The Bruichladdich distillery is Islay’s most radical and its innovative practices have brought to bear over 130 different whiskies since the new ownership took the helm at the turn of the millennium; by no means is this your traditional, old fashioned Islay Scotch distiller.
With this in mind, it seems almost odd that Scotland’s oldest pot still is to be reinstated at the distillery and returned to its former grandeur once more. “Wash Still Number One” was originally commissioned in 1880 by the Harvey brothers – the founders of Bruichladdich.
A typical still in a Scotch distillery will have a working life of around 40 years, and even that seems a long time for a thing permanently atop the equivalent of a gigantic gas hob. The lifespan is so long because a distiller upholds an almost holy reverence for his or her stills, deeming their shape and size to be crucial to the alchemy of Scotland’s great spirit. In fact, during the manufacture of a replacement still, dents and blemishes are often meticulously replicated in a bid to retain the exact nature of the predecessor.
At 130 years of age, it’s hardly surprising that the wash still has lost its sheen; its copper walls have been dulled by well over a century of age. In fact, to see it out of the confines of the still house one would be forgiven for thinking it was some grand, archaic piece of diving equipment studded with Victorian rivets, its sides strewn with matt turquoise oxidation.
Over years of nearly constantly holding boiling wash, a still’s copper walls are inclined to erode and thin. The remarkable thing about Bruichladdich’s Wash Still is its impressively thick base and astonishingly sturdy construction. Its survival was also thanks to the great financial hardships that the distillery went through. The result being the still was used much less than would have otherwise been the case. So, by the time the less invasive internal steam coils were fitted during the 1950s the thing was in pretty good shape.
For posterity, the still has been tested and refurbished where necessary by Forsyths of Rothes, one of just two Scottish coppersmiths still in existence. The coppersmith declared Wash Still Number One to be of sound build and it is now being returned to the Laddie still house, where its siblings have tall, swan-like necks: The Harvey brothers wanted a more “elegant” whisky, less like the raw, thick spirit produced on other Islay distilleries, and the tall, thin necks were found to be more graceful, both aesthetically and practically.
As the still begins its next stint of working life one wonders how long it must toil before retirement. Bruichladdich’s Mark Reynier says it will “carry on distilling for, who knows, another century” and over the course of its twilight years it is hard to say what spirit it will see, and what its produce will become. Massively peated, or gentle and light, matured in a First Growth wine cask or a rum barrel! With Bruichladdich it is impossible to tell, but one thing is certain, Wash Still Number One’s spirit will certainly continue to make headlines…
– The Chaps at Master of Malt –