The village of Port Charlotte (Image Source: Bruichladdich)
2 miles from the Bruichladdich Distillery is a small village sitting in a perpetual calm, oblivious to the entire world beyond its coast. Walk along the array of windswept little white houses; there’s only the crunching of gravel beneath your feet, the cool and salty Atlantic sea breeze, rhythmic waves breaking ceaselessly that eventually become white noise.
This village remains pretty much the same since Victorian writer Alfred Barnard travelled to it in 1884. Of what he saw along the way he wrote that “the Atlantic waves break in most magnificent array, and it is a sight never to be forgotten”. He also wrote that the incredibly quiet village of Port Charlotte was “just a village of little importance and interest”. Ouch, Mr Barnard. Find somewhere else if you want to party.
(Image Source: Bruichladdich)
However, beneath the waves and salty air, something quietly magical is happening. Barrels and barrels of whisky from Bruichladdich Distillery are stacked in two stone-walled warehouses near the sea, awaiting the time when they shall be ready to be bottled as Port Charlotte Single Malt.
Bruichladdich Distillery makes 3 main lines of whisky - the unpeated Bruichladdich, the peated Port Charlotte, and the ultra-heavily-peated Octomore.
The distillery originally just made unpeated whisky. But people couldn’t get over the fact that an Islay-based distillery would make non-smoky whisky. The Port Charlotte label was therefore conceived by Master Distiller Jim McEwan after he grew tired of people saying that Bruichladdich Distillery was not a “true Islay distillery”.
(Image Source: Bruichladdich)
The name was chosen to honour the lost Port Charlotte Distillery that used to operate in the village and make peated whisky. Although it was permanently closed in 1929, a small part of its spirit lives on: two of its old stone warehouses were purchased by Bruichladdich. And this is where Port Charlotte Single Malt is matured.
(Image Source: Bruichladdich)
There may be cask style differences and terroir differences, but Port Charlotte is always made from 40ppm peated malt. This line comes the closest to the quintessential Islay whisky with heavy smoke and savouriness. You can say it is McEwans’ answer to complaints that he does not make Islay whisky.
I am a sucker for pretty packaging and this one speaks to me. Port Charlotte bottings these days always come in an unusual green bottle with large sans-serif fonts that almost look like you could carry a bottle and join the army.
I have with me today the flagship Port Charlotte 10 Years Old. In true Bruichladdich tradition, this is made from 100% Scottish barley (most Scotches include imported barley) and bottled with Islay spring water. In terms of cask styles, it was matured in 1st fill American whiskey casks (65%), 2nd fill American whiskey casks (10%) and 2nd fill French wine casks (25%). At the outset, this seems very much like the distillery’s smoky re-interpretation of the Bruichladdich Classic Laddie.
Let’s get tasting!
The colour is primrose yellow; a deeper hue of yellow than the Bruichladdich Classic Laddie.
On the nose, burst of ash, sweet citrus and seaside notes. The spirit is remarkably fresh and bright.
Uncorking the bottle lets out an aroma of barbecue char that evokes browned smoky breakfast sausages.
(Image Source: Serious Eats)
From the glass, this opens with a bright burst of smoked lemon, grapefruit. It doesn’t quite prick your nose, but there is a substantial lemon zing similar to sour lemon hard candy.
A layer of woodsmoke follows in a split second; the character of the smoke much closer to the aroma of temple incense than the thick medicinal notes of other Islay Scotch.
All of the above unfolds over a maritime profile, similar to the smell of fresh oysters.
Let this rest for 2 minutes and the aromas evolve a little. Bright citrus notes unfold into sweeter vanilla and creme brûlée. Smoke and oceanic notes become much more prominent and certain.
On the palate, sweet, fruity, ashy with a lovely oily texture.
What is first noticed is the nice oily texture. It really coats the tongue like virgin olive oil. The first sip is fresh and fruity, filled with bright notes of white grapes, apples and pomelo, complimented by a whisper of ashiness.
I do see a nice balance between sweet fruitiness and ashiness over here. Don’t let the words “HEAVILY PEATED” scare you off - the smoke feels feels rather measured to me.
The clean, fresh profile also carries a maritime profile with a touch of smoked Japanese seaweed (kombu) - all that is similar having light miso clam soup.
Letting this rest allows the palate to gradually develop towards sweet maltiness. Now there are aromas of light vanilla, baked pastry and key lime pie.
Despite the higher ABV, the liquid is actually pretty accessible and well-rounded. There isn’t a huge amount of heat, just a noticeable lemon zing that buzzes in the middle of the palate, then settles into fresh peppermint.
On the whole, a fairly well-balanced and coherent palate that mirrors the nose. There is a good amount of sweet and fruity flavours that appear to be uplifted by the peat.
The finish is long. Sweetness and zestiness dissipate, leaving behind enduring notes of brine, charred ashiness, dryness of Chinese pu’er tea (普洱茶) and a cooling breath of mint.
There’s this saying “there is no light without darkness” which seems applicable here. Compared to the Classic Laddie, just a bit of smoke seems to have changed the overall the character of the whisky in an interesting way. The smoke is not overpowering, but seems to offer a contrast that somehow dials up the intensity of the other flavours.
Now with a background of smoke, this feels very much sweeter, fruitier and creamier than the Classic Laddie, although I am sure the two bottles in fact have about the same level of sweetness (I have tasted them side-by-side). Like a white chess piece on a black tile, the smoke offers a contrast that makes the sweet notes a lot more apparent in the Port Charlotte.
The mouth-coating oily texture also makes a stronger appearance here; it is as if the dryness of the smoke helps you notice the oiliness better.
The cherry on the cake is the strong coastal profile which adds a touch of balance and complexity. It supports the distillery’s romantic narrative that barrels of Port Charlotte maturing close by the sea have been somehow influenced by the salty coastal air. Does sea-side maturation actually introduce salt into the whisky? Seems unlikely. But the dram is enjoyable and so has been the storytelling.
Fruity, savoury and smoky with tasty contrasting notes. Bruichladdich nails the traditional Islay taste profile to a T with some freshness to spare.