Bruichladdich distillery was built in 1881 by the Harvey brothers who had inherited Glasgow’s Yoker and Dundas Hill distilleries from their father William Harvey (III), who died in 1862 at the age of forty. The three bothers wanted to complete their hat trick of distillers so they effectively operated and ran a distillery each, pooling their interests in an attempt to dominate the whisky industry.
Designed by Robert Harvey (23) the building was mainly funded by William Harvey (32) with the third brother John (31) providing the distilling expertise. Their decision to build on the far flung Isle of Islay was largely driven by the invention of a revolutionary flat-bottomed steam boat. Known as the Glasgow Puffer, this transformed the shipping of bulky commodities around Scotland’s stormy west coast allowing shipping of coal and barley to Islay and making distilling at Bruichladdich economically viable. Bags of malted barley were shipped from the maltings at Inverness via the Caledonian Canal.
The brothers built Bruichladdich to run on an industrial scale, much larger than the existing farm distilleries on the island at the time, with a still hall proportioned to accommodate the six metre tall stills made by Bennet and McLaren of Glasgow. This Victorian state-of-the-art distillery was laid out around a central courtyard and designed to exploit the slope of the land with the mash tuns positioned above the tun room so reducing the need for pumping. It was constructed using then revolutionary new building methods such as cavity walls and concrete, made using pebbles from the foreshore in front of the distillery.
The idea was that the brothers would blend the combined production from their three distilleries to build a blending and bottling business. Sadly the brothers and various other small shareholders had put their faith in family ties with no formal written agreement thought necessary. Predictably the brothers fell out before Bruichladdich was even completed leaving Robert and William, neither of them a distiller, to run the new distillery on their own and independent of the other two distilleries. This greatly disadvantaged Bruichladdich as being an Islay malt only a relatively small amount was required for blending and the large blenders were already well supplied with Islay whisky.
Robert died in 1892 and William, a successful sugar broker, sued his estate for outstanding monies he’d loaned the business to keep Bruichladdich operating. He was awarded Robert’s Bruichladdich shares and by 1893 William controlled 51% of the stock.
Bruichladdich struggled to be profitable and in 1907 distilling was stopped and the distillery mothballed with substantial stocks of unsold whisky and large bank debts. In 1913, a Mr Robertson of Robertson & Baxter bought the whisky at a very cheap price but enough to pay off the bank. When war was declared the next year whisky prices started to increase so if only the Harveys had waited they would have been able to sell the whisky at a good price and restart production. As it was, during the war years (1914 to 1919) under the quota system they were not allowed to distil as they had no quota for the previous five years as the distillery had been mothballed.
After the war prospects look good due to general whisky stocks being depleted and production at Bruichladdich resumed in October 1919. The distillery worked steady until the interwar depression led to a slump in sales in 1926 eventually forcing the distillery to stop operating in 1929, once again with large bank depts and stocks of unsold whisky. After a fire in 1934, William Harvey and his children rejected calls from the rest of the family who wanted the distillery dismantled and the insurance money divided.
The distillery was restarted in 1935 after rebuilding works with the idea of its being sold as a going concern. After William Harvey’s death at the age of 87 in 1936, his youngest son, Kenneth, invalided from WW1 with shell-shock, took over as distillery manager.
Bruichladdich was sold to Joseph (Joe) Hobbs in 1937, a speculator who was acquiring assets in the run-down Scotch whisky industry, for just £8,000. Hobbs immediately sold Bruichladdich on for £23,000 to Associated Scottish Distillers (ASD), a company in which he had an interest.
Bruichladdich was refurbished in 1938 but the outbreak of war in 1939 led to Bruichladdich being mothballed for a third time between 1941 and 1945. Hobbs sold his interest in ASD for £38,000 to Train & MacIntyre, a subsidiary of National Distillers of America. Glasgow whisky brokers Ross and Coulter Ltd purchased Bruichladdich in 1952.
Following the end of from post-war rationing, the distillery was purchased by AB Grant in 1960 and in 1961 new owners closed the on-site malting as part of an output expansion which nearly doubled capacity with malt sourced from the Islay maltings at Port Ellen.
Invergordon Distillers then acquired Bruichladdich in 1968 and replaced the original spirit still in 1971. Capacity was again increased to 1.5 mlpa in 1975 with the addition of a twin set of wash and spirit stills
After a management buyout, a floatation and a hostile takeover bid, Whyte and Mackay succeeded in taking control of Invergordon in October 1993 leading to Bruichladdich being mothballed two months later due to being “surplus to requirements”.
Jim McEwan, Production Director at Bruichladdich
On 19th December 2000, a group of private investors led by Mark Reynier and Simon Coughlin acquired Bruichladdich for £6.5 million (US$10.3m) from Beam Inc. through Murray McDavid (an independent whisky bottlers). Mark persuaded Jim McEwan, the respected distiller, native islander and raconteur to leave his position as distillery manager at Bowmore, the Islay distillery where he started work at the age of 15 in 1963 as a cooper, to become Production Director at Bruichladdich.
By the time Mark and Jim were able to access and properly inspect the distillery in January 2001, it had been silent for seven years. To recommission the distillery they needed the help of someone who knew it well and they turned to Duncan MacGillivray who had started work at Bruichladdich as trainee stillman in 1974 Duncan MacGillivray before going on to become engineer, and then head brewer in 1978. He left in 1984 when production was dropped to a one day week but returned in 1990 and stayed until the distillery was mothballed in 1994. Reynier and McEwan persuaded Duncan to return to Bruichladdich for one last time as General Manager. He was tasked to use his engineering skills, improvisation and a shoestring budget to reinstate the distillery.
The distillery had never been modernised and most of the original Victorian equipment remained. Between January and May 2001 this was all dismantled and reassembled to return the plant to working order, augmented by the acquisition of some second-hand equipment. They started distilling again on 11th September 2001.
Although the distillery had not distilled whisky for almost eight years, when Mark and the investors purchased Bruichladdich with it came 1.2 million litres of whisky dating back to 1984. They needed to sell stocks to raise the money required to refurbish and run the distillery and the resulted in a huge number of bottlings. To quote Mark, “We would find a range of barrels which we thought intriguing and bottle them up. There was a certain degree of exuberance at discovering what stocks we had. Limited editions where easier to sell. We operated a hit and run tactic of aiming bottlings at specific markets.” They started releasing a wide variety of limited-edition bottlings in 2006, many of the whiskies being just six years old or younger. The result was a proliferation of Bruichladdich products.
In July 2012, Rémy Cointreau acquired Bruichladdich for £58 million (US$92.2m) and set about a much needed rationalisation of the range of Bruichladdich whiskies on offer.
Bruichladdich continues to operate in its original 1881 layout with much of the original Victorian equipment. It is the biggest private employer on the island with around 60 islanders directly employed. Duncan MacGillivray finally retired to his home in Port Charlotte in June 2014 following a career that spanned more than 40 years at the distillery.