Just sharing an observation and thoughts from a distiller I’m familiar with about the evolution of the palate mixed with my own ramblings…
As spirits have proven, trends are always cyclical. Rum was one of the spirits of choice during the age of sail. But, world events like the American Revolution caused rum to be set aside. It saw a brief rise in popularity during Prohibition and the golden era of Tiki. After being in the muck for decades, it has the attention of consumers once again.
We’re already familiar with whisky gluts that happened in different parts of the world, so there’s no need to talk about those again.
Aside from categorical trends, I think there’s also a noticeable rise of people wanting more flavor, as well as variety, in food and booze. Personally, I think food trends such as gastronomy and the popularity of trying authentic and/or fusion dishes from more flavorful cultures such as Mexican and Asian food paved the way for this. I guess as people eat better, they eventually seek to drink better.
The 1800s saw the invention of the column still. To fast forward things, this eventually led to consumers wanting light drinks such as multi-column distilled spirits such as vodka and Bacardi, to drowning whisk(e)y in ice. I primarily blame marketing in ads, movies and shows because they preached that smooth is good and cool. Today, there are less and less consumers who prefer vodka and drinking whisk(e)y on the rocks. Smooth is starting to become more of a disliked word.
Albeit still a minority, the growing number of consumers demanding that more single malts have more flavor via bottling at higher ABV and non-chill filtering is a testament to this. Not only is there more demand for flavor, more and more consumers want to taste something unique such as peat and rum funk. Mostly, this is achieved through drinking peated single malt and pot distilled Jamaican rum. Safe to say that before the single malt boom, peated Scotch was mostly drunk through blends and Jamaican rum as a blend or in blends or in cocktails.
The distiller I spoke with thinks these trends have led to the evolution of the palate. He said that the demand for the super-heavy peat bomb that is Octomore and really high ester rums such as Hampden’s DOK are signs that people’s palates are evolving.
To break it down: the typical peated Islay single malt Scotch ranges from 25ppm (Bowmore) to 65ppm (Ardbeg). Caol Ila and Lagavulin are around 35ppm while Laphroaig is around 45ppm. Appreciating this has allowed people to appreciate and/or seek more peat such as the colossal peat bomb that is Octomore, whose various releases has been produced at around 100+ppm to 250+ppm. Never in history has this been done before. Had this been done before the single malt boom, I don’t think it would have worked. Consumers might have either called it an abomination or been afraid to approach it.
For funky rum, there’s always been very funky high ester Continental marques of Jamaican rum being produced. The ester counts of these range from 700 – 1600 (gr/hL AA). 1600 grams per hectoliter is the highest ester counts Jamaican regulations allow, but I’ve been told there have been Jamaican rum produced with higher ester counts in the past. You can check for the list of complete Jamaican rum marques in this Cocktail Wonk link.
Historically, rum marques with this much ester were used for blending and other industries such as cosmetics. More popularly, continental marque rum was and is heavily used by the Germans for their rum verschnitt, which is typically a neutral spirit made from beets then flavored with rum. The Germans did this to save on taxes. Importing something concentrated with flavor means they need to import less. Then they dilute that with cheap neutral spirit as sort of an extender. Less costs for them, but more profit at the same time.
Like Octomore fanatics, there is a small group of rum geeks who love to drink really funky Jamaican rum classified as Continental marques like Hampden’s <>H, C<>H and DOK. For reference, Hampden’s 8 year old uses only their OWH marque which has ester counts of around 40 to 80 (gr/hL AA).
Entry level Jamaican rum like Appleton 12 may have been a better example since they’re more accessible. But with Appleton being secretive, I don’t know the ester counts for them. The same reasoning applies for regular expressions of other Jamaican rum since they’re usually a blend of different marques.
After mentioning a lot of Octomore and high ester Jamaican rum, I think it’s only right that I review one of them. Thankfully I have a friend with gave me a sample of this Octomore OBA.
Bruichladdich Octomore OBA Concept – Review
59.7%. A distillery bottling. 3,000 500 ml bottles. €130 on release.
On the nose: Not as overwhelmingly smoky and peaty as the other Octomores I’ve tried. I get medium to pronounced aromas of charred BBQ bits, leather, campfire, iodine, peat, seaweed, the coast, walnuts, and almonds. In between are light aromas of black cherries, red Bordeaux wine tannins, sulfur, and other unidentifiable red fruits.
In the mouth: The ethanol bites harder here than on the nose. I taste medium to pronounced aromas of charred BBQ bits, iodine, burnt wood, nori snacks, overripe cherries, baguette, French toast, red fruit, and tannins from red Bordeaux wine. In between are random appearances of sulfur, cranberries, dark chocolate with cherries, and chicory coffee. At the end is a lasting taste of blood orange mixed with chocolate, sulfur, and coffee.
I normally can’t get past the peat and smoke of any previous Octomores I’ve had. But, being a 2017 release, I’m sure this has had time to breathe, which might explain why I get a wider array of flavors here. Of course, I’m only assuming, since I didn’t get to try this when it was newly opened.
The presence of red fruit notes, sulfur and French bread notes make me think some of the whisky here was aged in ex-red Bordeaux wine casks. It’s a nice touch. While I normally whinge about sulfur, I don’t mind it here. It’s very light and is overshadowed by a lot of interesting flavors you wouldn’t normally get in a peated islay single malt.
I’m sure this is a peek into what more peat heads are going to drink in the coming decades. As geeks crave more cask strength and peatier stuff, the influence will keep trickling down to make more preferences and palates evolve.
I think this whisky is worth it for the price it was released at. But if I got the bottle at the rate it’s going or went for in the auction market (around €700), I’d rate it lower.