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Bruichladdich Octomore 9.1, 9.2 and 9.3

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.

Farmer James brown

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

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.

Score: 7/10

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.

Score: 9/10

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.

Score: 6/10

Conclusions

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. 

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. kallaskander says:

    Hi there,

    story telling vikingism elitisM … sigh.

    What has single malt come to and where and when will it end?
    And what about the content of the bottle? Never mind just listen and buy.

    Does nobody realise how much all that what single malts are standing for at the moment does feed up the punters and turns them away in disgust?

    A new generation of drinkers steps in but these millenials (whoever or whatever a millenial might be) have fleeting hearts and samesuch desires.
    Only one question left to ask: will the next whisky crash be accelerated by Brexit as well?

    And what about quality? Not needed as long as they buy the stuff.

    Greetings
    kallaskander

    1. Mark says:

      You’re almost as grumpy as us about it, kallaskander…

      There is quality out there, with simple information, but you just have to sift through even more Viking stories to find them.

  2. Franck says:

    I love a good story but they have come to overshadow the more important factors.

    Yes we’ve been fed a lot of hyperbole from them in the past too, I first balked a bit at seeing Dialogos on these new Octomores (but remembered they also the folks who served us Comus (Octomore 4.2)…sigh

    Talking out of both sides of theirs mouths isn’t unusual in this industry, age doesn’t matter until it does ($$), It’s the wood that matter the most, except when bourbon casks are cheaper, the list goes on.

    I would like to see, comparison information on different years, yields, what does this field provide over another, how are they distilled, what decisions are the crew making and why. All of this would serve us better than vikings and legends.

    Some pundits who serve the industry would paint some of us as surly bastards who don’t get the point, take whisky to seriously (perhaps we do) or don’t understand the woes of the industry.

    I think it mostly comes from a place of love and respect, for the product, the craft, the people & place…perhaps that is an unpopular notion.

    Ah screw it bring on the Hindu Deities edition beginning with Vishnu a set of four bottles, one for each arm!

    1. Mark says:

      Don’t tell me you’re after actual production information? Get outta here! I’d set Vishnu on you if he wasn’t busy crafting his next story.

  3. Mike says:

    I have to completely disagree with this. The 9.3 was by far the most impressive of the three IMO.

    Not that they aren’t all good, but I think that in the 9.2 the barley flavour in the spirit is almost drowned with (artificial) berry fnotes and had an acrid quality to the nose. A bit like cheap knock-off Islay whiskies, such as a bad year’s Ileach.

    The 9.1 was nice, but didn’t have that same salty quality, nor the farmyard barley flavour shine through. It was creamy and had a touch of vanilla, but didn’t taste anywhere near as unique or fresh as I’d expect for a whisky that costs upwards of £120.

    The 9.3 was a true experience. The salty, smoky, barley explosion tasted like I was on Islay in-between the farm and a beach, all with a touch of bonfire.

    Did you try it last? If so, I’d recommend giving it another go – I bought all three and the 9.3 is the only one I’m going to replace.

    Like the Islay Port Charlotte and the better Kilchomans, it really emphasises the young spirit in a positive way. Probably my whisky of the year, definitely my Islay whisky of the year.

    1. Mark says:

      Nice to see someone step forward to be so publicly wrong!

      Are you suggesting that I drink things incorrectly? In the wrong order?

      Really?

      I’m not sure I can trust the opinion of someone who celebrates inferior wood policies… An apologist for cheap wood.

  4. Mike Levaggi says:

    That’s a great deflection.

    In fact, I don’t pay as much attention to any of the information around the wood, age or provenance until after I have tried a whisky. I don’t want to be biased before I give something a go.

    Afterwards however, when I have made a first judgement, I will look into the background of each whisky, and I think what Bruichladdich are saying with 09.3 makes a perverse sort of sense. (I hadn’t read anything about the 09. series until I had tried all three at the whisky show – so my appraisal was objective)

    This one isn’t about the character of the wood as much as it is the provenance of the barley and it shines through in such a unique way. A few years ago, the perceived wisdom was that age was the major mark of quality, then the industry moved on to the wood, now everyone realises that it isn’t as simple as that. It’s the balance between everything.

    If a second-fill works better with a particular young spirit than a virgin or first fill does, then you should use it unashamedly. There isn’t a one-size fits all, for me; just look at the latest Glenrothes – excellent wood credentials, but uninspiring and overpriced sherried whisky. Or look at the excellent Macallan no.2, which is a triumph of young whisky and clever aging in quality wood.

    Which is something I thought you would appreciate in particular given you’re working for Waterford. You might spend an awful lot on wood, and sometimes that may make sense, but the barley is surely going to be just as important in your drams? One of the reasons I am excited about what you will have to offer.

    The fact is, the malted barley flavour comes across exquisitely in the 09.3, something that makes it very pure, and not surprising given it is the only one in the series where the barley is grown, and malted, on Islay.

    Although whisky is a matter of taste, this one’s a beauty IMO.

    1. Mark says:

      I’m not sure the provenance shines through – because it is a super-heated whisky. Any nuances of the barley have likely been obscured. Plus you can’t really compare and contrast like for like, because the cask compositions all different – in my opinion.

      I was in a tasting room at Waterford last month and sampled different single farms as different vattings – same cask types/proportions. The remarkable thing is that terroir is like an architect’s drawings, and the maturation is like the real building, extrapolating the plans that are there. Different drawings, different buildings. The maturation ameliorates, augments, enhances; you still need good wood to do this. Otherwise, why not just bottle new make spirit? Bruichladdich spent years trying to get rid of the influence of cheap casks – ACE-ing, as you know, back in the day.

      I agree with some of what you say, and am merely having fun because it’s the internet – I’m sure we could have a good ding-dong and a dram in person, which would be a lot of fun.

      My point fundamentally being two fold: if you want to taste the terroir, don’t superpeat it and don’t release comparisons from different variables (i.e. new wood and cask types). And if you want flavour, don’t bottle young whisky from old wood!

  5. Mike Levaggi says:

    Interesting analogy (If somewhat over-engineered ;p) and not something I have experienced as much.

    I think the terroir (hate this word) does shine through, and I think that is why it is less peated. (For an Octomore, anyway) That said, everyone is entitled to their own taste and opinion. It would be boring if everyone agreed!

    Sure we could definitely have a good discussion over a dram or two!

    I definitely agree with some of your opinions, I actually found your site after searching for why Laphroaig has gone down the pan, basically.

    As the dram that introduced me to Islay, Lore and Select are so bad. Though I do have two bottles of Quarter-Cask at home. Such a good quaffer and it was £26 on Black Friday.

    Have you tried the Kilchoman 2018 Founders Cask?

    1. Mark says:

      Why should terroir be a dirty word? It’s not our fault the whisky industry doesn’t understand it.

      But my philosophical challenge: what does the terroir of Octomore taste like?

      How does the barley compare to a previous vintage?

      What was the growing season like that year?

      No information presented. Very difficult to explore provenance or terroir, because they’re not sharing it or it is not known…

      I’ve been trying for months to work out my analogy!!

      Re: Kilchoman, I haven’t unfortunately. I need to actually revisit that distillery – I haven’t done so in a long time.

      1. Mike Levaggi says:

        I don’t hate the woprkd because of its meaning, more it is just a distinctly unattractive word linguistically and phonetically.

        I completely understand your point. And you’re right, it’s hard to know – we don’t get the information we get with e.g. wine and good / bad vintages, because so much changes between each expression and they never make the same Octomore twice! (Good for exploring, but shit if you really like one particular dram!)

        I just love the malted barley flavour in this Octomore. But I adored the 3y.o. Kilchoman in 2008, so I must be hugely partial to that almost unadulterated combination of barley, alcohol and peat!

        RE: Kilchoman 2018 – I can send you a sample if you fancy it? It’s really interesting.

        1. Mark says:

          I am a little privileged in where I work, because we have access to information, and are using data to help fast-track knowledge of terroir (a lovely word!); which highlights the massive gaps in other distilleries’ knowledge. The variables, the inconsistencies, the lack of traceability too. And the differences between what they say and what they do in production: what’s the point of the Islay barley whiskies now they’re a generic mix of farms? There is no terroir with those whiskies – and can they produce to respect terroir with so many inconsistencies? Questions I’d like answering – not that they are claiming terroir all that much these days. Probably doesn’t help that Kilchoman bought Rockside Farm either.

          Very kind gesture, many thanks. Alas my sample pile is too large, and I have just received samples of the World Whiskies Award for judging, so I probably wouldn’t get around to it until at least 2020 at this rate! It would sit in my cupboard being judgmental every time I opened the door.

  6. Joe says:

    You ‘forget’ to say octomore 9.2 spend one year in red wine Bordeaux cask, contrary to the octomore 9.1 and also that Bruichladdich gets its barley from Inverness.
    Terroir in whisky ? No, the barley is not a valuable ingredient enough. If It was the case, It wouldnt need spending years in wood.

    1. Mark says:

      Joe – on the cusp of saying some very silly things there. Barley makes single malt whisky the most complex spirit on the planet. I’d say that’s valuable. Now, I agree the industry doesn’t know much about terroir. That’s because they can’t produce with an eye to terroir. I refer you, at this stage, to my employers: https://waterforddistillery.ie/about/ – the only ones who can do it, and show it. In fact this weekend I’ve read a preliminary summary of our research project, in conjunction with Oregon State University, that demonstrates terroir in whisky. Guess what? Got bad news for you…

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