The girl just wanted a nosh and a lie down! Who hasn’t been there?
However, in an environment designed for big and burly bears, the options available to her were a bit lacking. The bears are not to blame, of course; they had created food and furniture to suit themselves. However, I can’t help but sympathize with Goldi. How many times have you been looking for a whisky that’s “just right,” only to find the majority of whiskies out there leaning heavily to one extreme or another? This one’s too hot, that one’s too peaty, this is one’s too sweet, etc.
Extremes sell, it’s as simple as that. Who can’t remember some Super Bowl advert with a product rolling in on a monster truck or crashing through a window (or both) promising it was “the most (insert adjective).” The whisky world certainly has its bastions of the extreme. Aberlour A’bunadh, Big Peat, and Woodford Reserve Double Oaked are some quick examples of whiskies that advertise an “Nth degree” experience. While there are plenty more that I could add to this list, I found myself hesitating when I thought of the Octomore series from Bruichladdich.
The advertising and packaging for the Octomore whiskies has always been stark and extreme. The opaque black bottle with its distinctive narrow shape has always stood out behind a bar or on a shelf. Not to mention the words “Super-Heavily Peated” printed somewhere on the tin and bottle.
Recently, I noticed Bruichladdich rolling out their latest editions of Octomore. Sure enough, they’re clad in metallic black, steely grey, and bold copper colors. But – as we say here on Malt – it’s what’s inside the bottle that matters. With that in mind, when I have the opportunity to enjoy a pour of Octomore, I do so not because it’s the “extremiest,” but because of its temperance and articulation of peat. Yet, this seems to be contrary to what the packaging wants me to believe.
So what’s going on here? It can’t be both extreme and balanced… can it?
Peated whiskies on paper seem fairly straightforward, but, as usual, the reality is murkier. These days more peated whiskies will display on the bottle (or its often easy enough to look up on the web) the PPM (Phenols Per Million). This is supposed to be another bit of information to help you make an “informed decision” without tasting the whisky. The PPM is X, so it should smell and taste X peaty right? Well, not really.
If you’ve ever tasted Caol Ila 12 & Lagavulin 16 side by side, you’ll know what I mean. These distilleries use the same malt that is peated to 35 PPM. Yet, Lagavulin definitely tastes peatier than Caol Ila. You could even taste some Octomores next to Lagavulin and I think it’d be a pretty tight horse race as to which tasted peatier.
There are several reasons why PPM doesn’t point true north. One of the more important reasons (particularly with Octomore) is what cuts are chosen during the distillation process. The peatier flavors reach their peak on the latter end of a distillation cycle, close to the tails cut. So, a big heart cut in the middle of distillation will likely not be as peaty as a narrower cut taken near the end. Also, while a bigger cut will give you more juice, the flavors will be less precise.
As you may have guessed, the cuts that make up a bottle of Octomore lean more towards the narrow and precise kind. This is a big contributor to its intense and exacting profile. While these are two qualities that entice me it doesn’t necessarily answer the question of whether it belongs on Team Extreme, or if it can be “just right.”
So, we’ll test Octomore’s mettle by tasting one of its limited releases from 2016. It’s aged a bit longer than most bottles of Octomore, half of it spent in Grenache Blanc casks.
Octomore 10 Year Second Release – Review
Matured in 50% ex-bourbon barrels and 50% Grenache Blanc wine casks. Bottled at 53.7% ABV with 167 PPM.
Colour: Orange wine.
On the nose: The aromas are handsome and not spiked with heat from the high alcohol content. A heady top note of oil paints kicks things off. Afterwards, there are milder notes of espresso, smoky mole, burnt orange peel, and dried chilis. The bouquet turns oily again at the end with a whiff of lanolin. Adding a few drops of water uncovers dried floral notes.
In the mouth: The palate is difficult to break down as the flavors are closely knit and laced with oiliness from the peat. Initially there is a flavor of charred stone fruits (think white cherries and pears). The flesh flavor of the fruit lingers longer than the char, so the mid-palate is juicy for a bit. This is followed by bolder bitter flavors of roasted almond and orange peel. The finish leaves an aromatic taste of durian.
Adding water strips out some of the unique nuances but draws out more traditional Octomore flavors: dark chocolate and graham cracker. The addition of water also makes the whisky a little more accessible as it becomes less oily and sports more sweetness.
If peated whiskies are likened to something wild and aggressive, I’d say this Octomore is burly but more civilized. A creature that’s been fitted for a suit, maybe even been to an art gallery or two. I think the partial aging in Grenache Blanc casks has tamed some of the whisky’s starker qualities and given it some additional flavors that complement its inherent earth and smoke.
So, is it both extreme and balanced? Was it “just right?” For me it came close, but I don’t think it has completely squared that circle. Those who prefer a more unbridled style will still fancy this more than others who like a more balanced experience. But who knows, maybe this Octomore sounds just right for you.
Finding a whisky that satisfies both of these camps is a tall order. Most whiskies don’t strive for such a goal, nor do I think they should. However, with every new Octomore I taste, I wonder if this is what Bruichladdich is after.
In a whisky world that likes to create and celebrate the “extremiest,” it’s nice to see some distilleries are still striving for whiskies for Goldi & I to enjoy, too.