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Outside of barley, yeast and water, peat can be one of the biggest factors in the flavour of single malt. It is the source of the distinct smoky character so associated with the whisky of Islay and while it is not normally linked with regions like Speyside and the Lowlands, more and more of today’s distillers are producing peated variations of their whisky.
Peat is essentially decomposed plant life that has built up over centuries in waterlogged conditions. If dug up and dried, it provides an excellent fuel source which has proved invaluable in rural communities like those in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. It is used in the production of whisky to dry the barley after malting, and the pungent smoke it releases is absorbed into the grain, providing an aroma and flavour which lasts right throughout the distillation process. It is likely that all of Scotland’s distillers would once have dried their barley in this way but the arrival of alternative fuels like coal cut back on the use of peat. Except of course in distilleries like those on Islay, where the peat reek has become an essential component in the nature of the whisky.
Octomore is a ‘super’ heavily peated single malt whisky produced at the Bruichladdich distillery. Founded in 1881 on the Rhinns of Islay, by the shores of Loch Indaal, Bruichladdich has something of an unsettled past. Since the early 2000s however, the distillery has enjoyed a new lease of life following its takeover by a group of investors led by Mark Reynier.
Reynier managed to tempt Bowmore’s Jim McEwan to come and act as their master distiller and production director and, under his guidance, the distillery soon began to gain a reputation for exceptional whisky with a bold sense of experimentation at its heart.
Today, Bruichladdich is now owned by Remy Cointreau and produces three individual single malt brands. The original, unpeated Bruichladdich, a heavily peated Port Charlotte and the aforementioned Octomore, said to be the most heavily peated whisky in the world.
Octomore takes its name from a farm that perches on the hillside above Port Charlotte. Once the site of a distillery, the farm now provides the source of water used at the distillery for bottling purposes.
The Octomore single malt is released in coded batches, with the latest being version 06.1. To make the whisky, the maltster has smoked the barley to a phenol count of 167 ppm (parts per million), a huge number when compared to other heavily peated drams like Ardbeg who peat to around 50ppm. It must be noted, however, that this number applies to the barley itself and not the spirit. Many factors can cause a reduction in phenolic content throughout the distillation process, such as size and shape of the still, fill levels and speed of distillation. So, while the Octomore may carry a bigger number than any other, it does not necessarily follow that the whisky itself is dominated by smoke.
Smell: 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.
Taste: A dramatic burst of Smoke, Black Pepper and Salt. There’s Creamy Vanilla and a touch of Lemon & Lime. Wave after wave of Earthy, Grassy peat smoke with Smoky Bacon and Barbecue Sauce. I taste a lot of peaty whiskies but I can’t think of one where the peat does more. It seems to evolve constantly and continues to smoulder long after the dram has gone down the hatch.
Thoughts: It’s difficult to talk about Octomore as a value for money purchase. Most would think £95 is excessive for a whisky of a mere 5 years old. In all honesty, though, I’ve had whiskies four times as old that don’t come anywhere near the experience of drinking an Octomore. It’s not one I buy very often (I can’t afford to!) but it’s nice to treat yourself every now and again and boy is Octomore a treat! Maybe steer clear if you’re not a peat-head but for those who love a bit of smoke, this is about as close to perfect as whisky gets. Utterly magnificent.