The single malt with the ominous-sounding sobriquet "the world's most heavily peated whisky" is back. This time Bruichladdich's Octomore presents its oldest whisky to date and sports an alternative aging process. What hasn't changed is the distillery's ability to coax smoothness and nuance out of high-proof liquor with a supremely smoky birth.
The Octomore 7.4 spent seven years in a sequence of casks. Starting with three years in traditional first-fill Bourbon barrels, it was moved to lightly toasted, virgin French Oak casks for two years. Final maturation was two years in first-fill Bourbon casks.
Dialing in at 167 parts per million phenol, Octomore is three times as peaty as smoky rivals Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroiag. All are created on the Scotland's west island of Islay, where peat lays beneath the feet in great abundance. The vegetal fuel is used to heat malt barley to stop the sprouting process. Most Scotch whiskies have some amount of peat, although it is not necessary to the definition. The 7.4 release leads all other Scotch brands, however, it's not the peatiest Octomore to date. That distinction goes to Octomore 7.1, the seventh annual release, at 208 ppm phenol.
The 7.4 limited edition is the ninth release in the Octomore series and is the first of that range from Bruichladdich's new master distiller. Adam Hannett took the reins last year from the retiring Jim McEwan, who had overseen the reopening of the distillery and created the original Octomore. McEwan has said that the reason that Octomore can contain so much phenol without being over the top peaty is that is distilled in a slow-moving trickle compared with other whiskies.
McEwan started in the industry at the age of 15, working his way up to become master distiller of Bowmore (another Islay whisky maker). He left in 2001 to reopen Bruichladdich, which had been shuttered in 1994. The 1881 distillery was taken out of mothballs in a number of months, with much of its original equipment restored. It now operates with no computerization, using barley sourced strictly from Islay. The grain for Octomore comes from a single nearby farm for which the whisky is named. The whisky is neither colored nor chill filtered.
Bruichladdich Octomore 7.4 Virgin Oak (122.4 proof, 61.2 percent alcohol by volume; age; $250 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Orangish caramel color with pindrops that slowly gather into sturdy legs
NOSE: You smell peat at arm's length, but as the glass approaches the nose out comes honey then caramel and candied orange. Blow past that and it's a dance of chunky herbs and spices as well as cinnamon, cloves, tart citrus, grilled meat and vanilla.
PALATE: Superb balance of smoke, oak and candy right from the start (you taste it almost before it hits the palate). Its enormous proof seems to heat up the juice as it spreads throughout the mouth, awakening different flavors in different places. The smoke and spice are reminiscent of Memphis ribs as its sweetness provides the sauce. All the notes of the bouquet are joined by barrel flavors, graham cracker, licorice, plums, tangerines, grapefruit and fruit. But peat never disappears, announcing itself with smoke, ship's chalk and rubber in easy doses.
FINISH: It fairly shimmers in the mouth for minutes, taking encore after encore and bow and after bow.
CIGAR PAIRING: Montecristo Epic Churchill (Dominican Republic; 7 inches by 56 ring gauge; $15.94; 91 points; June 2016 Cigar Aficionado) There's a strong savory core to this large cigar. Bold notes of leather, minerals and wheat are balanced by sweet, floral aspects and a touch of spice. For this pairing, we wanted bold to match bold, for fear that a mild (or even medium) cigar would disappear under the smoke screen and high proof of the Octomore. The whisky awakened the cigar to its floral and spice sides immediately, and even conferred some fruit. More to the point, the smoke got fuller and rounder. Leather from the Monte added one of the few wanting notes to the Octomore. It also eased some flowers and toast from the whisky. The cigar's mineral side was a minor clash in the matchup. Nevertheless, spiciness started to pour from the cigar as the pairing went on.