Whilst many distilleries have exclusive expressions only available for purchase by visitors, hand-bottling your own whisky directly from the cask at the completion of a distillery tour feels rather special. In essence, exclusives and hand-bottlings are oft-times essentially the same thing – a limited (by volume of the cask) cask strength, single cask release that you can only purchase at the distillery itself. However, there’s much more of a sense of occasion and excitement in filling your own hand-signed bottle. It becomes more than a keep-sake – it becomes a liquid memory of that moment in time.
The hand fill options at Bruichladdich distillery are particularly well-regarded – and in some cases quite desirable on the secondary market. There are usually two different expressions on offer for distillery visitors – one unpeated Bruichladdich and one heavily peated Port Charlotte. Delivered in 50cl bottles, these handfills are termed ‘valinchs’ – the name of the large copper gravity syphon you might have seen used to extract samples directly from casks.
Whilst a lot of distillery hand fills will invariable focus on ex-bourbon and ex-sherry, Bruichladdich have taken a much more holistic view to their exclusive DIY offerings – the variety of casks that have been on offer over the years has been almost mind-bogglingly broad – think of a cask type and predecessor liquid and Bruichladdich have probably at some point had a valinch of it.
The Bruichladdich and Port Charlotte valinchs are in effect a series – mainly because they both are sequentially numbered. It’s amazing what sticking a number on a label can do for its collectability, but, at least it also helps with longer-term identification. The Bruichladdich valinchs are termed the ‘Laddie Crew’ – each one named after a member of staff working at the distillery (rather cute and personal). The Port Charlotte valinchs are all termed ‘Cask Exploration’, but then have an additional Gaelic name – some refer to locations or distillery equipment and processes (Smachd Air Caileachd – Quality control), others are a little more esoteric (Cuan Dorcha – Light rain). There’s been 21 single cask PC valinchs to date – when you visit Bruichladdich, I strongly recommend you check out whichever is the next in the series at that time – they’re all rather interesting.
Today, we’re going to be looking at Port Charlotte Exploration 14 - Valinch Taigh-Bathair Bannaichte (Bonded Warehouse). This distillery valinch is an 11 year old that has been matured in 1st fill PX sherry for 11 years. It’s delivered at 51.7% ABV and was available for hand bottling at the distillery in May of 2017.
Nose: Intense rich, smoked and sherried nuttiness. The PX influence here is unmistakable - sumptuous heavily reduced berries, plums and damsons are joined by rum-soaked raisins, figs and a *lot* of walnuts. There’s plenty of peat smoke here (It’s a Port Charlotte bottling after all) – it too is rich and sweet, feeling like a merger of smoked red fruits with a touch of bicycle tyre, farmyard and camphor. The addition of water cuts through much of the concentrated sugariness – introducing both salinity and minerality. At this point there’s a fair amount of coastal quality here, without the overall profile and sweet smoke being overall denuded.
Taste: Completely full on – this is big and ballsy. The arrival is exceedingly rich and packed full of viscosity – this lends the whisky both structure and weight. Toffee, burnt caramel and cooking pan sugars marry with orange peels, apples, poached pears and sour plums. Behind this sits the flavours of a smouldering wood fire – charred logs, ashy embers – one the one hand surprisingly natural tasting, but on the other, supported by melted rubber, engine oil and coal dust. There’s just a touch of struck match in the back palate –ever so slightly flinty. Reduction pushes salinity forward – brine and salted caramel. It also transposes the peat smoke – still sweet, but now less charred, more ashy and chalky.
Finish: Long, sweet, salty and smoked – red fruits, chocolate, salted caramel and pervasive mineral smoke.
This PC Valinch bottling is simply massive. Not only are the flavours pronounced and penetrating, but they’re also very nicely defined and supportive of each other. The end result is exceedingly syrupy and sweet – I preferred this reduced from 51.7% ABV not because of the strength, but because of how rich and saccharine it felt throughout the experience (your mileage may vary). Nevertheless, this is quite excellent – big, bold and packed full of sweet peat flavour – I’ll be keeping an eye out for this at upcoming auctions.