Insert another unique introduction to Bruichladdich. Look, I’ve said all there is to say about Bruichladdich now, in the forty million reviews I’ve written about their whiskies, so I shall jump straight onto an interesting notion about barley or something. Because yes! We have a rare barley-focussed producer. Imagine that! A single malt producer that is genuinely interested in malted barley.
Except for that’s probably not a good angle, because these are peated whiskies – massively peated whiskies, in fact – which tends to steer one’s mind away from considerations of the grain and terroir and vintages. Perhaps that’s why this line up of Octomores – version 9.X – has me raising an eyebrow or two, and I only have two, with regards to a couple of words in the accompanying material. I should probably say at this stage if you want to read a fairly wonkish interview with the two key production guys at Bruichladdich, Allan Logan and Adam Hannet, read this from last year. Then come back here as a more enlightened being.
Now, I used to love the Laddie Islay Barley series, way back in the day, as it used to be barley from one farm. Indeed, that’s one of the things I commented on in that interview. Kilchoman does it now and then (though seems to me to be caught up in some strange arms race with Bruichladdich to be the most Islay-Islay whisky. I even noticed them hijacking the #WeAreIslay hashtag). Same with Springbank Local Barley, which comes out now and then. Same with the Cotswolds Distillery’s first release. Single farm barley is a very good start.
(Of course, of course, the Waterford model is this on a massive scale, I’ll shoehorn in here – single farm distillations around the year. But the difference here is that the focus is not the romance of the farm for the sake of it – which is still quite nice and important in its own way – but capturing different flavours through an understanding of terroir. I have a bit of a unique feeling on this – so of course it skews my thinking.)
But this post isn’t about terroir. And perhaps… well, that’s actually my point a bit.
I like knowing where my products come from. Be it cheese or beer. Who doesn’t? I’m a fully signed-up member of the middle classes, so of course, I’m in that luxurious position of being able to demand such things in my drink. That the majority of Irish whisky uses ingredients from overseas, or Scotch whisky uses ingredients from outside of Scotland, and that both industries get away with it is annoying. That they get away with not caring about the fact is a greater sin. Imagine that can’t-be-arsedness in any other industry. But provenance is the first step on the journey to whisky becoming something more special – because god only knows, there’s very little of it about.
So my first quibble isn’t a quibble at all, but perhaps a challenge to all distillers of provenance-based spirits: how about you start telling me more about that crop? What was the harvest like – what did that do to the grain? What was Octomore farm like that year? Was the spirit particularly good then? Did you get more flavour? We have a collective responsibility to educate whisky drinkers on these nuances, rather than just state them; otherwise, we’ll continue to be dealt a shitty story by other brands for decades to come. So how good was the spirit from that barley? Better than another? What do you think? We want to know – I certainly do. Some sort of qualitative information would be useful, would it not? Look at how Château d’Yquem talks about its vintages. I like that stuff. I like it a lot, and once you get caught up in that mindset it’s difficult to look at whisky in the same light.
I realise that by now probably only our Adam is reading things, so…
I had an actual niggle, which was really about the suggestion in the Bruichladdich press material that milder casks – that is to say, re-use casks – are about letting the barley shine a bit more: “second-fill, the gentler influence of the wood allows more of the locally grown barley flavours to cut through”. That undermines the rest of the emphasis on terroir by implying – unintentionally, perhaps, but I am a git – active casks obscure differences in new make flavours. One has to be very careful with language. Different terroirs interact with active wood in their own ways – otherwise, all distillates would end up tasting the same after a decade. The wood augments what’s there; it takes a set of flavours from the terroir and runs with it (if you’re lucky enough to have experienced this sort of thing, which I do on a monthly basis, and it is fascinating).
And as Adam pointed out in one of his wonderfully rambling bourbon reviews, I can’t remember which (they’re all annoyingly jolly good rambles), but if you put two different bourbon distillates into even something like super-powered virgin oak, well, you still get very different whiskies! And if you’re going to talk about letting the barley flavours shine through, perhaps that phrase might have been best saved for something that didn’t have ultra-uber-OTT-peat levels? Use that phrase for something that would have been unpeated, perhaps? But it’s not the production side’s fault, of course. They just crack on. And it’s not anyone’s fault. We’re poking at the fine details.
So yes grumble-grumble, yes, but let’s face it, this is the fun end of things, the extreme edge of wonkishness, and I merely tease, question, ponder, poke one of my favourite distilleries, because isn’t that what it’s all about? Rather than rolling over and thinking the world is full of rainbows and light? And because I don’t want to sit here and say, “Yay, free whiskies!” and spaff out some tasting notes, which would be the easy thing to do.
And which I shall now do.
Octomore 9.1 – Review
Colour: pale gold.
On the nose: a lovely elegance, and softness – curiously, despite the peat levels, despite the high ABV. More barley-driven: a huge maltiness, earthiness, farm-yardy kind of note (more so when the glass is agitated). Beyond that: the peat is more like an Assam, a strong black tea. Heather honey. Old English roses. Come to it later still: baked scones, a little ginger maybe.
In the mouth: gorgeous, mouth-filling creaminess (madam); surprisingly gentle, and for all of the flavour components: vanilla led, but there’s a brightness about it rather than a sickliness; black tea, more Lapsang Souchong now. That barley component is still bold; merges with the peat, so I have found over the years with Octomore and Port Charlotte, that one can’t quite discern where the maltiness ends and the smoke begins. The velvety texture lingers somewhat: it’s slightly cloying, it’s still filling – right at the end. A lovely umami note, balancing out. But the flavours are mellow, they’re not bold; there is nothing in your face here, at all. And perhaps that’s slightly disappointing.
Octomore 9.2 – Review
Colour: russet, much darker.
On the nose: There’s potentially a dollop of funky sulphur here, burnt matchsticks; but I am often fine with such things, as I am here. The other aromas are bold enough to jostle with it for attention: redcurrants galore, a touch of ketchup, balsamic vinegar: the sweet and acidic balancing out nicely. The peat is a little ashier here. Prunes. Barbecue meats. Smells like my kind of thing…
In the mouth: The funk is there still, just a tickle of sulphur, hidden mostly beneath (or complementing, perhaps?) the peat and the cranberry sauce. Moving into damson and plum jam, something richer and headier. And that funk and the peat and the sweet jams – a balsamic glaze now – actually work really well together. Slightly cloying, puckering. Chinese Five Spice. Cloves. A lovely rounded texture. It’s more fun, more funk, more ‘fuck you’; an Octomore with its hair down. A hoot – but only if you like the weirder things in life.
Octomore 9.3 – Review
Colour: yellow to pale gold.
On the nose: nowhere near as impressive as the others. Shotgun smoke, slightly metallic. Briney. Pungent seaweed notes. Lemon sponge, just a touch though. Olive oil. The citrus notes linger with some mealy, digestive biscuits. Then that shotgun smoke returns – gun metal, lead pellets spraying.
In the mouth: again, a little too sour; the raw peat becomes ashier and not as much fun, the casks haven’t interacted as much with the spirit, translating what was in that spirit. Black tea, Assam. Smouldering. Citrus notes come forth, but gently. Walnut oil. Hazelnuts, but then… it’s not all that complex. The ashiness isn’t transcended; it dominates, and not in the best way. A light, floral honey on the back end. £175 seems an awful lot for these flavours, in comparison with the other two ace drams. I think half of the issue is that these mega peated whiskies need fresh wood, rather than second-fill.
Also, there’s something about Bruichladdich using second-fill casks and shouting about it that doesn’t sit well with me. When the distillery was resurrected in 2001, they inherited a load of inactive casks, and spent years putting the whisky into fresh, good, interesting wood. ACE-ing. Finishing. Whatever. It was pioneering for the time, but commonplace now. So for them to go back to old wood and make a thing of it? I dunno… Nothing wrong inherently, just feels a touch off message.
Buy the 9.2, is what I’m basically saying; it’s terrific if you just want that intense flavour ride, which is what these whiskies are all about. So crack on. The 9.3 is asking a lot, though; single farm it may well be, but a good whisky? I can’t say it is, with my hand on heart.
But I still love what is being produced at Bruichladdich – I just bought and enjoyed the new Port Charlotte MRC: 01, which I should probably review soon – but not the 9.3.
Note: yes, samples were sent, not because Mark has spent years throwing his cash at the distillery, but… well, who knows why. But neutrality remains a valid concern and is demonstrated by our standard Malt grumpiness when it comes to samples.