Bruichladdich: Old and New

There is something intriguing about the Bruichladdich, distillery buildings that is hidden by the customary white paint. According to Andrew Jefford, in his wonderful book ‘Peat Smoke and Spirit’, Bruichladdich was one of the earliest buildings in Scotland to be constructed from concrete. He says little more about its place in architectural history as this is not his subject but it does interest me and raises questions: what was the process used, how did it fit in with the development of concrete as a building material, what is the history of its use in Scotland, and what patent did John MacDonald hold? This will take more research and genuine legwork as a scan of Google does not give the required answers. Historic Scotland has produced a booklet called ‘A short guide to historic concrete in Scotland’  which contains a list of early buildings that does not include Bruichladdich, nor does it mention John MacDonald, the contractor who, according to Jefford, held a patent. At the moment I have no answers and the Bruichladdich website here contains most of what I currently know.

A lot of thought went into the design and when it was built Bruichladdich was cutting edge modern. Purpose built around a courtyard (to minimise the risks of a fire) I’m sure that in 1881 it gleamed as an embodiment of the new. This again leads to a question that might or might not be worth pursuing: at the time  the distillery was built did some people have nostalgia  for traditional ways and a feeling that something valuable had been lost through industrialisation? Or was the predominant thought that you should build newer, build better and that the world was becoming a better place through modern engineering I don’t know but regret for a lost age has been a constant theme through all ages, as has the excitement of discovery. It is though an interesting question to ask at Bruichladdich because like no other distillery they like to play with the concepts of the old and the new. Proclaim themselves innovative, whilst celebrating their traditional methods.

What is new in 1881 is very old in 2001 (when the distillery was revived from a deep sleep by active, committed and opinionated owners). The plant they bought was still as it would have been many years ago, except a bit more warn. Instead of that being a problem it became a virtue and a point of principle as the spirit was to be produced  in the Victorian way. Some of their early statements talking about pre-industrial methods might be going a bit far (1880 is well into the industrial age) but the desire to continue with older, more manual methods of production is genuine and when we were there the tour was suspended because they were replacing the mechanism that mixes the grist with water in the mash tun with a replica that had to be custom cast. so that things could continue to be done in the same way. In some ways they want to go forward by going backward (their equipment, the use of local barley and old varieties of barley) but at other times they want to cut their own path with experimentation and developing finishes, especially using wine casks.

Their website reads more like a manifesto or an invitation to buy into a philosophy. Personally I am very receptive to this because my interest in whisky is in it being more than just a drink but I know it has got up some people’s nose. These, for example are some comments from the first edition of Ian Buxton’s 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die:

…They do make it hard. If it’s not the preposterous claims on their website…or what seems to this commentator at least a persistently chippy attitude and obsessive belief that everyone is out to do them down, then it must be the tediously self-aggrandising claims (apparently they are ‘The Malt Crusaders: fiercely independent, non-conformist,innovative – the infant terrible of the industry’). In fact they’re in danger of becoming the Millwall fans of whisky (’no one likes us and we don’t care).

But for me: I’m partial to a bit of pretentiousness, imagination or even a little  chippiness. I like it that there is a distiller with a ‘library’ section on their website with a variety of articles for further reading and the fact that they have sponsored a ceramicist to travel to New Mexico to research the origins of her materials. I like their engagement with idea of terroir and then pushing it to see where it leads and I like being able to see some of the thinking behind what they do.

P.S. The illuatration for this post is a picture from a catalogue of concrete (http://www.arroway-textures.com) – admit it you always wanted to know there was a catalogue of concrete