Editor’s Note: This whisky 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 12 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. The 12.3 is a “single vintage, single field, single malt” made with Islay-grown Concerto barley harvested from Church Field at Octomore Farm in 2014.
Tasting Notes: Octomore 12.3
Vital Stats: 62.1% ABV. Five years old. Aged in first-fill American whiskey casks and first-fill Pedro Ximenez sherry butts. Distilled in 2015 from 2014 harvest of Octomore Farm-grown Concerto barley. Barley peated to 118.1 ppm. Islay, Scotland
Appearance: Medium gold.
Nose: An interesting mix of savory, roasted, bright, and fruity aromas. I get charred peanuts, coffee beans, stout beer, dates, tangerine, and pineapple, all wreathed in abundant dry smoke. Not much changes with the addition of some water—it’s still very roasty, robustly smoky, with a pleasant tension between dark roast and citrusy fruit.
Palate: Oddly disjointed on the first impression, with grape jelly and espresso beans plus sticky dates and a thin, lemony sourness. Roasted malt, dark toast, and red-skinned peanuts segue into robust, somewhat acrid smoke. A long, salty-tart finish is classic Bruichladdich. Water helps with integration, toning down the sourness and bringing the smoke and dried fruit into a more harmonious balance. The finish is still very salty, smoky, and sour—like a smoked preserved lemon, if there is such a thing.
Fascinating, but it doesn’t quite come together for me. The sourness feels out of sync with the deep, dried, earthy elements, and I find myself missing a kind of richness I notice in the other releases in the 12 series.
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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...