Editor’s Note: This whiske was provided to us as a review sample by Bruichladdich. This in no way, per our editorial policies, influenced the final outcome of this review. It should also be noted that by clicking the buy link towards the bottom of this review our site receives a small referral payment which helps to support, but not influence, our editorial and other costs.
Bruichladdich’s Octomore series is famous for including the most heavily peated whisky ever made, Octomore 8.3, which boasted a phenolic content of 309 parts per million (ppm). The latest releases aren’t quite that high, but they’re still no slouch in the smoke department, with phenol measurements clocking in between 118 to 130 ppm. For reference, Ardbeg is made with barley peated to 50 ppm, and Lagavulin uses barley peated to about 35 ppm.
That said, ppm numbers aren’t necessarily an accurate measure of how smoky a whisky will taste. That’s because the unit measures the phenolic content of the malted barley used to make the whisky, not the whisky itself.
The fermentation and distillation process makes a big impact on how much smoke character you actually perceive in your glass. Phenols generally partially dissipate during fermentation. Those that do make it into distillation come over late in the run, which means distillers can delay the tails cut to capture more smoke, or cut earlier to eliminate some of the heavier components. Phenols also dissipate with time in the cask–the older the whisky, the less smoky it will taste.
Octomores do tend to be quite smoky (which makes sense, given their youthfulness), but they’re not three times smokier than Ardbeg–many, in fact, are downright elegant, and the 12th release of the series is no exception. The collection includes three cask strength, five-year-old single malts, and explores barley provenance (it’s Bruichladdich, after all) as well as cask finishing:
- 12.1, distilled from Scottish-grown barley and aged in ex-American whiskey casks.
- 12.2, distilled from Scottish grown barley and aged in ex-American whiskey casks but then finished in Sauternes casks
- 12.3, distilled from Islay barley grown at the Octomore farm, aged in a combination of ex-American whiskey and Pedro Ximenez sherry casks
A note on Octomore’s naming conventions: the first number refers to the series itself. This is the 12th release of Octomore whiskies. The second number refers to the whiskies within that specific series—in this case, there are three. Head distiller Adam Hannett describes the 12.1 as the “control” of the group, taking a restrained approach to casking and using standard Scottish barley to establish a kind of baseline for the series.
Tasting Notes: Octomore 12.1
Vital Stats: 59.9% ABV. Five years old. Aged in ex-American whiskey casks. Distilled in 2015 from 2014 harvest of Scottish-grown Concerto barley. Barley peated to 130.8 ppm. Islay, Scotland.
Appearance: Pale, watery gold.
Nose: Honey, jalapeño, salt, and lime zest, reminiscent of a mezcal cocktail. There’s a rich, almost sticky sense of sugary sweetness. Without water, the smoke is quite muted, more like the warm woodsiness of a cedar sauna than anything that’s actually on fire. Water amplifies the smoke, bringing out a mineral component and muting that sweetness just a touch.
Palate: A sweet, thick texture introduces a densely grain-y palate, something like marmalade and honey on whole grain toast. The sweetness is beautifully balanced with salt. A long, chocolatey finish culminates with bittersweet waves of saline smoke. With water, it’s sweeter and much smokier, and an unusual lime-like tartness emerges in the finish.
This is a really good whisky! The vibe is very classic Bruichladdich, only with a thick layer of smoke drifting over the top that complicates, but doesn’t wholly obscure, that salty, citrusy, floral character underneath. I have a fondness for peaty whiskies without a lot of cask influence, and this beautifully fits that particular bill.
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Margarett Waterbury is the author of Scotch: A Complete Introduction to Scotland's Whiskies and a full-time freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Whisky Advocate, Food and Wine, Spirited Magazine, Artisan Spirit, Edible Seattle, Sip Northwest, Civil Eats, Travel Oregon, Artisan Spirit, and many other publications. She is...