During a visit to Scotland this past year, I was lucky to be paired with driver/tour guide/guru John McElwee, whose passion and knowledge of Scotch whisky equaled his encyclopedic knowledge of his home country’s history and lore. Unfortunately for the rest of my family, this turned our tour of Scotland into a roving whisky adventure layered on top of the previously scheduled castle visits, highland games and nature excursions. I could not have been luckier.
We tasted many great scotches during the trip and even a few bad ones. The downside to an experience like this comes when you realize that many of the greatest whiskies you taste are simply not available back home. Fortunately, the strangest Scotch I encountered (and the one I liked the most) can be found in the U.S. with just a little effort. The Octomore line of Scotches by Bruichladdich (pronounced Brook-LAD-ee) are rightly known as the peatiest Scotches on the market. I’m not sure any other maker comes close.
What does it mean to say that a whisky tastes or smells peaty? There is no peat in Scotch, of course. Peat is simply a fuel used to create fire that helps dry water-soaked barley in a process called malting. Malted barley is then fermented to create Scotch whisky. When peat is burned, it creates a pungent smoke that imparts its smoky flavor into the malted barley and, thereby, eventually into the finished whisky.
Although some producers around the world actually infuse smoke flavors in their offerings, peat has always been a Scottish thing. The reason for this, naturally, is that peat (decomposed wetland vegetation) is most readily available in the boggy Scottish Highlands, and really over most of Scotland. Peatiness in Scotch whisky can be measured (in phenol parts per million). The more phenol in the whisky, the smokier/peatier the scotch will be.
Octomore is peated to between about 100 and 258 PPM (depending on the bottling) and the makers claim it’s the peatiest Scotch ever commercially produced. While this sounds a bit scary, Octomore is bottled proof that, as with many great things, balance is key to success. On the palate, Octomore behaves like a great Vintage Port. The sweetness of this whisky comes across in equal measure with the heavy smoke flavors. It just… tastes good. There are a number of Octomore bottlings (differentiated by a numbering system on the bottle), each with a unique combination of oak casks, sourced barley, aging and phenol levels.
The only version that I have found in the U.S. is Octomore 10.1. This is the infant of the series; aged only five years and distilled from 100 percent Scottish barley, the 10.1 is raised mostly in ex-American oak barrels previously housing bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, and with phenol levels of 107 PPM. I got one for about $200 in Atlanta but it’s available for a bit less on Wine-Searcher.com. The label’s other editions, with longer aging and more locally sourced barley, don’t seem to make their way to the U.S. with any regularity.
Tasting Note (from a Glencairn glass with a few drops of water): Nose of burnt firewood, toasted marshmallows and a little mint. The first taste impression is a welcoming and warm spicy sweetness, quickly followed by sharper notes and alcoholic heat, as expected from such a young Scotch. The finish is mouth-coating and long. This is not the peat-monster that that some of the other Octomore offerings are, but it’s way out there nonetheless and should be your last sip of the evening lest your palate be ruined for whatever comes after.
This stuff isn’t for everyone. I get that. But if you (think you) are a peat fan, you owe it to yourself to track this down.