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Smoke in a glass: Octomore's latest whiskies release

Peated Scotch whisky may be polarizing, but these four, recently released limited editions from Islay prove there’s a smoky dram for all tastes

For most people, peated, single-malt Scotch whisky is akin to hitting driver off the deck, playing open-faced flop shots with a 60-degree wedge around the green, or having an opinion about Patrick Reed — you either love them or you hate them.

Distilled with malted barley that is first dried over fires fueled by peat, these whiskies are characterized by smoky undertones — or overtones, depending on the specific distillery and whisky in question. These whiskies have grown synonymous with the isle of Islay, a 239-square-mile island off the southwestern coast of Scotland, which is home to nine working distilleries, many of which craft single malts defined by a briny, almost medicinal smokiness.

For those who love these distinctively smoky spirits, the annual release of Bruichladdich’s Octomore series of limited-edition whiskies is as grin-inducing as the Monday of Masters Week. For the first time ever, all four whiskies in this year’s 11th installment of the Octomore lineup have been released at the same time. Even better, the 11.2 expression, a whisky normally reserved exclusively for Duty Free stores, can now be purchased exclusively online and directly through the distillery — proof that at least something positive has come out of 2020.

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As is customary for an Octomore release, three of the four whiskies this year are each 5 years old, though they display unmistakable individual character based on the grains used in their distillation or the casks selected for their maturation and finishing.

“I love the vitality and exuberance of those whiskies,” Adam Hannett, Bruichladdich’s head distiller, said of the three youthful expressions in this year’s lineup.

As additional proof that 2020 has delivered slivers of positivity, the 11th installment of Octomore includes a 10-year-old whisky, which takes the spot normally reserved for a heavily-peated whisky aged exclusively in virgin oak.

To better acquaint you with the four whiskies in this year’s release, the following breakdowns offer insight from Hannett and also from Allan Logan, Bruichladdich’s production director. Those breakdowns also associate each expression with a particular style of playing golf, because just as there’s more than one way to make par, there’s more than one way to enjoy the peaty flavors and aromas of Scotland’s most polarizing style of single-malt whisky. 

Bruichladdich — Octomore Elevens Series
Bruichladdich broke from the norm in 2020 and released all four of its limited-edition whiskies at the same time — just in time for the holidays.

The Straight Shooter
Octomore 11.1 ($199.99) is the whisky equivalent of the golfer who doesn’t stand out but does everything well. The kind of player who hits average-length drives, is most often on the green in regulation, and rarely three-putts.

The pale, straw-colored liquid doesn’t convey richness, and yet this 5-year-old whisky delivers a silky mouthfeel and layered flavors — two characteristics born from a long fermentation process and a slow distillation. “I’m getting lots of lemon, lots of citrus, honey, and vanilla,” said Hannett as he nosed this whisky. “It’s beautiful. The phenols are there.

“On the palate, it’s soft, it’s not aggressive. Those light elegant flavors shine and then the peat rolls in at the end.”

For enthusiasts of this style of whisky, that long finish is this expression’s crowning achievement.

The Artist
To think creatively from tee to green, dreaming up shots and then executing them in a way that allows you to successfully play a hole — even if not by traditional means — may be the most rewarding way to play golf. It’s a style of play that greats like Seve Ballesteros made famous, and it’s also a style of play that motivated and inspired those great players to continue playing at their best.

The 11.2 expression ($184.99) is the Octomore equivalent of the creative artist who wields a 7-iron. The 5-year-old whisky, bottled at 58.6 percent Alcohol by Volume (ABV), delivers notes of dried fruit and toasted nuts, along with hints of honey, citrus, and dark chocolate. It’s an artful marriage of whiskies matured in ex-American whiskey casks and ex-Pauillac French wine barrels, which were then vatted and finished in St. Julien wine casks for 18 months.

Not surprisingly, all of the whisky’s flavors and aromas intermingle with traces of that characteristic peat-forward smokiness.

Grip It And Rip It
Much like Octomore 11.1, the 11.3 expression ($259.99) is 5 years old and matured exclusively in ex-bourbon casks. As Hannett acknowledges, “they’re basically the same whiskies.” And yet, 11.3 delivers a different mouthfeel and texture, and its flavors are balanced in different ways on the palate. Bottled at 61.7 percent ABV, Octomore 11.3 is slightly stronger than this year’s opening expression (59.4 percent ABV), and its peppery, exotic spice notes (think cardamom) are a reflection of the Islay-grown barley used to make this particular whisky.

In fact, as Logan explains, that Islay barley is grown right near the ocean’s edge at Octomore Farm. “As the barley is grown it takes in that saltiness and it stays with the grain through the malting, mashing, and distilling,” he said. “You get that salty dryness on the palate.”

Big and bold, this is the Octomore expression for the player who pulls driver from his bag on every tee box, even when the water’s edge comes into play.

The Risk-Taker
Some amateur golfers place more emphasis on the thrill of successfully hitting a low-percentage “hero shot” than laying up and making what they would deem a “boring” par. It might take a while for those players to pull off such a miraculous shot, but they’ll tell you that the glory of the moment (when it finally arrives) is always worth the wait.

Similarly, Octomore 11.4 ($234.99), the final expression in this year’s Octomore lineup, required twice as much patience as the other whiskies released this year. It has been skillfully blended from 77 distinct casks of 10-year-old liquid, aged either in ex-American whisky barrels or Virgin oak. According to Hannett, this is a whisky that makes you stop and consider (or reconsider) what the entire Octomore range is about. Bottled at 54.3 percent ABV, the 11.4 expression is nuanced and layered, one that reveals more of itself with each sip.

“You’re extracting more flavor from the wood, so the balance of the whisky really changes,” said Hannett, acknowledging how an additional five years in the barrel influences the final product. “You get a touch of dryness but that toasted oak is coming through, and malty sweet sugar on the palate and a touch of smoke. It’s an absolutely stunning whisky.”

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