Whisky and Words Number 67: Bruichladdich Octomore 8.1

Tall, slim, sophisticated and smoky. It’s not a cigar, it’s Octomore.

Last week I covered Bruichladdich’s Port Charlotte 10-year and mused about the big talk and heady claims printed on the canister. In that post, I added tidbits about the distillery itself and their approach to spirits-making. This week it’s less talk on the background a bit more focus on the whisky itself.

In contrast to the Port Charlotte’s wordy canister, Octom0re’s metal canister is in contrast quite restrained. The unsaid message here is that they don’t have to say anything about the Octomore besides it being “Super Heavily Peated” Islay single malt, and stating that it was conceived, created, distilled, aged etc. on the island. Like the PC10, it is un-chillfiltered and free of coloring.

If Port Charlotte is their heavily peated branding, you might wonder, what does ‘super heavily peated’ mean? One hint can be found on the canister: “PPM: 167.” That’s parts per million of phenols on the peated malt. What ends up in the bottle depends on the distilling process and maturation, even the type of oak, but PPM is a good benchmark to start with. See this post from scotchwhisky.com for more info. Our nose has to tell us how much of that phenolic potential made it into the bottle.

The lighting here is subdued, the color of the spirit is a bit lighter than what you see.

Compare this Octomore to Laphroaig 10, which some folks think is revoltingly peated at 45 PPM. Ardbeg 10 is around 50. I have the Ardbeg 10-year and the Corryvreckan and picked up the Wee Beastie today in hopes that was gnarlier, but both were beaten out on the nose by the forgotten Laphroaig Lore I found in my whisky cubby . So that’s our comparator today. At $125 locally, the Lore is pricey but the Octo 8.1 isn’t cheap either. I forget what I paid, but you can find it online for $140 or so.

This Octo was made from all-Scottish barley and aged exclusively in first-fill ex-bourbon casks from top American distillers (thanks to Modernthirst, as the Bruichladdich web site no longer has printed information on Octomore). I would expect a crisp, spicy and herby spirit, if anything comes through that heavy smoke. The Lore has the same mix as the Triple Wood (bourbon, quarter cask and sherry) so it should have a thicker mid-palate.

Let’s uncork this monster.  As with other peaty drams, as soon as this bottle is opened it starts shouldering its way into olfactory dominance of the room.  The aroma is thick, not just smoke but bourbon fruitiness, phenols, fig and apricot fruit leather. It is meaty and spicy, like old-time mincemeat. Nosing closer in gets to the minerally peat notes. I have to cap the bottle and put my cellphone over the glass and air out the room to give its challenger an even chance.

Dark and elegant, much like the spirit inside.

Opening the Laphroaig Lore, I find a similar aroma but not as much. I can smell it from feet away but it does not fill the room and billow into the next as did the Octo. There is a similar meaty, leathery phenol but not as much of the spice and fruit of the Octo. After a pour and some nosing, the Lore noses like a more conventional whisky than the Octo, despite having a (theoretically) more flavorful mix of casks (ex-Bourbon, quarter cask, Sherry). Its sherry casking does give some fruit and leather to the nose but it’s a couple shades short of the mighty Octomore.

If I had any doubt about the Octo’s olfactory dominance over the Lore, uncovering the glass with the Octo destroys said doubt. This aroma is powerful. On to taste: the 59% ABV instantly heats the mouth, but before the fiery pepper of the alcohol takes hold there’s malt-syrup sweetness and wild flavors from the Bourbon casks playing along the tip of the tongue. Then the fire hits, pleasant, not bad for the strength, no harshness on the back of the throat. As things cool down, phenols make their inexorable way across the palate, tongue, everywhere—unctuous, not harsh. There is nice smoke on the finish, a solid peat smoke, not ashy. I find with a few drops of water, the fire is less and the smoke comes earlier, warming the inside of the lips and rolling over the tongue. The odd thing is, this is not 3 times smokier than a 50 PPM Laphroaig. The 167 PPM is an indicator, but delivery is key and the power of the Octomore is in thick phenols well-matched to flavors from the casks and a respectable but not ashy smoke.

A quick comparo to the Lore: the Laphroaig should be like a hopped-up Triple Wood. It’s not cask strength (same 48% ABV) but is made from selected casks. This is a premium TW. I’ll cover it in detail in the next post. The main comparison here is that the Lore brings more smoke, less depth, not as much of the meaty phonolics as the Octo. That’s right…the Lore is smokier, and that is evident from nose to finish. But its finish is a few shades lighter in depth, fading more quickly in comparison.

Bruichladdich Octomore 8.1 -year, Islay Single Malt, 59.3% ABV

Nose: Fruity Bourbon, meaty phenols, fig and apricot fruit leather. It’s spicy, like old-time mincemeat.
Palate: Straight malt-syrup sweetness and wild flavors from well-selected casks have a moment before fiery pepper lights up the tongue. It’s still smooth, and does not abuse the taster. Abundant, meaty, leathery phenols fill the mouth—unctuous, not harsh. A little water brings the smoke out earlier and brings forward malt syrup and a touch of marshmallow.
Finish: When taken straight this is when you’ll notice the smoke, which is fairly heavy but well balanced and pleasant. Not ashy, as there is so much flavor serving as foundation: phenol and mellow fruit from the various casks used.

Bottom Line: As I was finishing the review, glass drained, Octo capped, the wife popped into my little writing nook…and staggered two paces back. The #2 Kid, 5 paces out of the room went “oooh!” Octomore is not a peat monster. It is a flavor monster. If you can find one (there are various releases) and it fits into your budget I highly recommend buying one, or maybe splitting the cost with some friends. They ain’t cheap. But if anyone asks you just how much flavor you can put a whisky, ‘Octomore’ is the answer. As for the Lore, it’s good but outshined here. If you have a choice, go for the Octomore.

Just coincidence I posted this on Halloween. Right?

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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