Jim McEwan, distiller of Bruichladdich whisky in Scotland, has an unusual way of eating raw oysters. No lemon, Tabasco sauce or mignonette for him. He douses the bivalves with a splash of Bruichladdich Peat, a robust single malt. You could say it's an edible tribute to Islay, the island off the western coast of Scotland known for briny sea breezes and the smokiest spirits on the planet.
If you're a fan of Islay malts, you are familiar with such names as Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Bowmore, the big kahunas of the tiny place, which is pronounced EYE-lah. Bruichladdich, by contrast, is more akin to a boutique winery, independently owned by McEwan and three partners, two of them veterans of the wine trade.
So if you need an excuse to sip rich Scotch whisky in springtime, consider McEwan's oysters à la Islay.
I was to meet with McEwan in Toronto a couple of weeks ago, but his trip was thwarted by the airline mess caused by the Iceland volcano eruption. He sent the next best thing: samples of his Bruichladdich line of whiskies, which I tasted with representatives of his Ontario agency, Free House Wine + Spirits Ontario (416-551-8135).
In the hands of large corporate interests until it was mothballed in 1994, Bruichladdich - pronounced brook-LADDY-dee - was bought by McEwan and his partners in 2000 and restored to its Victorian-era glory. It is the smallest distillery on Islay and its whiskies stand out for their rich viscosity, subtle sweetness and rounded profile. Not as punchy with iodine as Laphroaig or Lagavulin, they're just as robust, the stuff of after-dinner sipping (when you're not slurping them with oysters).
All the whiskies are bottled at 46-per-cent alcohol, richer than the standard 40 per cent. They're also free of chill-filtering, a common practice that clarifies the spirit so that it doesn't turn cloudy on ice but tends to strip out some of the pleasantly oily texture.
Bruichladdich Peat ($74.95 in Ontario, product No. 165324; $76.99 in B.C.; $70.49 in Alberta) is a bargain compared with the popular Lagavulin 16-Year-Old ($109.95 in Ontario). And while it carries the same peat content - 45 parts per million - there's less of a Band-Aid-like, medicinal quality to it and more of a pure smoke character, which comes from the grain-drying process over peat-fuelled fires. I love the sweet, fruity core and vanilla essence of this whisky, which also tastes ever so subtly of roasted meat and cracked pepper.
If you live for the salty-briny quality of Islay whiskies, you might prefer Bruichladdich Laddie Classic Edition 01 ($79.95 in Ontario, No. 178384; $70.49 in Alberta), which comes in an unconventionally modern-looking, blue-frosted-glass bottle. You don't need oysters with this one; the flavour of the sea is already in the whisky.
And if you like them peaty, don't miss Bruichladdich Octomore Orpheus ($209, No. 172924, available only online in Ontario through www.vintages.com; click on Vintages Latest). It's the whisky world's big smoky monster, with 140-parts-per-million peat content, the smokiest on Earth. For a bigger mouthful of smoke, you'd have to kiss a chimney.
If you'd rather spend time around a barbecue now that the weather's warming up, let me recommend Road 13 Rockpile 2008 ($24.99 in B.C.; also available in Alberta). The full-bodied B.C. red is a surprisingly harmonious blend of numerous grapes, including syrah, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel. Creamy in texture, it boasts an almost-sweet core, with concentrated flavours that hint at dark-skinned fruit and vanilla.
Also perfect for grilled meats is Torre Quarto Bottaccia Uva Di Troia 2006 from Italy ($15.95 in Ontario, No. 161737). Uva di troia is an obscure red grape native grown mainly in the southern Italian region of Puglia. Full-bodied, the wine is packed with sweet cherry, tobacco and coffee-like flavour, with a firm, crisp finish.
Pick of the week
If you live for the salty-briny quality of Islay whiskies, you might prefer Bruichladdich Laddie Classic Edition 01 ($79.95 in Ontario, No. 178384; $70.49 in Alberta).
Bruichladdich Peat ($74.95 in Ontario, product No. 165324; $76.99 in B.C.; $70.49 in Alberta) has a pure smoke character, which comes from the grain-drying process over peat-fuelled fires.
Road 13 Rockpile 2008 ($24.99 in B.C.; also available in Alberta) is a surprisingly harmonious blend of syrah, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel.