March 9, 2013

Review: Port Charlotte Ten Year - A Whisky Drama in 5 Acts

Scotch Whisky: A Quintessential Human Drama 

The story we'll tell today is not just about a whisky.  It's about an experience, a drama if you will.  The gentlemen at Bruichladdich certainly see it that way.  The cast, the characters, and the setting are all carefully planned in order to make Port Charlotte a world class production.  So before we get into our review let's try to understand what makes a good drama, and what makes a good whisky.

Theatre has long embraced a concept called The Dramatic Arc.  The theory is that all dramatic structure happens in 5 Acts:

  1. Exposition (main character and setting are introduced) 
  2. Rising Action (the elements of plot commence)
  3. Climax (the turning point, the character undergoes an irreversible change)
  4. Falling Action (conflict unravels, producing a new reality)
  5. Denouement (resolution, catharsis, release of tension)

Philosophers from Aristotle to Gustav Freytag have spent time analyzing this arc and have concluded that the structure is inherent in nature and humanity.  They point out that this 5-Act structure defines major human experiences like the phases of life, childbirth, psychosocial development, disease, and even Catholic mass.  And of course all major works of drama, from Jaws to Shakespeare, can be reduced with uncanny accuracy into the same 5 Acts.

It's no surprise that whisky making follows the same uniquely human dramatic structure.

The Five Acts of Whisky Making

Malting:  In our exposition act, we are introduced to the main character in whisky - barley, and the setting - water.  The barley is soaked in warm water for several days and begins to germinate.  When the germination has produced the optimal amount of starch, it's time to end this act.  The barley is dried over peat fires, removing the moisture and stopping the germination.  Flourishing with starch, the barley is now called Malt.

Microscope View of Yeast Fermentation
Mashing:  The action begins to rise.  The starchy malt is ground down in the mill and again soaked in water.  The sugars in the malt separate from the fibrous material and form a thick liquid at the bottom of the mixture.  All the ripe sugars are now ready for the big event.

Fermentation:  In our big climax, the sugars in the barley are about to undergo an irreversible metamorphosis.  Yeast is added, feeding off these sugars and producing alcohol.  Yes, sadly, our hero Mr. Barley's fate is to be eaten by billions of unicellular yeast organisms and digested into ethanol.

Distillation:  As the plot winds down, the 'wort' or alcohol-laden water enters the copper stills and is vaporized several times, removing the impurities and separating the prime alcohol (cask strength: 60-70%).

Maturation:  Aka 'happily ever after', the distilled spirit sits in barrels by the seaside aging.  The oak barrels remove the tension of the alcohol and replace it with the pleasant sweet charred notes of the wood.  The result is the smooth and mellow dram that we will enjoy ten to thirty years later.

Bruichladdich - Philosophers & Craftsmen

The gents at Bruichladdich clearly take the dramatic art seriously.  Drawing their own parallel to the ancient Greeks, they dub themselves "Progressive Hebridean Distillers".  (Evidently what they lack in chemical additives and computerized modernization they make up for in vocabulary).  Apparently the ancient Greeks considered the Hebrideans (Scottish Islanders) a mythical land of "Lords of the Isles – hybrid Viking - Gaelic warriors who ruled the west coast and islands of Scotland by sword and by longboat."  Ok, big shoes to fill if that's where you're setting the bar.  What this means to Bruichladdich is that everything is grown, plucked, picked, burned, boiled, mashed, milled, malted, aged, and bottled by hand from local ingredients in Scotland, preferably from Islay, and preferably organic.

Bruichladdich in April
When it comes to whisky making at Bruichladdich, each act is conceived, rehearsed, and portrayed in meticulous detail.  Their protagonist is pure Scottish barley.  Their goal is to use one hundred percent organic barley, which would make them unique among distilleries.  The setting: pure spring water from Octomore farm on the hills behind their warehouse.  The fairytale ending is a barrel aging process that takes place right in Islay, unlike many of the larger distilleries who age barrels en masse in other, undisclosed locations.  Think of Bruichladdich as the Daniel Day-Lewis of whisky theater.  They fight tirelessly against corporatization, mass-production, and globalization, immersing themselves deeply into the art of the craft, personalizing every detail of the role.

The Port Charlotte line is Bruichladdich's peated scotch whisky.  It was started ten years ago, with the first bottling, PC 5 (for Port Charlotte 5 year) released in 2006.  Each year they have released another generation (PC 6, 7, 8, 9, 10) all bottled at cask strength.  This year, the tenth anniversary of their first run, they have released a standard proof bottling called Port Charlotte The Ten Year.  Bruichladdich also makes an eponymous brand that is un-peated.  It's described as "elegant, floral, complex, un-peated."  More interesting to us beast-lovers, Bruichladdich makes Octomore - which has an age-old battle with Ardbeg for the world's peatiest malt.  (Octomore's 5.1 bottling currently holds that title with an astonishing 169 phenol parts per million).  So far we've been unable to obtain it.  Maybe if the folks at Bruichladdich enjoy this review, they'll send us a bottle (wink wink).

Ok enough background, let's take a sip.

Hubby's Tasting Notes

Appearance: Deep copper-gold.

Nose:  Very nutty, like opening a can of Planter's Cashews (my personal favorite), then a flash of hot spice, crushed red pepper, and a bit of black licorice.  This whisky definitely needs five to ten minutes to open up.  It started very sharp but then became smooth and balanced, with the alcohol present but not harsh.

Body:  The taste starts with a strong and sweet citrus burst very much like Meyer lemon.  The texture is mid-thick, between oily and dry with a pleasant meatiness.  This whisky is a good illustration of the distinction between peat and smoke flavor.  There is a healthy predominant peat flavor, but this is not a greatly smoky scotch.  Sip a little of this next to an Ardbeg for example and you'll immediately notice the vegetal, medicinal quality of the peat in the Port Charlotte as opposed to Ardbeg's deep campfire smokiness.

Finish:  Cherries and oak.  The smoke and peat level off very nicely.  There is a slight bitterness and antiseptic left on the tongue.  The smoke remains after this is gone.  It doesn't have the endless smoky remnants of an Ardbeg or Lagavulin, but it's a clean and enjoyable finish.

Wifey's Tasting Notes

Nose:  Sweet, cotton candy.

Body:  First sip, not a rave review.  The sweet, smoky, and peat flavors don't seem quite integrated together, almost like a sweet sherried barrel was mixed with a peated barrel without time to properly blend and age together.  Second sip: "Mmmmm."  Getting warmer.  Definitely unique, starting to enjoy this a lot more.  Perhaps the first sip was too quick, it needed time to open up.  A healthy dose of smoke, not crazy.  More cotton candy sweetness.

Finish:   Rich coffee mocha.

The Review

Do organic ingredients, hand-made craftsmanship, locality, and philosophy matter to you?  They matter to us, and we love to encourage this type of approach.  Of course it all boils down to taste and value.  At under $60 from Astor, this is a great value, especially for this level of attention to detail.  The taste is unique and remarkable.  It's not perfect.  We stand by our general feeling that thirteen to fourteen years is the critical time for a malt when something magical happens and the alcohol turns from fire into warmth.  We will say this is probably the best ten year scotch we've ever tasted and that bodes tremendously well for this distillery.  We hope that their craft approach continues and one day we see a PC14!  For now this bottle gets a SmokyBeast "B+".  We'll need to save the A marks for future bottles.  We're very glad to have experienced it and learned a little about the philosophy behind it.  No doubt it will be a natural conversation-starter when you break out this bottle and share the story with your friends, and the conversation is brought to new heights as you enjoy this whisky.

Cheers!  /SmokyBeast


  1. Great blog. Great writing. Creative. Insightful. I hope to see your reviews circle back to some heavy Islay offerings. I'd love to see your thoughts on the PC7 Sin an doigh Ileach. I just bought my second bottle. A bit spendy, but it ranks up there as my second favorite Scotch.

    1. Thanks BE! We've definitely got some heavy heavy Islay malts coming up - signatory cask strength Laphroaig from K&L, a beauty of a sherried Port Ellen OMC that we'll be reviewing for our birthdays, and a couple of glorious indie Caol Ila bottles up on deck as well. Stay tuned! & keep up the great writing yourself :)