Once you set off on a journey into the world of whisky it will only be a matter of time before you come across peat. Peat is the source of the distinct smokey character that is so associated with the whisky of Islay and fellow island drams like Talisker and Highland Park. Though, while it is not normally associated with regions like Speyside and the Lowlands, it seems like more and more distilleries are producing peated variations of their spirit nowadays.
Peat is essentially decomposed plant-life that has built up over centuries in waterlogged conditions. If dug up (cut) and dried, it provides an excellent fuel source which proved invaluable in rural communities like the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. It comes into play in the production of whisky when damp barley must be dried in a kiln. The smoke from the peat fire is absorbed by the barley as it dries, giving flavour that lasts right through distillation. Probably all of Scotland’s distillers would have used this technique at one time but the arrival of the railway brought alternative fuel in the form of coal and largely put an end to the use of peat. Except of course, for distillers in places like Islay, for whom peat remains not only fuel for the kiln, but an essential ingredient.
Octomore is a (very) heavily peated single malt produced at Bruichladdich. The distillery was founded in 1881 but had a somewhat unsettled history before a group of private investors led by Mark Reynier bought the place in the early 2000s. In a bold move the new owners tempted Bowmore’s Jim McEwan to be their master distiller and production director. Under his guidance the distillery rapidly grew in popularity and began to gain a reputation for exceptional, characterful whisky with a bold appetite for experimentation. Reynier brought with him a philosophy that saw a strong focus on quality raw ingredients and an exploration of the wine concept of terroir – a French term used to describe the way an area’s climate, soil and terrain affect grapes and therefore, wine. Reynier saw no reason why the same should not apply to barley and scotch.
In 2012, the distillery was purchased by Remy Cointreau for around £58m but fortunately, the takeoever seems not to have affected the creative output of the distillery. The same pioneering spirit and commitment to terroir remain firmly in place.
Three main brands of single malt are produced… Unpeated Bruichladdich, heavily peated Port Charlotte and the most heavily peated whisky in the world… Octomore.
Octomore takes its name from a farm that sits above Port Charlotte. A farm which once hosted its own distillery. This expression is the 6.1 and is peated to a whopping 167 ppm (parts per million). To put that in some kind of perspective, Laphroaig and Ardbeg come in at 35 ppm and 50 ppm respectively. It should be noted however, that ppm is generally measured in the barley, pre-distillation and many factors in the production of whisky can reduce the peat influence. So, while Octomore may start out at a very high ppm level, the finished spirit doesn’t always come across smokier than it’s neighbours.
On the nose there’s… (wait for it)… Peat! Lots of it. Big, earthy Peat with Tar, Iodine and Creosote, burning Straw and Chargrilled meat. There’s a touch of the Coast also with Seaweed and Salty Air and some Vanilla and Cream notes as well. It’s really lovely stuff. On the palate there’s a burst of Smoke, Black Pepper and Salt. There’s Creamy Vanilla and a touch of Lemon & Lime. Wave after wave Earthy, Grassy peat smoke with Smokey Bacon and Barbecue Sauce. I taste a lot of peaty whisky but I can’t think of one where the peat does more. It seems to evolve constantly and continues to smoulder long after it’s gone down the hatch.
The Scores: About the scoring system
Smell: 20 / 20. What a nose. The earthiness of it is a joy. Excellent.
Taste: 20 / 20. Massive peat but with bags of complexity.
Value: 7 / 10. It’s a tough one this because Octomore certainly isn’t cheap coming in at around £95 a bottle but it seems ridiculous to say it isn’t good value for money when I’m enjoying it this much.
Overall: 47 / 50. I like to focus on the affordable on this site and have a bottle price limit of £100. Octomore sits right at that upper level so it has to be something special to justify the price. Fortunately, it is. It’s very special indeed. Not an every day dram perhaps but if smoke is your thing you really need to try one of these.