Water of Life – Provenance matters
There are many factors that contribute to the creation of a whisky - there is maturation, wood and cask work, the distilling process and – not unlike it is the case with good wine – the terroir along with the local climate. While there are many great whiskies whose idiosyncratic character is defined by the provenance, it is safe to say that there is none like Octomore.
The etymology of Bruichladdich’s most heavily peated expression Octomore is an anglicised version of ‘Ochdamh-mòr’, derived from the name of the farmland in the hilly regions of Port Charlotte on Scotland’s Isle of Islay, where the barley for the distillery is grown from.
With its first bottling in 2008, Octomore has firmly established itself on the smoky and peaty firmament of whisky lovers, and its expressions since incarnated in usually four variations each, with the common denominator being that I have yet to come across one that does not offer an unrivalled complexity of layers offering so much more than the astronomically high phenol parts per million component would suggest.
New Octomore expressions are usually unleashed on a yearly basis with the variations of each being classified into four categories:
- .1 is distilled from Scottish Barley and matured in American Oak.
- .2 matured in European Oak and usually the most difficult to track down due to being a travel retail exclusive.
- .3 is all about Islay down to locally grown barley.
- .4 matured in virgin oak, and usually one of the more interesting variants of the quartet.
While up to Octomore 8.3, PPM levels were consistently upped and the character was mainly defined by smoke and peat, expression 9 and especially the 10 series saw an interesting departure – one that saddened me at the beginning but has since made me appreciate Octomore even more, i.e. the foot was taken off the peat and smoke gas and instead the focus was set more than ever on working out flavour nuances.
The benchmark pale golden 10.1 expression of the tenth series, was released after a five year maturation in American oak casks and while smoke is still dominant, what tickled the nostrils is a delicate melange of embers that carry characteristics of vanilla, citrus, leather, gingery baked apples, backed by the duality of syrup and sea salt, pervaded by subtle tropical fruity flavours.
What I have always liked about Octomore is that once you break through the smoke, unexpected flavours unfold, which in this case materialize on the top of the mouth via a chewy texture in form of honeyed oak, almonds, earthy moss and peppery vanilla, underlined by a divine industrial ashy oiliness – sound oxymoronic? Try it, I dare you!
Octomore 10.3 has been aged for six years, clocks in at 61.3% ABV at 114 PPM and things get even more interesting here: On the nose, it reminded me of smoky añejo tequila, tropical fruits, strawberry marmalade and smoke oysters.
What might sound slightly contradictive, starts to make sense on the palate where citrussy vanilla breaks through a barrier of ash, accentuated by peppered pineapples that give way to an elongated, reverberating finish.
Given its unorthodox character, I labelled the 10.3 the “summertime” expression – definitely unexpected, but delightfully so.
Octomore 10.4 takes things to the next level: Colour-wise, it is mind-blowing that a drop that has merely been aged for three years materializes with such a tawny shade due to being matured in virgin oak barrels, with Bruichladdich having refined their approach to how they calibrate their work with wood.
With merely 88 phenol parts per million, vanillin oaky smoke is still dominant but quickly gives way to molasses reminiscent of dark rum with highlights of balsamic vinegar and charred meat.
Not unlike with the other variants of the 10 series, there is a lot going on with the 10.4 as vanilla wood notes compete with peat and smoke, resting on a battlefield of charcoal, toffee and Indian relish.
Summa summarum: While I was sceptical at first because of the lower PPM levels, expression ten of the Octomore series is one of the most interesting ones and is testament to Bruichladdich’s commitment to not only blindly following tried and proven paths but to honour traditions and take things skilfully to the next level with how they channel their alchemy in the most refined manner.
I cannot wait to see what the Octomore 11 series has in store, which was just recently released.