Since reopening in 2001, Bruichladdich distillery, located on the small Scottish island of Islay, has had one concern above all others: doing things the right way. Not the quick way, not the most cost effective way, and definitely not the easiest way - the right way.
A bit like choosing to design and hand-make our bags in our own Glasgow workshop - we don’t do it because it’s easy, but because it feels right.
So in In 2015, when Jim McEwan - one of the most respected whisky makers in the world, and the man tasked with creating all of Bruichladdich’s bottled expressions since 2001 - announced his retirement, there was the big question of who would replace him. Tasked with overseeing one of the most exciting and respected distilleries in the world, you could have been forgiven for thinking they’d take the safe option - hiring someone from another distillery. Someone already familiar with the role, with decades of experience, the right connections, and a long heritage in the industry.
But, this was Bruichladdich, and that wouldn’t be the right way.
In steps Adam Hannett. Appointed by Jim as his successor at just 32 years old, Adam’s career in whisky began only 11 years earlier, at the very distillery he now heads. Back then he was tasked with giving tours around the distillery. Today he’s responsible for its entire output. Initially spotted for his incredible nose and outstanding grasp of the spirit, he was hand picked and trained by Jim in preparation for the day when Adam’s name would replace his on every bottle that makes its way out into the world.
So, the youngest head distiller in the industry, fronting one of the most exciting, progressive, and beloved whisky brands in the world? We couldn’t resist sitting down with Adam on a recent trip to Islay, to find out a little bit more about him, his whisky, his island, and even his desert island dram.
Hi Adam, great to meet you. We’re huge fans of Bruichladdich, and it’s great to be sitting down to chat with you about Islay, whisky, and the Fèis Ìle festival.
Good to meet you too! There's been a few of us at the distillery that have been big fans of Trakke for a long time, so to have you here, and to have the custom Bruichladdich Trakke bag in the shop, is definitely a step in the right direction. It’s great for us to be partnering with company that shares our 'by-hand' philosophy. We're quite looking forward to what you come up with for The Botanist guys, too.
You grew up around the distillery before it closed in 1994, and have been working here since it re-opened in 2001. That must give you an amazing perspective - how has Bruichladdich changed over your lifetime?
It’s changed so much. Not just Bruichladdich, but distilleries all over the island. It used to be that distilleries were simply where the work happened, and there wasn’t the relationship with them that you have now. Years ago I remember playing around outside the distillery, but not being allowed in. It was like the castle gates, no entry whether it running or not – it was just a place of work, or a factory.
So when we opened in 2001, we wanted to change that, and to engage with people. And just look around - we have an amazing visitor’s centre, and we do as many tours as we can throughout the day. The gates are open, and we welcome everyone.
We’ve been told a story about the visitor centre floor - how it was laid down over time by people coming over with wheelbarrows of concrete whenever they had one spare, and building it up bit by bit.
Absolutely, it was just put together. And that’s very much the story of Bruichladdich. It has been built up over time, with a lot of people putting in a lot of effort over the years.
Yours is an amazing story - Head Distiller at one of the most exciting whisky distilleries in the world. What’s the journey like that brought you here?
Well, at 35, I’m still relatively young, but I’d worked with Jim for a long time before getting the position of Head Distiller. I was originally employed as a tour guide at Bruichladdich in 2004, but by 2006 I had started making whisky with Jim so it was a relatively short apprenticeship! I learnt a lot, though - I packed a lot into those years. Since 2015, I’ve been establishing myself, getting comfortable in the role and trying to continue the legacy of how we make the spirit here at Bruichladdich.
How would you define the Bruichladdich approach to whisky?
Well, with whisky in general, there’s a lot of marketing, and resting on tradition. But for us, we’ve built on what’s important to us – innovation, and taking it back to basics.
We’ve got a Victorian distillery - one of only two purpose built distilleries on the island - and that creates a unique opportunity, for us to make whisky the same way it was made back when the distillery was founded. Moving away from concerns about the yield, and away from the things that the industry had been doing through the 70s and 80s to increase production. It was a chance to focus on some of the important things about whisky that had been lost - the people, the barley, and the water source.
We've also been really lucky to have principles who have pushed us to be progressive. When Mark (Reynier) and Simon (Coughlin) bought the distillery, they'd come from a wine background, where the quality of the ingredients and the connection between land, soil, and the end liquid was really important. They saw nothing of that in the whisky world, so we were one of the first distilleries to take the focus off yield and efficiency and start to celebrate the variety and nuance in natural whisky.
How do you feel your identity as an Ileach (a native of Islay) is connected to your work at Bruichladdich?
Other than being incredibly proud to be from here, I think being from Islay you like to be very honest. We like to tell the truth, and we like to tell people what’s happening – very open, very honest, and very welcoming. And Bruichladdich, making whisky here, that plays into the authenticity of what we do. It means we can talk about all the things we’re proud of – it’s made here, some of the barley is grown by Islay people, we employ 80 odd people here, it's bottled here using Islay spring water, it’s a natural whisky, it’s not artificially coloured and non-chill filtered. There’s so many good things that we’re able to talk about that it keeps pushing us forward to do the right thing for Islay. I mean, bottling whisky here? There’s almost no financial sense to do it, which is why nobody else does!
Bruichladdich are self-termed “Progressive Hebridean Distillers”. How do you think the distillery is different from other distilleries on the island, and in the rest of Scotland?
The Hebridean part refers to where we are, and place is important to us. I think you have to respect the place, and its history, but then being progressive, you also have to be able to bring it forward. You’ve got to get the balance right between the two.
There’s the sourcing of our barley, and the relationships we have with the farmers - it’s Scottish barley, and Islay barley we use. Then there’s the casks, we have about 200 different casks maturing in the warehouse across 15 different spirit types, whether it be Bruichladdich, Port Charlotte, Octomore, rye, organic, biodynamic, different strains of barley - all of these things, they’re innovations. There’s where we store the whisky, and where we bottle it - both on-site.
I know for some distilleries is makes sense to source their barley from abroad, and to store their whisky in warehouses on the mainland. But here, we’re proud that if you buy a 10 year old whisky, that means it’s spent 10 years at Bruichladdich, not just 3 days being distilled here, before being transported off the island to sit in a warehouse for the rest of its life.
One of Bruichladdich’s mottos is “we believe in terroir”, which means the surrounding environment it’s produced in. Can you tell us a little bit about what that means to you?
For us, it means that the most important thing is focussing on how we make whisky, and the ingredients we make whisky from, rather than how we can make as much as we can. High yield is not the most important thing. We want to make a good whisky, so we make it slowly, and we focus on our ingredients. We have a long fermentation - the distillation is very slow, to make sure we get a lot contact with copper, a lot of reflux to make sure we get a very pure and elegant spirit. And it’s a really subtle shift, because as soon as we stop focussing on yield, we start looking at really interesting things, like new strains of barley, new casks types, and provenance; we build up the story.
And the story is about the whisky, it’s about the way we think, our island and the people here. It’s not just a marketing angle that we create to give the product a reason for being - it’s an expression of what we believe, and what we practice every day.
We completely agree. When we see our bags being handmade in our workshop in Glasgow, there’s a story and a connection there that’s more important to us than any time or money we’d save automating the process, or having them made off-shore.
Exactly. The integrity of the product is such an important thing. And in doing that, you support your community. One of the things we’re most proud of is being the biggest private employer on the whole of Islay. In terms of output, our distillery is the second smallest, but we employ almost 100 people. You could run a distillery and visitor centre on 12 employees year round if you chose to. It’s important to us to be an Islay whisky, that’s made on the Isle of Islay, by Islay people. People might not notice it in the glass, but it’s important to us that it’s in the bottle.
You mention the integrity of the product, what exactly do you mean by that?
Simply being open and honest. We have all this information about what we do here, and how we make our whisky, and being open and honest and transparent about that information tells the story of how and why that whisky was created. It’s not a vehicle to sell a whisky, it’s us explaining the reasons why the whisky was created.
Bruichladdich is now world famous. The whisky, and your gin, is incredibly popular. The Botanist was there at the very beginning of the gin explosion in the early 2010s. Does it ever get frustrating having to wait so long for the whisky to be ready, when the Botanist is flavoured in the still, and bottled immediately?
True, with gin, you can taste it and it’s ready to go, but for us that’s unusual. I spend very little of my time in the present - I’m either thinking of the past, or the future, one of the two.
But we know that with the whisky it’s going to take time - you can’t rush it, there’s no way around that. We know the relationship between age and quality is more complex than people think, and it’s about our relationship with the casks, and about finding the right moment when things peak. That’s when the whisky is ready to be released, not when the clock ticks round or the calendar turns.
But honestly, there are so many thing to be involved with in whisky making, and so many things to be working on. When there’s so much to do, you don’t really mind having to wait.
We need to ask: what’s your Desert Island Dram?
That’s a tough question!
In truth, there’s a whisky for every occasion, and I couldn’t narrow it down, especially at Bruichladdich. We have our core range - Bruichladdich is our unpeated Islay spirit, then we have Port Charlotte, our peated spirit, named after the old distillery down at Port Charlotte. Finally we have Octomore, our super-heavily peated spirit, named after historical records of a distillery at Octomore Farm. They’re all amazing whiskies, and made in the same stills here at the distillery. The beauty with whisky is in the variety, and being able to make a choice depending on the mood, the company, and the place. So I'll have to be stubborn and say "it depends".
As a final question. What is it that Islay means to you, on a personal level?
That’s easy. Islay? It’s home.
I think when you look out the window, and you contemplate the surroundings - even just the tide coming and going, coming and going, you see things changing all the time. The landscape, the way it looks, the ocean, the light. It makes you very reflective, and it gives you this amazing connection to the place, when you see it changing and moving all the time.
Thanks so much Adam.
An absolute pleasure.