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Sunday, 15 April 2018

An evening with Octomore!

I was lucky enough to tag along to the recent sneak-peek of the Octomore 8-series in Brisbane, expertly presented by Mark Hickey from Spirits Platform, Bruichladdich's Australian importers. Although most of the series was released in Europe around six months ago, they've still not landed here, but they're finally getting closer. That's often the price we peat-hungry Australians pay for living on the other side of the planet!

One major advantage to this delay was that all three general releases, being 8.1, 8.3 and 8.4 of the Masterclass Series will be available at the same time, rather than being staggered releases like they were in Europe and from the distillery itself. Octomore 8.2 is travel retail / duty free exclusive, like 6.2 & 7.2 before it. On second thoughts, that's really more of a disadvantage, financially speaking! This should help keep prices down a little too, since they're all being shipped together, but local pricing hasn't been confirmed as yet. Each of the three expressions are quite different from any previous Octomores, with both the core 8.1 and the 'virgin oak' 8.4 being eight years of age (most Octomores are 5-years old), and the 8.3 Islay Barley not only measuring in at a whopping 309 ppm on the malt, but also being part-matured (not finished or ACEd in 'laddie speak) in French red wine casks. To my knowledge, and to Bruichladdich's knowledge, that's the highest phenolic figure ever recorded. Oh yes! I have a complete review of this beguiling beastie on its own coming soon, so I'll just give a quick first impression for now, and focus more on Octomore 8.1 and 8.4 for the purposes of this write-up.

Mark took us through the history of Bruichladdich Distillery first, starting with the story behind the Harvey brothers in 1881, through to the resurrection at the hands of Mark Reynier, Duncan McGillivray and the legendary Jim McEwan. Mark also covered the philosophy behind the modern Bruichladdich, and it should be noted that it has not changed under Remy Cointreau ownership, in that they really do believe in the people, the ingredients and the terroir (sense of place / locality). They are also very progressive, constantly trying different things and breaking new ground, and going against the grain. He also explained that Bruichladdich don't use any Islay peat in their malting process, which makes sense as all malting is carried out by Bairds in Inverness. Even the Islay barley is shipped to the east coast to be malted, then shipped back to Islay for milling & mashing. Instead the peat used is sourced from the Caithness area (66%) in the north of Scotland, and the Aberdeenshire area (34%) towards the east coast of Scotland. We were actually joined by the CEO of Remy Cointreau on the night, plus their head of the Asia Pacific region and it was predominantly a trade tasting (meaning bar managers & experienced bartenders) so the pressure was really on for Mark, but he handled it excellently where most of us would've been sweating bullets!

We were actually the first to officially taste these whiskies in Australia, but I have to say "officially" there because one or two parallel importers brought in a few bottles months ago, so quite a few punters have already tasted the goods. But they of course were sold at an inflated price, whereas it sounds like the official pricing will actually be very reasonable. Which is great news!

First up of course was Octomore 8.1. As mentioned above, this release is 8-years old, with all previous '_.1' releases being 5-years old. It was distilled from Scottish barley that was peated to 167 ppm, and was fully matured in first-fill American oak ex-bourbon casks. But this is the Masterclass series of Octomore, so we get even more information than usual: we actually know which distilleries those ex-bourbon casks came from! In this case they were sourced from Buffalo Trace, Jack Daniels, Heaven Hill, Clearmont Springs and Four Roses. The barley for this bottling was all Scottish, and was peated to 167 ppm by Bairds in Inverness, after being harvested in 2007. It was bottled at 59.3% ABV, and a substantial 42,000 bottles were released.

Octomore 8.1 is a sweet, refined and surprisingly soft dram. Those further three years of maturation have certainly made a difference here, and you'd never guess it weighed in at 59.3% in strength. The nose had that wonderful Bruichladdich sour lactic note (termed 'baby vomit' by some, but us 'laddie lovers can't get enough!), plus creamy vanilla and a little oak, and subtle smoke. And there was plenty of barley character evident despite the peating level and active maturation. The palate was creamy, lightly citrus-y and soft, with the peat coming on in the finish along with light spices, plenty of wood smoke and a floral sweetness. As much as I love the young beastliness of the younger _.1 Octomores, this is a very interesting take which (at least if my memory serves me) is even softer than the recent 10-year old second release. This makes it a very easy drinking dram, I might even go so far as calling this a "session-able" Octomore!

Now it was time for the highly anticipated newly crowned champion of the ppm wars. Octomore 8.3 is back to the "normal" 5-years of age, to capture as much of that massive peat influence as possible, and it was distilled from Islay barley from James Brown's Octomore farm that was peated to an unprecedented 309 ppm. I don't think that astronomically high number will be beaten any time soon! 8.3 was matured in 56% ex-bourbon casks, and 44% French red wine casks from four different regions. This young Ileach was bottled at 61.2%, which might be down a little from the previous Islay barley Octomores (6.3 & 7.3,), but isn't exactly shy. There were 18,000 bottles of 8.3 released, and it's largely sold out in Europe, so this will be a very hot commodity when it lands in Australia. But as the kids say these days, "the hype is real". This Octomore, like all Octomores of course, does not disappoint.

The nose on this one is lovely, with plenty of smoky toffee, light grassy notes and smoked meat, and some sweeter lactic notes, and once again you wouldn't guess the strength, although our glasses had been breathing for quite a while (while covered). The palate is absolutely fantastic! I'll save the rest of my notes for the separate review that is coming soon, but I'll just leave it at this: this just might be my favourite Octomore of all-time!

And finally, the most recent and final release of the series, the partly-virgin oak matured Octomore 8.4. I loved 7.4, which was the first _.4 bottling, which had quite a complicated upbringing. This new version has a little less virgin oak maturation than its predecessor, but it's still had a complicated upbringing. 20% of this whisky was fully matured in virgin American oak casks, with the other 80% initially being matured in ex-bourbon casks, before being transferred to the French oak casks that were previously used for Octomore 7.4. Which essentially makes them refill French oak ex-Octomore casks. 8.4 was distilled from Scottish barley that was peated to 170 ppm, and aged for 8 years before being bottled at 58.7%. There were only 12,000 bottles released, and like the 8.3 I'd say this one won't last long.

Octomore 8.4 was more intense on the nose than the previous two drams, with lots of vanilla and a little coconut, light fruit and a subtle vegetal peaty note on the nose. On the palate it's very creamy and buttery, again with lots of vanilla, charred stone fruit plus a little spice and charred BBQ meats. The finish was more of the same with more BBQ meats, sweeter fruitiness and more buttery vanilla. I haven't tasted the previous 7.4 release for quite a while, but from what I recall I'd find it hard to pick a winner between the two. They're both excellent quality, like all Octomores of course, and they're also very different from each other. I guess you'd just have to have both, naturally! 8.4 was actually still maturing while I was on Islay in September last year, and I gave a few casks a reassuring pat during the warehouse tasting at the distillery. So it's pretty special to now be tasting the resulting whisky!

All said & done, my personal pick of the night was - no surprises here really - 8.3. The Islay barley Octomores really are amazing whiskies, and they're nowhere near as intimidating as the high figures and low ages may lead you to believe. But as expected all three of these whiskies are delicious, and they're all unlike any previous Octomores. Stock of all three expressions is due to land in Australia in June, and I'd say the (likely small) allocations of 8.3 & 8.4 won't last long at all. As I mentioned above pricing hasn't been confirmed yet since the ship is still on the water, but from the rumours I hear it sounds like they're going to be pretty reasonable considering the level of demand there is for this liquid, and considering what you're getting inside those slender bottles. I'll see you at the front of the line on release day!

A big thanks to Mark Hickey, Spirits Platform, Bruichladdich and Remy Cointreau for having me on the night. I can't wait to take an even closer look when the stock arrives in Australia. Although my wallet may not be as excited about it as I am...