For peat’s sake! Who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

The beautiful whisky mecca of Islay is home to eight operational distilleries, with another one in development at Ardnahoe, and the island is renowned for its peaty, smoky drams. While not all Islay drams fall into the smoky category, there is one that goes above and beyond. Bruichladdich’s Octomore range is a bit of a cult hero among peat-heads, being responsible for some of the most heavily peated whiskies in the world. The latest series from Head Distiller Adam Hannett isn’t just peaty, it’s a Masterclass.

Bruichladdich Head Distiller, Adam Hannett

The first release in the Octomore Masterclass series – named Octomore Masterclass_08.1 as though it was more suited to being stored on your hard drive than in your drinks cabinet – is an 8 year old that was distilled in 2009. The peat levels are a huge 167ppm (phenols per million), but the real story is in the casks. Every drop of this dram has matured in first-fill American oak casks from some of the biggest names in bourbon: Buffalo Trace, Jim Beam, Four Roses, Heaven Hill and Jack Daniels all make an appearance in the line-up. All these casks matured on Islay for the full 8 years before being vatted together and bottled at 59.3% abv without chill-filtration or artificial colouring.

The result is a refined dram full of confidence. There’s tar and peat on the nose, with sweeter vanilla fudge and candied orange notes. The palate is soft and delicate with a cracking fruit and smoke mix, melon and citrus mingling with sweet oak and soft sea spray. The finish is smooth and sweet with the inevitable smoke lingering on.

Octomore Farmer, James Brown (no relation to the king of soul)

There’s due to be four Octomores in the Masterclass series, but so far we’ve only managed to enrol in two. Next up on the timetable is Octomore Masterclass_08.3 Islay Barley, which is (a wee bit confusingly for this old timer at least) not 8 but 5 years old. The lesson here is akin to the mustard seed parable: from humble beginnings grow the mightiest trees. The autumn of 2010 was wet and windy and a late harvest saw Octomore farmer James Brown facing heavy losses from geese and wild deer, meaning there was very little of his barley to harvest. The maltmen weren’t expecting much from the grain, but to everyone’s surprise the HPLC – that’s High-Performance Liquid Chromatography for those in the know – gave readings of a massive 309.1ppm! Using this humble harvest from one farm, one field and one vintage, the barley was trickle-distilled in 2011 and filled to a combination of ex-bourbon American oak and European oak ex-Pauillac, Ventoux, Rhone and Burgundy casks to mature.

Bottled at 61.2% abv, again without chill-filtration or artificial colouring, only 18,000 bottles were produced. Described as a thunderstorm of a dram, the nose opens with toasted oak, peaty smoke, maple syrup, cherry, peach and mango. The palate is a shock to the senses with massive peat to the fore. A second sip introduces cherry and peach, sweet oak and dark chocolate, all atop the ever-present peat. The finish has complex brown sugar and dark plum, with a lingering burnt heather and roasted coffee. Wow.

If this is just half of the Masterclass series, I can’t wait for the second semester!