Thursday, April 26, 2012

Octomore 01.1 Fierce or lovely; Doctor Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?

Jim McEwan of Bruichladdich has dazzled and influenced the whisky world with many of his exciting and innovative directions since taking over at the turn of the millenium.  Perhaps his boldest and most iconic direction is to make peated whiskies and bottle them young, at young hot cask strength, when the peat is fresh and fierce.  The excellent and popular Port Charlotte line exemplify this direction, but the ultimate expression of this style are the Octomores - the most highly peated whiskies in the world.  Octomore 01.1 was the first of the Octomore line and many reviews (such as this excellent one by Ruben at WhiskyNotes) identify it as the beefy brawny one.  Subsequent expressions have slightly higher phenol (peat) levels, but none were reputed to exceed it in intensity.  I didn't hesitate when an opportunity came to try it. 
Darth Vader is in the house.
Read it and weep: 5yrs 131ppm

Bruichladdich Octomore 01.1 Aged 5 years, 63.5% abv, peated at 131 ppm

Color:  pale chardonnay - a cliché, I know, but well warranted here.  Rich pale gold.

Nose:  putty, library paste, mineral clay, a hint of garage (motor oil, diesel, and petrol) and some maritime ocean air with notes of salt, iodine, and sea spray.  Further nosing reveals straw, dry malt, and some cut grass.  There is a hint of cereal sugars, but the nose is for the most part dry, mineral and industrial in feeling.
Chardonnay colored in the glass
All whisky progresses across the palate, but Octomore 01.1 divides the three phases of tasting (entry, mid-palate, and finish) into totally divergent personalities like Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Entry on the palate opens with a razor sharp burst of fresh clean vegetable sugars like treacle.  This sweetness is big - carried on the wings of a ton of alcohol intensity.  This sweetness is more than big; it is huge - and unexpected from the dry nose.  The sweetness steps aside 15-20 seconds into the sip and then the mid-palate explodes with rich peat.  Earthy, smoldering, notes of tar, clean hot burning anthracite coal, tire rubber, and oil coat the tongue and mouth.  Then 20-30 seconds later, at the turn to the finish, the big tar and fiery earth turns to ash, dense and with an almost bitter cast.  Over the next few minutes the ashes fade to a wistful echo of the piercing sweetness of the opening.  There are herbal notes in the sweetness of the long long finish.  A few minutes after the sip your palate is like a motorcyclist who has tumbled on the roadway and skidded many yards to a halt through the grassy margin and emerged scraped but unscathed: a bit raw but exhilarated (and perhaps a little freaked out).  There is char and herbs and a raw feeling on the gums, cheeks and tongue - the burn of 63.5% abv.  Better have another sip.  There's the putty, clay mineral and petrol nose.  Then WHAM, the huge razor sharp and extremely intense pointed sweetness of the opening and then the rich creeping triumph of huge mouth coating tar, anthracite coal and burning smoldering earthy peat fading gradually to ash and then wistful echo.  It's like the emotional progression of the Great War, from resolve to the wings of hope to the immolation of destruction to a melancholy burning rawness after the conclusion.  Ok, granted it's not an ordeal on that scale - but it is a wildly divergent set of fairly intense experiences. 
Samples bottled for the open shelf life experiment

Yes, drinking Octomore 01.1 is like a big journey from the heights of the most intense sweetness like angel's wings to the depths of fiery hell with the most char I've every had imprinted on my tongue by any whisky. 

How about a drop of water?  Water loosens the putty note in the nose and adds a distant bit of citrus and also some larger hint of the sugars.  Sweeter, fruiter, and a bit piquant; but still with that bit of garage and petrol.  The water does nothing to restructure that stately progression from intense sweet to intense fire to intense ash.  So I try adding even more water - about 10 drops total.  Now the nose is losing it, getting noticeably weaker but floral notes and sea moss have joined the citrus and clay and petrol.  But on the tongue the sweetness is less razor sharp and more lusciously honeyed.  The transition to the peat attack of the mid-palate is more gentle and gradual, and the peat attack itself is a bit softer with the vegetal notes and wistful sweetness showing up almost at the start of the finish so that the honeyed sweet entry almost seems to hand directly off to the ashy herbal sweetness of the finish.  Water makes it less intense, but no less lovely - perhaps even more so.  This is one of the very few drams I might actually prefer with a good drop of H2O.  

Comparing this to the Octomore 04.1 I'm struck more by the family resemblance than the differences.  Both are pale, powerful, razor sharp, and intensely sweet up from with huge earthy peat in the middle and huge coal ash at the end.  The 01.1 is has more motor oil, petrol, and mineral in the nose and midpalate.  04.1 is more earth and a more restrained refined aspect.  However they are clearly kin.  Both are exceptional experiences.  Both are extreme experiences.

Highly recommended, if you think you can handle it.  And if you can find it.  Try Park Avenue Liquors in NYC.

*****

This bottle will be part on an ongoing series of open shelf life experiments inspired by the fascinating series of experiments on the effects of oxidation and evaporation on whiskey left in open bottles performed by Ryan of Value Whisky Reviews / Value Bourbon Reviews.  Follow the link above to read his 3 posts on the topic.  The experimental methodology is to fill samples when the bottle is first opened and then compare them with the bottle over time as its contents oxidize.  I'll be performing these experiments on an ongoing basis.  Thus, when I opened this bottle I filled 5 two oz. sample bottles and will compare them with the remains of the bottle over time.  I'll be looking at mouth feel, aromatics, nose, and flavor and will use Ryan's five point scale of discernible affects.  I'll try to do comparison tastings at 3 months, 6 months, 9 months, and a year. 

9 comments:

  1. The 2.140 is coming into Portland right now. It certainly sounds like intriguing stuff, but the price is a little eye-watering given the age. For younger peated whisky, I'll stick with the locally produced McCarthy's Single Malt.

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    1. Hi Jordan. I'll be looking for the McCarthy's. 2nd time I've heard of it in 24 hours:
      http://www.clearcreekdistillery.com/whiskey.html

      You're absolutely right about the price of Octomore. My review of the 04.1 was retweeted by Bruichladdich with the title "Fear or Frugality" because I talked about why I never tried Octomore even though I was a huge Bruichladdich fan and the reason was it's just too darned expensive. Maybe they'll find a clue to amp up production and get the price down. I doubt it. I suspect that the potential market for just fierce fluid is small. Only the really die hard peat heads are going to down this in any quantity.

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    2. The price really is the killer for me. McCarthy's is a pretty similar age, but roughly 1/3 the price. Which is still fairly expensive for a 3-5 year old spirit, considering the kind of whisky that $50 will buy you these days. There are probably reasons why Octomore is so expensive, other than that happens to be what people will pay for it, but it's still a little hard for me to fathom.

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    3. I would just be speculating about Octomore's price. Maybe they have to jump through some extra hoops to get the phenol levels way up into the stratosphere? Maybe they are just really clever from a marketing perspective? I haven't tried the McCarthy's, but I've had a lot of Islay malt whiskies. The Octomores are pretty special. They have more fire and firepower than pretty much anything I've ever had in the spirit world. If you hanker for density of flavor the Octomores bring it. I'm not saying it's for everyday drinking - far from it...

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  2. Really great (i.e. well written) review, Josh. Good enough that I'm happy drinking this one vicariously through you ;-) There's just no way I can justify $200 for this. I might as well get a hot coal and see how long I can hold it in my mouth, and save a lot of money!

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    1. LOL! I hear you about the price and also about the hot coal. It's blistering. My mouth is still raw this morning. Most people say how Octomores seem more sweet and mild than they were suspecting such highly peated drams would be. I think few people would say that about this one. It's just about my limit. I can't wait to try giving some to my Mother-in-law the peat head. She happily down Uigeadail, PC7, and Lagavulin. I wonder if she'll crow or curse when I give her this! (probably both). You hear that, Muzzer! This is coming your way!

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    2. Wow, your kids have one bad Grandma :-P

      I think you're right on with your comment above to Jordan. I can't imagine them ramping up production. It doesn't sound like this is a product very many people are going to want to buy repeatedly and keep around. Buy it once to try, maybe, but I think this is straining the limits of the "peat bubble." I don't think I'd sit down and watch a movie on a Friday night with a glass of Octomore!

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    3. First... fantastic review Josh! Sounds like a real horrorshow (always wanted to use that word in a sentence. Not sure if I used it correctly, but it sure seemed appropriate!) of a whisky! It sounds way way way over the top. I would totally try this.

      As far as a movie pairing, this past weekend I sat through the director's cut of Alien (the first one) and snippets of The Terminator. This might be the whisky for those fantastic films, i.e. industrial and brutal. Also, I hear The Road is pretty darn bleak (the book was infinitely bleak), so that may work too. Lots of ash and nuclear winter references in the book.

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    4. Oh, G-LO! Bruichladdich's own web site makes Octomore 1.1's creation sound like a mad science experiment like Frankenstein: "it started out as a late night "what if?" idea after a few drams. what if we distilled the most heavily-peated barley humanly possible, in the tall, narrow-necked bruichladdich stills designed by the harvey brothers in 1881 to make the purest spirit possible?"

      Mixing the dark and dirty with the light and high and angelic. I'm totally bringing you a dram when I see you...

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