When we here at Whisky + Architecture first came up with the idea of adopting pseudonyms, it was Finn himself who bestowed upon us our respective names. To say that he expertly captured our differing tastes and preferences is somewhat of an understatement. He’s a huge fan of sherry finished whiskies; you’ll be hard pressed to find Neat with ice cubes in his drink, let alone a chaser. And as for me? Well, I was, and still am, a massive fan of peated monsters such as Laphroaig and Ardbeg (thus ‘Peat’), going so far as to write a love letter to the former. From day one, I sought out as many peated whiskies as I possibly could and spent almost every Saturday at Jack Rose Dining Saloon, sampling from their peated selection with the help of Andy.
So, when the opportunity presented itself to sample Octomore 7.4, the latest release of the experimental series, I obviously jumped at the chance.
First, some back story for the uninitiated, and forgive me while I dive into this exposition. Octomore is the offspring of Bruichladdich (pronounced Brook-laddie), an Islay distillery first built in 1881, famous for their surprisingly UN-peated flagship Classic Laddie and their Port Charlotte expressions. Octomore was conceived via a not-so-simple question: “What if we distilled the most heavily-peated barley humanly possible”? Now, take into consideration that Port Charlotte is already hailed as Bruichladdich’s offering for those who enjoy a whole lotta peat, so to pose a question going beyond even that? Well, the challenge was on.
After what I can only assume to be some trial and error, Octomore 1 was released in 2008 with the barley peated to a whopping concentration of 131 ppm. Compare that to other single malts like Talisker, which averages 25-30 ppm and the previously stated Port Charlotte that is “heavily peated” to 40 ppm, it was clear that Octomore was a force to be reckoned with, which could be the most understated thing I’ve ever written. Fast forward 8 years and roughly the same number of experimentations later, they seemed to have taken it even further with Octomore 7.4, whose phenol count is even more impressive at 167 ppm! Peat fans rejoice! This is why you’re here!
Before we get too carried away, let’s back up a bit. You may be asking “what’s ppm and why should I care?” Frankly, that’s a good question. To answer that, let’s give a refresher on ‘peat’ itself. Found pretty much everywhere on the British Isles, the Wild Life Trust describes peat as “an organic material that forms in the waterlogged, sterile, acidic conditions of bogs and fens.” But let’s call it what it is – it’s dirt. However, what makes this particular dirt so vital to most scotch whiskies is the process in which it’s treated and processed. Peat is cut, dried and then burnt underneath malted barley. The resulting smoke from burning the peat has chemicals called phenol which is then absorbed by the barley giving it that distinct earthy flavour. The level of phenols in the barley is measured in ppm, or phenol parts per million. Thus, the higher the ppm, the peatier the whisky. Get it?
Now, allow me to set something straight. Yes, Octomore is from Islay. Yes, comparisons are typically made to other peat monsters such as Laphroaig or Lagavulin. And yes, peat is often used as a synonym for how smokey a whisky is. But that’s a misconception, because with great ppm, doesn’t always come great smoke, as our good friend at Whisky and Wisdom expertly explains. You see, Laphroaig typically peats their barely to around 40 ppm, but any fan of scotch will be hard pressed to say that Laphroaig is not a smoke beast. So yes, while the malt in Octomore 7.4 is about four times as peaty as Laphroaig, does that mean it’s four times as smokey? Or even, dare I ask, four times more delicious? While, based on ppm levels, Octomore easily belongs in a category of its own, I refused to jump to any conclusions before I actually tasted it.
But then I did.
In a word, this thing is amazing! Seriously. I mean… Jesus take the wheel! When I first uncorked the bottle I was rushed with a fantastic combination of sweetness and smoke. I picked up on a few fruits, not sure if oranges, apricots, or both, but whatever I smelled was very inviting. When it hit my palate though, the real magic happened. The peat is real. No, I mean it’s intense! Like Gaia herself is nursing me. But considering I just spent 3 full paragraphs discussing how much ppm is in this thing that should be obvious, huh?
Anyway, it’s only after that initial rush of earthiness on my tongue that the sweetness once again crept in. And it came in waves. Waves and more waves. Each wave coated the roof of my mouth with layers of flavour. From spicy cinnamon (which I figure is due to that smoke and oak I’m still tasting), to a more tamed vanilla and honey. I picked up on some medicinal notes, but not as much as you would expect. Unlike previous releases of Octomore (which I need to revisit and, in some cases, try for the first time), 7.4 is aged for 7 years as oppose to 5. For 2 of those 7 years, 75% of the barley was matured in French Virgin Oak casks. The other 25% spent the full 7 years in those virgin oak casks! It’s those casks that truly give 7.4 its sublime sweetness. And clearly it pays off! The balance here is truly baffling, because I feel like this drink shouldn’t be so… what’s the word I’m looking for? Soothing. Yes, soothing. And that’s an odd thing to say for a peat beast such as this. Don’t get me wrong, that “soothing” feeling doesn’t come till the end – after the slap in the face and the coaxing of the tongue – but I can definitely see myself sipping on this after a long day, in front my fireplace, smoking a cigar. The only problem is I don’t have a fireplace, nor do I smoke cigars.
Needless to say, the team behind Octomore, led by head distiller Adam Hannett, did a superb job concocting 7.4.
I should stress though, that for all the intensity of 7.4, when it comes to raw smoke, it doesn’t compare to Laphroaig 10 Cask Strength. But my belief is, whereas 7.4 has these fruity and sweet notes thrown in there, Laphroaig CS is pure brimstone. Utterly delicious brimstone, but brimstone nonetheless. I mean, Bruichladdich themselves say that Octomore is “more than the raw power of massive peat, but an intellectual challenge, a sensory exploration of barley provenance, cask management and artisanal distillation techniques.” I think it’s easy to see (taste?) the passion (genius?) behind this release, so I believe them and could pardon the fact that it’s not as “smokey” as my favourite whisky. Which pretty much confirms that there is always more than ppm levels that defines any particular malt’s smoke or flavour profile as a whole. Where the peat is sourced, stored, how long it’s aged, all of these things are factors to take into consideration.
But you know what? I can continue to bark on this percentage of liquid being aged here, or that percentage being aged there; on ppm levels or processing techniques; but that’s all really irrelevant. All the facts, all the numbers, all of that means nothing at the end. What’s important is what you experience when you take that first, second and even third sip. What you feel as the liquid swashes in your mouth. What you’re left with when the glass is empty. And with that, I can tell you I felt amazing. Octomore 7.4 makes for a brilliant dram. If you’re a fan of peat, if you’re a fan of smoke, or hell, if you’re simply a fan of fine scotch, you really can’t go wrong with this one.
Huge thanks to Jennifer from The 5th Column PR for the sample.
Cheers – Peat