There’s a new(ish) kid on the block at Bruichladdich, and his name is Adam Hannett. In 2015 he followed in the footsteps of industry legend Jim McEwan, and became the new head distiller. In this interview he looks back on the intense first two years of his tenure.
When I visited Bruichladdich earlier this year it immediately became clear something had changed since my last pilgrimage in 2014. The iconic pot still that had been standing in front of the distillery overlooking Loch Indaal, had now disappeared. This pot still was bought at the start of the millennium from the now demolished Inverleven distillery, and was once destined to become part of Port Charlotte distillery. That never happened. Instead it was shipped to Ireland, where it now is part of Waterford Distillery.
The lost pot still is symbolic for everything that has changed at Bruichladdich in the last five years. When Rémy Cointreau bought the distillery in 2012 it signaled the start of a new era. Mark Reynier, the man largely responsible for the resurrection of Bruichladdich, left the company not long after. General manager Duncan McGillivray retired in 2014 after 40 years of service. And the next year saw the departure of master distiller Jim McEwan. Three men that were of immense value to Bruichladdich. What would they do now?
Adam Hannett wants to make one thing very clear. Yes, he is Jim McEwan’s successor. But no, he is not the new master distiller of Bruichladdich. It’s a title he feels he has yet to earn. For now head distiller is a perfectly adequate job title. “Jim McEwan is a very important figure to me. He gave me the opportunity to be a distiller and to be able to work alongside him for years to learn from his experience and values. Not a day goes by when I don’t think back on what an incredible opportunity that was and how lucky I am.”
Hannett seems to be a modest man, but right now he is pushed into the spotlight as the face of Bruichladdich. Which isn’t strange of course, since it is his skill as a distiller and his highly sensitive nose that are responsible for creating all those different expressions of Laddie, Port Charlotte and Octomore. “There are countless lessons I learned from Jim during the years”, Hannett says. “The most important one I saw was his relentless pursuit of quality. Everything had to be done to the best possible level or it wasn’t worth doing, especially when it came to blending. There was always time to consider all the options and to produce the best possible whisky rather than produce a certain amount or ever be able to make a whisky the same again. There are some things more important than consistency or repetition.”
Adam Hannett has been living on Islay for his entire life, but both his parents are from Manchester. They fell in love with the island while on holiday and moved there in the seventies, unintentionally laying the foundation for the future career of their son. Although for a minute there Adam’s life seemed to go in a different direction, when he left for Aberdeen to study marine biology at university. After eighteen months however he returned to Islay at age 20.
He started working at Bruichladdich in 2004. As a tour guide first, later in the distillery shop. After a first encounter with McEwan, who gave the new employees a pep talk, the whisky microbe latched on to Hannett. There’s nothing he didn’t want to know about whisky and its production process. He learned every little aspect of Bruichladdich under the tutelage of McEwan and McGillivray. It’s a distinguishing quality of Hannett as a young distiller, since most of his peers have a more theoretical and scientific background. They don’t necessarily learn their craft on the job, instead getting a master degree in Brewing and Distilling at the renowned Herriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. Hannett: “It was at Bruichladdich where my education really began. I learnt far more by working with people at the distillery than I ever did at university.”
Stepping into the void left by Jim McEwan. It’d be quite understandable if Hannett would get a bit nervous just thinking about it. Luckily for him there isn’t much time to be nervous. “It’s been a very busy time, which has helped take my mind off stepping into Jim’s shoes at Bruichladdich. We have been busy with some new releases and that takes a lot of work. My focus since Jim retired has been on continuing in the same fashion as before, the same aims of producing the best spirit we can in the best possible way. I am lucky to have good people around me who work hard and care about what we do and how we do it, which has enabled the distillery to continue to grow and produce some very special whisky.”
Hannett still sees his mentor McEwan every now and again. He lives on Islay and visits Bruichladdich sometimes. “But we all have an unspoken understanding that to ask his advice or for him to offer would not be the right thing. He has moved on to a new part of his life as have [distillery manager] Allan Logan and I, so we have to do things the way we think best.”
The many changes at the top of Bruichladdich seem so far to have had a limited influence on the whisky itself. Octomore, Port Charlotte and Bruichladdich already have a strong brand presence. New releases under the reign of Hannett are produced with the same philosophy in mind. Exotic cask types are the exception to the rule at most distilleries, but at Bruichladdich nobody bats an eye when a ex-cognac matured Port Charlotte is released.
Hannett: “I don’t think there have been so many changes. We will continue to do what we have always done, which is make the best whisky we can with a focus on Islay and keeping things local. Maybe we will look back in years to come and see there was a shift in some ways. As we have begun to release more expressions again, maybe the style of these releases will see the biggest difference from Jim to me.”
The take-over of Bruichladdich by French company Rémy Cointreau is almost five years in the past. At first fans of the distillery (and maybe employees too) were afraid the independent, offbeat character of Bruichladdich might be in danger. For now the opposite is true as the take-over turned out to be a blessing in disguise, in big part because there’s finally a good amount of money to invest in the distillery.
Take the age old mashtun for example. The cast iron mechanism inside it broke down at the end of 2013, a very expensive part to replace. In the old days as independent distillers they would’ve been forced to use a stainless steel replacement. It might not have been disastrous, but seeing as they like to do things the old-fashioned and traditional way at Bruichladdich, it surely would’ve felt like a big concession. Owner Rémy Cointreau however was willing to put up the money for a new cast iron mechanism. It meant that production was halted for months, but that’s the price of doing things the right way.
Hannett: “We have been able to grow the distillery much faster than we had been before due to the amazing support we have received [from Rémy Cointreau]. Our production level has risen, which enabled us to employ more local people. The investment in new warehouses and facilities and to be able to better care for our traditional equipment has been wonderful. At the same time we have continued to be who we are and express ourselves in the same way we always have, which is in the style and quality of the whisky we produce.”
While lots has changed at Bruichladdich, things have stayed the same also. Something else that hasn’t changed is the Laddie-esque urge to experiment. Terroir is still an important part of Bruichladdich’s philosophy, an inheritance from the Reynier-era, who used to be a wine merchant back in the day. Terroir means ‘a sense of place’. It is “a concept that encompasses the influence and inter-action of soil, sub-soil, exposure, orientation, climate and micro-climate on the growing of a plant”.
The regional trial experiment is one of the current innovative undertakings at Bruichladdich. Hannett: “We take the same strain of barley from different growing locations across Scotland. After being malted separately it is distilled separately to see the difference it makes in the final spirit. The results are very interesting and as you would expect we have a clear difference in the different spirits. As these age we are watching how the flavours develop and where the differences are so we have a long way to go until we have definite results, but we are having fun doing it!”
The next step in the evolution of Bruichladdich is not exactly an experiment. It actually harks back to the old days: they want to bring back their floor maltings. The French owners are very open to the idea. One possibility would be to convert one of the old warehouses, as soon as the new warehouses are ready. Hannett: “We have been thinking about the possibility of malting our Islay grown barley for years as it is the only part of the process we do not do on Islay. We all have a sense that this is the missing piece of the jigsaw for us and one day we would love to have the complete picture.”
Photo’s: Anton Suckdorff
This article also appeared in Dutch in the Spring issue of Whisky Passion