baked apple bottom. Very, very tasty.

Wolfburn Aurora is matured in ex-sherry casks. Nose: fresh malted barley. Blueberry and blackberry. Mocha dusted with nutmeg. Palate: juicy, alive. Raspberry jam, restrained sweetness. Shades toward orange marmalade closer late on. The finish has white chocolate, bananas foster, and a little lemon pepper.

What a start for Wolfburn! The Northland is my favorite of the two, but both show huge promise–and are ready to be enjoyed right now.

What’s next, apart from steadily more mature releases?

“We have a lightly peated whisky coming out in September of [2017]–just 10ppm,” Andrew said. The original Wolfburn distillery, which was founded in 1821 but had long since been a pile of rubble by the time the new team came along, would have used exclusively peated malt, “so it would be a shame not to have tried some.”

Beyond that, “the warehouse has mainly American Standard Barrels, quarter casks, and sherry butts in it, so lots and lots to come in the future. And the maturation is going very well indeed.”

I’d say. Here’s to taking chances. Cheers, whisky friends! – BO

Wolfburn graciously provided samples for review. As always, our opinions are 100% our own.

Whiskey Is an Art: A conversation with FEW Spirits Founder Paul Hletko

Whiskey Is an Art: A conversation with FEW Spirits Founder, Paul Hletko

The FEW Spirits distillery is tucked down an alleyway in an old, refurbished garage. Rumor has it that the garage was once a chop-shop. It’s a good legend for a distillery that practically demands one, even though its true story is impressive all on its own.

FEW entry 640

You’ve heard this story almost as many times as you’ve had a dram. Young professional (a patent attorney in this case) tires of spending his days toiling in service of someone else’s profit and pursues his dream of working with great spirits. The challenges are immense. How do you whet prospective buyers’ interest when the bourbon takes so long to mature? How do you get the word out once you have? How do you remain relevant once you’ve made your first big splash in a market that’s always looking for the next big thing?

Continue reading Whiskey Is an Art: A conversation with FEW Spirits Founder Paul Hletko

Interview with Joe Beatrice of Barrell Bourbon

Joe Beatrice of Barrell Bourbon — a blender and bottler of cask-strength American whiskies that’s collected serious accolades since its launch in January 2014 — generously made time for a fun and frank Q&A with the Axis on the origins of Barrell Bourbon, the bourbon shortage (or myth thereof), class action lawsuits, transparency, and more.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity, and corrects the mashbill of Barrell Bourbon Batch 005.

Q. How did you move from the ad game into whiskey bottling? What’s your whiskey love story?

A. I started in advertising and direct marketing early on. In 1989 I had the first of two big revelations in my life: I knew the Internet was where I wanted to work. I started a company that did web development, online strategy, and marketing for some pretty big clients. We always had a spirits vertical. We worked with Glenmore Distilleries, which was sold to United Distillers and run by Chris Morris. [Morris is now Master Distiller at Brown-Forman. -BO]

Life went on as it does. Years later my wife and I were at a distillery — just taking a tour as civilians — and I had my second big epiphany: This is what I want to do.

I’d been a brewer my whole life, and the first thing anybody wants to do in the spirit business is to distill. That lasted about a week. The economics of it are awful. I decided I had to make money another way, then come back in a couple of years as a gentleman distiller.

Photo from instagram.com/barrellbourbon
Photo from instagram.com/barrellbourbon

This was at the very beginning of the comeback of bourbon and brown spirits. I saw that the premium and ultrapremium whiskey segments were growing, and I wanted to play in cask strength, because I’d tasted cask strength from the barrel during my career and thought, “Why isn’t everybody drinking it like this?”

Continue reading Interview with Joe Beatrice of Barrell Bourbon