On the west coast of Islay, Scotland, the Bruichladdich distillery sits at the very edge of the sea, a short swim from the mainland. The stormy Atlantic serves as more than a picturesque backdrop. The ocean is a partner and co-distiller, lending its brine to the local barley, the soggy peat and the air that breathes through every drop of the distillery’s treasured nectar. You can taste it in Bruichladdich’s (pronounced “Brook-laddie”) Classic Laddie — a peat-free whisky that’s drinkable, somewhat sweet and a tad salty, and comes in an opaque turquoise bottle. That nectar manifests more uniquely in the rarer Octomore editions like this, the 7.4, too. Adam Hannett, Bruichladdich’s new Head Distiller, speaks passionately but comfortably about his relatively mad creations, this particular one being “the world’s most peated whisky.” The impetus behind Octomore? “We make Octomore because we can.”
The Octomore series is named after the local farm where the barley, which makes up a third of its ingredients, is harvested. (Octomore is owned by a man named James Brown, who, Hannett punned, is considered the “Godfather of Soil”). The springwater used in Bruichladdich’s distillation process is sourced from Brown’s farm, too. Bruichladdich, as a company, strives to be a progressive force in the whisky world: while their regular-run whiskies are highly rated and different in their own ways, this innovative spirit comes through most in their rare, experimental Octomore series.
A new Octomore is released annually. Each edition’s first number indicates a new year; numbers after the decimal indicate which version of that year’s whisky you’re lucky enough to drink. Each edition of the Octomore is an experiment — more smoke here, more peat there — but each is a challenge to the assumption that great whisky is old whisky. Historically, Octomores are five-year-old whiskies; this latest iteration (of which 12,000 bottles will be produced) is seven years old because Bruichladdich is a spirits-first company, rather than a slave to tradition. “We’ll do what is right for the whisky,” Hannett said.
Lending to Octomore 7.4’s uniqueness are the medium-toasted virgin French oak casks in which it was aged. “We didn’t know what would happen when we did this,” said Hannett. Its color, for one — a rich, slightly reddish caramel, like a sweet, hoppy beer might look — owes everything to those unused wooden wombs. To the nose, an unwatered sample is decidedly high octane, with a woodsy, almost barbecue tinge. The new wood and heavy smoke marry perfectly into a taste that lingers on your palate long after the liquor has found your bloodstream.
That taste: a rarified, pleasurable, delightful smoke bomb (at 167ppm phenol, its smoke and peat levels are far beyond an average dram). Pure, with no ice or water, it’s strong but not strident — enough to open your sinuses and make you grin. With a few slow drops of cool water it’s smooth enough to cause trouble. It’s sweet and just perfectly smoky at once, like you’d poured your favorite bourbon over a charred piece of timber and licked at it like a maniacal lollipop.
You’ll know Octomore when — well, if — you see it. The opaque black bottle is unmistakable and mysterious, as unusual as it is rare. “Let’s have a bottle that looks a bit like a torpedo — that looks like nothing else,” said Hannett. “The whisky’s not the same as any other whisky, so let’s have a different bottle as well.”