If you’re exploring the world of whisky it won’t be long before you come across peat. Those whiskies that smell smokey and medicinal? It all comes from peat! It’s a style strongly associated with the distilleries of Islay and other island drams like Talisker and Highland Park. Having said that, the peaty style has become so popular that there aren’t too many distilleries who don’t have a peated expression these days. Even traditionally unpeated ‘regions’ like the Lowlands and Speyside have their fair share of peated drams. I thought it might be good to talk about peat and how it affects whisky and of course, to review a peated whisky…
First we have to look at what peat is and why it is used in whisky. To put it simply, peat is decomposed vegetable matter that builds up over centuries in water-saturated conditions. When dug up (or cut) and allowed to dry out, it burns well and has thus been used as a fuel source for generations – particularly in rural and cut-off areas like Islay. When making whisky you must first malt the barley which involves soaking and then drying it. Peat was a natural fuel source to heat the kilns for drying and when peat burns, it produces a pungent, smokey ‘reek’ which is absorbed into the barley. This character will remain right through the distillation process and flavour the finished whisky. Other whisky ‘regions’ like Speyside and the Lowlands weren’t so dependent on peat due to the arrival of the railway and with it, access to coal. So it was that this smokey, medicinal character became the signature of many an island and highland whisky.
Today these areas are not so dependent on peat as a fuel (although it is still commonly used) and distilleries could use alternative methods to dry barley but it has become such an intrinsic part of these whiskies that they would be changed beyond all recognition. Peaty whisky is a wonderful accident that came from distillers using whatever resources they had to hand and now, even though other resources may be available, you’d be hard pushed to find better tasting or more distinctive whisky than that made from barley dried over a peat fire.
Octomore, produced at Bruichladdich distillery on Islay, is one such whisky. The story of Bruichladdich is an interesting one, the distillery was originally founded in 1881 but has had a somewhat unsettled history with many different owners and frequent periods of closure. This came to an end when the distillery was bought in December 2000 by a group of private investors led by Mark Reynier. In what would prove to be a crucial move they managed to tempt Bowmore’s Jim McEwan over to be their master blender and production director. Under this new leadership the distillery grew from strength to strength, quickly gaining a reputation for exceptional, characterful whisky coupled with a bold sense of experimentation that saw multiple bottlings and limited editions come and go – a waking nightmare for completist collectors! Their philosophy saw a strong emphasis on good quality raw ingredients and a focus particularly on the barley used. Bruichladdich are quite unique amongst Scotch distillers in their exploration of ‘terroir’ – a term used in French wine production to describe how an area’s climate, soil and terrain affect the grapes and therefore, the wine. If it works for grape and wine, why not for barley and whisky?
In 2012, much to the dismay of Mark Reynier, investors voted to accept an offer from Remy Cointreau to buy the distillery for £58m. Fortunately though the takeoever doesn’t seem to have had too much of an effect on the output of the distillery. The pioneering spirit and commitment to terroir remain in place. Today, all of the barley used in production is Scottish. 8 farms on Islay alone grow barley for them! In fact, Bruichladdich is the largest private employer on the island with as many as 80 people working for them. They produce three main bottlings… Bruichladdich is unpeated, Port Charlotte is heavily peated and Octomore… Octomore is the most heavily peated whisky in the world.
Octomore is named after the farm of the same name that sits on a hill above Port Charlotte and which itself used to house a distillery. I’m reviewing Octomore 6.1 which is peated to 167 ppm – ppm means ‘parts per million’ and is the best measurement of peat content in barley. To put this in some kind of perspective, Laphroaig and Ardbeg – traditionally thought of as the giants of the peat world – come in at 35 ppm and 50 ppm respectively. However, there’s more to it than just peat content in barley: distillation will have a huge say in the final product as size and shape of the Pot Still is key. During whisky production, the smoked barley is used to create a strong beer called ‘wash’ which will then be boiled in a Pot Still. Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water so will separate and rise as steam before travelling down a pipe known as the lyne arm and being cooled back to liquid form again. The taller the still, the harder it is for the heavy peat notes to rise. Bruichladdich has very tall stills for example, while Laphroaig has very short, stocky stills. So while the ppm’s seem an ocean apart to begin with the finished whisky is much less so.
Maturation will also play a significant role – peat will fade the longer whisky rests in a cask (so if you’re looking for that big peaty hit – young is often best). This particular Octomore was matured for just 5 years, so shouldn’t have lost much. It’s been bottled at cask strength of 57% ABV and at natural colour with no chill filtration.
On the nose I get… (can you guess?)… Peat! Lots of peat. Big, earthy peat with tar, iodine and creosote, burning straw and char-grilled meat. There’s a waft of the coast with seaweed and salty air and some Vanilla and Cream notes as well. It’s really lovely stuff. It arrives on the palate with a burst of smoke, black pepper and salt. There’s creamy vanilla again and perhaps a subtle touch of lemon and lime. There’s wave after wave of that earthy, grassy peat smoke with touches of smokey bacon, barbecue sauce and paprika. I’ve tried a lot of peaty whisky and I can’t think of another dram where the peat does more. It seems to change constantly and just rolls on and on – even after it’s gone down the hatch.
The Scores: About the scoring system
Smell: 20 / 20. What a nose. The earthiness is a joy. I get the same notes in the Port Charlotte bottlings but this is another level. Excellent.
Taste: 20 / 20. Massive amounts of peat but with bags of character and complexity. All thanks to those tall Bruichladdich stills.
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.
High marks then. To clarify, I have a sort of unofficial price limit of £100 a bottle on this site which puts Octomore right at the higher end. But I have to say, within that £100 price range this is good as it gets. Frankly, the price tag is the only thing preventing full marks across the board. So while its maybe not an everyday dram, if peat is your thing and you feel like treating yourself you really need to try one of these.