Blah blah, Bruichladdich review number four thousand and sixty is imminent. If you don’t know my views, my discussions, my rambles and, because it’s the internet, my vast number of opinions on Bruichladdich, just hit up the Bruichladdich tag and look through the old posts, making sure to ignore anything Jason says (often a good rule in general, but specifically for Bruichladdich distillery).
There was a note with the press material to ignore the usual stuff and taste these blind, which is all the nudging I need to do less research and in fact go off on my own tangent. There was something about these being less peated Octomores, which for the world’s most heavily peated whiskies – that bar-room joke (“They want peat, all right then…”) that got out of hand and became a longstanding product range – is an interesting side-step. I’m sure there was some reasoning, but as I have been informed to look away from the usual information, a tangent it is.
Colour! When I posted the photos online, all four of these bad boys lined up together, more than a few people pointed at the one on the right, which was 10.4, and gasped at how a 3 year old whisky could have so much colour. I suppose I should highlight the fact that one of the PR hooks was that this contained one of the youngest Octomores released. A baby whisky, at 3 years old.
I’ve tasted virgin oak Octomore before – in fact, I had a secret one, which I talked about here – and it does amuse me to see the new wave of whisky folk, eagerly engaging with the community, still surprised at such specimens as virgin oak. It’s probably not surprising when you think about it, given the awful cask being shoved around the industry at the moment. Someone recently said to me that a colleague of theirs had been offered a seventh – yes, SEVENTH, I kid you not – fill cask. (What kind of world are we living in when this is doing the rounds, will inevitably be bottled, and some folk will be sitting there nosing the glass thinking yes I spent money on this?)
It’s the common vessel of that funny stuff, bourbon, virgin oak. American Virgin oak I should say, although I believe the Octomore today is French Virgin oak. Both types make for an excellent barrel type when you put good, robust single malt spirit in it. Terribly made single malt spirit won’t stand a chance – and we’ll hear all sorts of tales about the bluntness of a virgin oak cask, but that’s often because the spirit lacks any true character, any real presence of its own. Sure virgin oak needs moderation; sure it needs to be monitored. I’m sure those companies whose spirit ain’t all that would argue until they’re blue in the face that virgin oak is a cheat, that it’s a shortcut. But it is simply an excellent tool to have at hand, something to be used in a range of barrel types in any comprehensive wood policy.
It also adds a wonderful injection of colour, too, at a very young age. We have a good amount of virgin oak casks – French and American – at Waterford (hardly a surprise given our CEO resurrected Bruichladdich and put in a proper wood policy) and it’s amazing to see the intense darkness and aromas after just a few months. At Waterford we’re experimenting by ‘starting’ off casks in French virgin oak and then re-racking into ex-bourbon, just for fun, to see what it brings when you turbocharge its infancy and let it continue in something more mellow.
Yet with just a splash of this fresh, potent wood in a vatting with other cask types, not only does it make you think about the potential combinations; it really does make you wonder why many whisky companies still prefer to dump artificial additives – E150a, caramel colouring – in their whisky to bring ‘consistency’, or whatever excuse they have for a shockingly poor wood policy.
E150 is to me, as it probably is to you, an abomination. If you can’t be bothered to use anything but ‘refill’ casks (note how you never hear how many times it has been refilled these days), and your whisky looks like well-hydrated urine, then just a barrel or three of virgin oak spirit will at least make things more interesting. Although it’s cheaper and less of an effort to whack tired spirit in another barrel for a few months to finish it off.
Anyway, I digress, I meander, but that’s what happens when I’m told not to read the press material. What we have today is the new range of Octomores; less peat than usual, another range of wood types. All north of £100 (though at the time of writing, I don’t know what the 3 year old 10.4 will cost).
For reference, when it comes to colour, I tend to refer to the colour bar as featured on this ancient post. Which is why a lot of my colour observations tend to be similar – more my own personal calibration.
Octomore 10.1 – Aged 5 Years – 59.8% ABV – 107 PPM
Colour: pale gold.
On the nose: lovely: gentle vanilla over a toasted, buttery, linseed oil note. Malted milk biscuits. Iodine – traces of diesel oil. Chestnut mushrooms, a little hemp; baked apples in syrup. A hint of ginger.
In the mouth: less forthcoming than the nose, though the ABV does assist; a nice chewy texture as is the way with Bruichladdich. Vanilla indeed, with some warming ginger and cinnamon. The oiliness – industrial, dirty rather than ashy peat – is pleasing indeed. Smoked kippers in traces, with toffee, maple syrup; mossy, earthy, and really all rather well balanced.
Octomore 10.2 – Aged 8 Years – 56.9% ABV – 96.9 PPM
Colour: deep gold.
On the nose: this is more my thing. Hints of praline and cranberry sauce, with wood ash. Dried fruits: raisins, figs, retreating to redcurrant tartness (that red jammy poured over ice cream). Wet cut grass, Assam tea – it doesn’t reek of smoke in the slightest.
In the mouth: again, voluptuous, silky, delicious: the red fruits become blacker: cherries, blackberries, gateaux, even Tiramisu, but the smoke is here finally, more tea-like, tobacco, sweeter, than anything ashy (like one finds in so many indie Caol Ilas). Yet this isn’t overly rich or treacly – there’s a restraint about it. This is one of those Octomores that I can imagine would be my absolute go-to in the depths of winter and is, in fact, my favourite Octmore for some time.
Octomore 10.3 – Aged 6 Years – 61.3% ABV – 114 PPM
Colour: pale gold.
On the nose: we’re off with some weird citrus, lychee, tropical Octomore here, Octomore in linen shorts and flip-flops, even hints of some smokey Mezcal. Lime marmalade, mango, Lapsang souchong, smoked oysters; haybarns. This does not compute.
In the mouth: bright, much ashier than any of the others, with a citrus and vanilla-led spirit. Grapefruit and pineapple; even the texture here feels less of a thing than the others. A little too feinty (as opposed to feisty, spellchecker). Black pepper and cloves on a very long finish. I feel this one, perhaps by way of making a point, never really impressed with any finesse.
Octomore 10.4 – Aged 3 Years – 63.5% ABV – 88 PPM
On the nose: wood vs smoke: take that, peat! Intense vanillin-led punch, drifting towards maple syrup and molasses even. Borders on balsamic vinegar with Branston pickle. Sundried tomatoes. BBQ sauce. Can’t help but think it would be fun with a burger. If there is any peat it feels like blackened meat, a few seconds too long in the frying pan.
In the mouth: yes, as expected, quite a blast of woody vanilla with that peat actually now rivalling the wood. Coffee and burnt toast, perhaps a shade bitter. Charcoal. A heady damson chutney, full of brown sugar. HP sauce. Burnt toffee. Caramel. Kind of fun, perhaps too much to make a point, but this was never something that was about balance, complexity and so on. Balcones Brimstone fans will find much to enjoy.
First, what I do with all the Bruichladdich series at the moment, is to mix them all in one glass, just to see if the different cask types, vintages, peating levels and so on can contribute to something greater, more complex. And yes, it does: massively so in fact. A dash of the virgin oak brings plenty of colour too, not to mention another dimension, so use it sparingly. But then again, that’s perhaps the point as I raised above: a dash, no more, to give some ruddiness to its cheeks.
Secondly, I always say that the Octomore range is not my favourite in the Bruichladdich stable; neither are the Port Charlottes, even though I always buy more of them than perhaps most other whiskies period. These whiskies are more of the same, with some hits, some misses, but always interesting. So Octomore fans – and you’ll know if you are one or not – will find much to enjoy (but 10.2 is the best).
Yet as an observer of this distillery for more years than I care to remember, and as someone attuned to branding (which is not just a logo, or a company, but to paraphrase Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, a brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room), I can’t help but think everything at Bruichladdich is a bit too serious at the moment. There is a lot of peat, which for the non-peated Islay distillery is an interesting point. The less-peated options have been repackaged in a barley series that I don’t think quite sings properly. Classic Laddie is a footnote; as it embraces its Islay-ness it inevitably becomes more inward-looking. There’s a lot of darkness – the brand colouring, imagery – to accompany the peat and the seriousness and it’s all just a bit gloomy right now, as if they’re catering to a niche crowd of Scandiwegian metal-loving peat-heads.
There’s the odd cheeky tweet, sure; but where’s the joie de vivre?
Just a personal reaction. A vibe, nothing more.
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