This is the second part of a three-part series on Bruichladdich’s Octomore 11 release. For my review of 11.1, which includes all the background, click here.
The Octomore x.3 releases are always made from 100% Islay barley from Octomore Farm grown by “The Godfather of Soil” James Brown. This year’s 11.3 release is 5 years old and was aged in ex-bourbon American oak casks from a variety of bourbon distilleries, namely Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace, and Jack Daniels. It was distilled in 2014 from the 2013 crop of Concerto barley grown on Octomore Farm, which was first shipped to Bairds Maltings in Inverness to malt it to 194 ppm. After aging, 11.3’s limited run of 18,000 bottles were bottled at 61.7% ABV without chill filtration or added coloring. Although it is cask strength, Bruichladdich mixes in a “just a drop” of spring water from Octomore Farm’s natural spring.
While researching for the Octomore 11 campaign, I made a point to watch the 2018 documentary Scotch: A Golden Dream (I found it on Amazon but it’s probably available elsewhere) because it heavily features Bruichladdich. In it, Jim McEwan talks about the soil of Islay and why he goes to such cost-inefficient lengths to get 100% Islay barley. He talks about how mainland Scottish farms can pull 3 or 3.5 tons of barley per acre in yield while Islay’s difficult climate maxes out around 2 tons. Moreover, he talks about how the rain and spray from the rough seas nearby puts brine directly into the soil. This not only contributes to Islay peat’s characteristic oceanic flavors, it also affects the barley that grows in the soil there. As he says in the film, “How does that salty flavor manifest itself in the whisky? Barley grown on Islay has a fantastic fresh citrus lemon and honey flavor. The smell is just fantastic… just evocative of Islay.”
My favorite story from doing the research for the Octomore 11 campaign was the description of Ileach farmer James Brown, escorting the first delivery of his Islay-grown barley through the gates of Bruichladdich distillery by marching in front of the truck in full Scottish regalia – kilt and all – playing the bagpipes. You can’t make this stuff up.
My tasting sample was provided by Bruichladdich for “The Octomore 11” Campaign.
Nose: Wow – so immediately different from Octomore 11.1. There’s a strong spicy raw ginger and gingersnap cookie aroma that greets the nose first, followed by green grass. As with 11.1, the nose tickle is powerful so be careful about going too deep in the glass. After a rest in the glass (do this!) a bouquet of floral notes arrive, along with creamy vanilla custard. There seems to be far less citrus (or any fruit) than the 11.1. The peat is also very muted, although it is present in the form of wet earth.
Palate: Syrupy body. After a white-hot searing tongue burn, there is black pepper, pickled ginger, brown bread, and sweet barley.
Finish: Long. The peat now comes rolling in but still not as strong as expected. The peat is dark and earthy and not very smoky. The ginger and black pepper persist, and now there’s an aroma of rich dark earth and extra-dark chocolate. Not bitter. Note that on subsequent sips the peat seems to build up, and then starts to deliver the more classic Islay peat flavors you’d expect. On the tail end, a surprising note of roasted coffee bean.
With Water: Several drops of water seem to tease out a thread of lime zest that was missing, but otherwise don’t appear to have any effect on the aroma. The palate is a little crisper, with more evident (mostly citrus) fruit. The peat on the finish is also more evident, but it’s also more bitter. This dram seems to benefit from the addition of a little water.
Overall: In previous editions I preferred the x.3 for its vibrancy and clear conveyance of barley. This time, the grapefuit notes in the 11.1 won me over versus the somewhat muddled chocolate-and-earth notes in 11.3. The peat was also clearer, crisper, and better-integrated in 11.1. It’s good… really good… but if you’re only going to get one edition this year, get the 11.1. Unless, of course, you can afford the 10 year…