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Super-heavily peated whisky
Octomore single malt whisky is the creation of Bruichladdich distillery’s former production director Jim McEwan, a veteran of the industry with more than 50 years experience. Developed as a response to accusations of illegitimacy from those who felt all Islay malt should be heavily peated, the barley used to create Octomore achieved higher ppm (parts per million) levels than anything seen before in the production of Scotch whisky.
Named after a farm that once housed a distillery of its own on the hillside above Port Charlotte on the isle of Islay, this super-heavily peated whisky was first distilled on the 23rd of September 2002. The first bottling arrived in 2008, malted to a peating level of 80.5 ppm. By the 2nd edition, it had reached 140 ppm. The 6th and 7th achieved 258 ppm and the 08.3 bottling came in at a whopping 309.1 ppm.
The problem with a never-ending pursuit of higher and higher numbers ,however, is that sooner or later a ceiling will be met and there will only be one direction in which to go from that point onward. Whether Bruichladdich have now reached that summit isn’t entirely clear but at least for the moment, they seem content with what has been achieved in terms of numbers, with recent batches dropping back down to levels less than 200 ppm.
Any whisky marketed (intentionally or otherwise) on numbers runs the risk of becoming something of a gimmick, with consumers buying it for the figures on a label as opposed to the contents of the bottle. One could never accuse Octomore of being anything other than an excellent single malt whisky, it does seem that Bruichladdich themselves have acknowledged this fact with their latest batch.
As with other releases, Octomore batch 10 is split into four distinct bottlings. 10.1 is produced from Scottish barley, peated to a relatively low 107 ppm and matured predominantly in American Oak. 10.2 is produced from barley peated to 96.9 ppm and finished in European Oak Sauternes casks. 10.3 meanwhile, is produced from 100% Islay-grown barley, peated to 114 ppm and aged for six years in first fill American Oak. Finally, the 10.4 was produced from barley malted to 88 ppm (the lowest since the first batch more than ten years ago) and matured for just three years in Virgin Oak casks.
With this apparent decrease in ppm levels Bruichladdich are asking their devoted followers to change their thinking where Octomore is concerned; to forget the numbers on the label and consider the liquid on its own merits. It goes without saying, however, that a cost of £175 a bottle gives this whisky a bit of a mountain to climb in order to justify its asking price.
Octomore 10.3 Islay Barley is produced from grain grown on Octomore Farm, harvested in 2012 and distilled the following year. It is matured in warehouses on the island before being bottled at Bruichladdich, un-chill filtered and colouring free at a strength of 61.3%.
Smell: Barley flour, cereal and sawdust. Vanilla. Caramel. Orange & lemon. Pineapple. Smoky bacon. Burning straw. Coal cinders. Liquorice.
Taste: Barley extract. Shortbread & buttered scones. Sea salt & pepper. Honey. Green apples. Orange juice. Earthy peat and bonfire smoke.
Thoughts: Octomore has never been affordable. The first bottle I bought was £95, the next was £125. When paying that kind of money for whisky, I try to find reasons to justify its cost. Exceptional quality is a given but something else is required, like rarity for example. Or age. In the case of Octomore, I’ve told myself that there were extremely high costs involved in its production. Especially where the Islay Barley releases were concerned. After all, we’re describing a process that involves growing and harvesting barley on Islay, then shipping it to a maltster in the Northeast of Scotland where it has to be smoked for three or four times the industry norm, then shipped back to Islay to be turned into whisky. Throw in good quality, expensive casks and you have a lot of expense going into the making of the thing. That said, even taking all that into account, I would struggle with paying £175 for a young single malt. Albeit one bottled at cask strength. In order to make that work, the whisky would have to absolutely blow me away. Sadly, I’m not sure it does, this time around.
The latest batch of Octomore seems to have dialled down the intensity of the experience. In its place we get a harmonious balance between grain, peat and wood. The problem is, the resulting spirit doesn’t really feel like Octomore, to me. The depth I’ve come to expect is strangely absent and the spirit unusually lightweight. Despite its high strength, it didn’t take water particularly well, instead it became even more delicate on the palate.
Now, I don’t care what numbers are on the bottle. 100 ppm or 300 ppm – I couldn’t care less, but what I crave in a dram of Octomore is an intensity of experience that nothing in the world of Scotch whisky can match. The memory of my first sip of this stuff will stay with me ’til the day I die but sadly, I suspect I will forget batch 10 within a few months. That doesn’t mean it is bad whisky, it most certainly isn’t, it’s just a new interpretation of this dram that doesn’t quite chime with me. I have to commend Bruichladdich for trying new things with it, but this one wouldn’t have me reaching for my wallet. Maybe the next one will.
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