Whisky and Words Number 66: Bruichladdich Port Charlotte 10

The Port Charlotte 10’s lovely metal canister. Do read the descriptive text up near the top. Just above the ten..click to zoom if you need to.

Bruichladdich (‘brookladdie’) distillery is a small operation that punches far above its weight. It is known for using antique machinery to create unique, terroir-oriented crafty spirits. They also like to tout that their spirits are made without resorting to computers. They state “A whisky made by people not software” right on the carton. Whether that affects the outcome or not I’ll leave to more philosophical writers. Bottom line, you can’t argue with their results. They make damn good whiskies and their tasting room is a joy to visit—no marketing, just comfy couches, lots of swag on the walls and friendly people behind the bar who’ll proudly give you tastes of their spirits.

There is a lot of pride in their presentation. “This Port Charlotte 10-year old is who we are” says the canister. It is “distilled matured and bottled at the source” not “immediately shipped off to the mainland to mature in some undisclosed warehouse.” Ouch, fightin’ words, as some Islay distilleries do exactly that.

In contrast to their production ethic, Bruichladdich is known for its ultramodern and innovative packaging, from the bright blue of the Classic Laddie to the clear bottle of the Islay Barley to the mysterious grey of the Port Charlotte and Octomore 8.1 (review coming next week, BTW). This canister (all metal) is so mysterious, most of it cannot be read without resorting to optical amplification.

Just look at that gnarly bottle. Rear, with heavily embossed lettering. Looks like Dick Cheney’s aftershave!

Port Charlotte is their heavily peated branding and encompasses multiple releases. This is a review of a 10-year old expression of the Port Charlotte variety (heretofore ‘PC10′). The 10-year is touted on the packaging as “Heavily peated with elegance and finesse.” In extremely hard to read writing they continue “a unique whisky no one else could have made.” They are a plucky bunch indeed.  They have created this whisky “the hard way, by hand, nose and eye on ancient, stubborn equipment with passion and respect. With soul.” Alright then. This soul is contained in an imposing, dark and fell bottle, hunched and pugnacious, like the ancient and stubborn machinery that made it. I really cannot wait to open this and get a whiff. I’m expecting it to blow my socks off and shame any run-of-the-mill Islay 10-year (lookin’ at you, Laphroaig and Ardbeg!)

So, how do we compare. I like Laphroaig a lot but Ardbeg calls itself ‘the ultimate Islay whisky.’ Cheeky, eh? So, let’s go head to head with Ardbeg’s 10-year.

Port Charlotte 10 (l) and the Ardbeg 10 (r). Color does not equate to taste. Well, this time, it does.

As you can see from the photo above, while both are not chill filtered and say no coloring, the PC10 has a deeper color, well into amber territory, while Ardbeg’s standard 10-year is a paler straw color. Color is not always a forecast of taste but hints at what casks were used. I’d suspect some sherry casks for PC10 (but actually, 25% of it was in French wine casks.). First whiff goes to Port Charlotte, and indeed I can smell some sherry-ish notes from the wine casks’ contribution. The PC10 has a luxurious nose with aged wine, apple, the tang of old leather and East Indies spicy, aromatic wood. Deeper draughts find the aroma of bread dough rising. The peat-smoke is actually quite restrained: finessed, as they claim. It is delivered as wood smoke more than cigar ash, whereas the Ardbeg whacks you right on the nose with ashy smoke that precedes a grainy, earthy maltiness behind it. The Ardbeg 10’s lighter notes are citrus and eucalyptus, a different vibe entirely from the fruitier, deeper PC10. The Port Charlotte noses like a ballet dancer that’s passed through an incense-filled Far Eastern temple, while the Ardbeg’s nose is a free-spirited beach girl who’s been dancing  round a bonfire.

On the tongue, the 50% ABV Port Charlotte is creamy, moderately sweet with a blooming smokiness that fills your head. With the warmth infusing into my tongue, it feels like a bonfire has just gone out in my mouth. Wow. That creaminess is unique—vanilla, cream and caramel, like a top-notch confection, and the tannins that balance it are aromatically spicy. I am sitting here saying ‘whoa.’ Damn. It’s mind-bending. The finish is more of the same, remarkably consistent, creamy, spicy and smoky all at once and lasts a good long time. Also remarkable is how smooth this dram is, at 50% ABV. It does not abuse the taster at all.

A fine whisky. The folks at Bruichladdich measure up to their talk.

In comparison, we have the (admittedly much less expensive) Ardbeg 10, which does claim to be the ‘ultimate’ Islay whisky, and is a good dram; it will make you sit up and appreciate it as an excellent whisky. It has a medium, Lyle’s syrup sweetness to it, nice spiciness, and a good amount of warming peat—more smoke in fact than the PC10. It’s a good whisky. But in nose, palate and finish, it is simply blown away by the Port Charlotte 10.

Ardbeg Distillery’s visiting experience is very corporate, very brand conscious, you do not get the hail-fellow-well-met brotherliness you find in many other Islay distilleries. LVMH, who owns Ardbeg, runs a tight ship, and delivers a good product. But the tightly run corporate culture is no match for the down-to-earth, craft-oriented execution of Bruichladdich.

Bruichladdich Port Charlotte 10-year, Islay Single Malt, 50% ABV
Distilled 2007, bottled 2018

Nose: Luxurious: sherry-ish fruit, apple, tangy old leather, spicy East Indies aromatic wood smoke, rising bread dough.
Palate: Vanilla cream and caramel, so very smooth, with a bloom of woody smoke rising mid-tongue. Even the tannins are East Indies spicy and perfectly balanced. It has a ‘wow’ factor.
Finish: Long, warm, consistently creamy, spicy and smoky.

Bottom Line: This is a very nice whisky. And you might think have to pay a lot for it. It is no longer carried in my state but in Washington it goes for about $80. Which, frankly, is a steal, if you consider Ardbeg’s excellent (NAS) Corryvrecken is $110! I would pick the Port Charlotte 10 over the Corryvee any day.

By the way, in case I was just having an odd flavor day, I asked the wife, who is quite matter-of-fact about her whiskies to try this dram. She also said ‘wow!’ to the Port Charlotte. The mojo is real.

For the peat aficionado, this is a whisky to try. Not an everyday dram, it is spendy, but worthy of a special evening by the fire.

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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