"But since it falls unto my lot
Some friends have asked me which whisky I would choose as a "parting glass", owing to that Celtic song made famous by warrior poets and heralds. My answer would undoubtedly be Bruichladdich's Octomore "Orpheus" - one of the rarest and most elusive spirits in my cabinet. My brother (well versed in all things music history) tells me that the Clancy Brothers used to end every live performance with "Parting Glass". Internet research tells me that it was once the most popular song in Scotland, until Robert Burns introduced "Auld Lang Syne". The beauty of the song, linked above, is that it's a toast, an homage. It recognizes fellowship and those who have gone before. I first heard it shortly after a dear friend committed suicide last year, and it has been a song of tribute for me ever since.
This is an update of the Orpheus review I posted last night. I was admittedly tired and out of sorts from the Boston bombing news. In my weariness I somehow broke one of my cardinal rules of blogging: never write something you don't want to write. The review was meandering, unfocused, filled with fluff and metaphor and very little tangible benefit. I have found that if I am writing something I care about, the words and thoughts tend to flow deftly from my fingers. It's as if God gives me one little moment to speak with authority, and then I'm back in a rut, staring at the screen and wondering how it happened. If I stare too long, I risk upsetting the sacred construction that now stands on its own. So I'm rebuilding. It's like Bikram Choudhury (well established Yoga hack, but yogi just the same) says: "It's never too late to start from scratch."
My goal with these reviews is not to reinvent the wheel, but to challenge some of the well-established moors of spirit blogging. If you read it and learn nothing about the spirit, the maker, the terroir... well then, I've failed to do my job. So let's start over. You can still take a moment to listen to that marvelous rendition of "Parting Glass' from the Wailin' Jennys above, and then perhaps have a moment of silence for those affected by the evil in Boston.
Among those well-versed in whiskies, the words "Bruichladdich Octomore" carry an almost mythical amount of weight. I'm guessing that part of it stems from the sheer difficulty of acquiring whiskies from this series (although I am blessed to have a local liquor store that still stocks several of them). It is helped by having the reputation of World's Peatiest Whisky, although I understand now that it is tied for this title.
Orpheus is edition 2.2 in the Octomore series, but perhaps the word "series" here requires a little explanation. After all, if I told you to go buy me a bottle of Glenlivet's 12yo you wouldn't be concerned about a series number - you'd just reach right off the shelf and deliver. Perhaps more challengingly, I could ask you to fetch me a bottle of Glenfiddich's Solera Vat series (worthy of commentary, to be sure, but then we haven't reviewed it yet). It would take some sticker searching, but eventually you'd realize that I'm talking about the 15yo and that the Solera Vat is an ongoing expression from this distillery that imparts a special, unique flavor profile outside of the normal barrel maturation process.
Octomore is little different, except that this particular distillery (Bruichladdich) is on an experimental tear as their new batch of spirit continues to age. We'll probably do a distillery profile on these guys in the near future, such is my fascination with them, but suffice it to say that no whisky sold to you comes promptly out of the still - it must be aged (by law, in fact) to even be called a whisky. This makes cash flow a bit of a problem unless you're looking to sell some very young (comparitive to the industry) whisky in the meantime. To do so risks derision at the hands of critics, as there is still a great deal of "older is better" mindset in the public mind.
You will not be surprised then when I tell you that Orpheus is only 5 years old. You may indeed be surprised to hear that it is phenomenal. Each release of Octomore has seen slight changes - ABV, phenol content, flavor profile - but Orpheus was one of the first to really shake up the foundation. Instead of simply waiting a year and bottling a 3.1, Jim McEwan had the foresight to put that Octomore spirit in some Bordeaux casks (Château Pétrus to be exact) and let it sit. The result is a distinct departure from the fundamental malty character of young Bruichladdich spirit. Let's pop that cork.
Ahhhhh, I can already smell the ashes. There's no doubt, that reputed peatiness leaps straight out of the bottle, a very forward presence. Alright there, laddie, hush a bit. Let's see what hearts beats beneath that obsidian veneer.
Upon the pour, we get a very elegant color: golden, red, warmer than the non-ACEd (Additional Cask Enhancement) Octomore. This color is obviously from the Bordeaux enhancement, but what's interesting is that the warm red hue fades to gold near the edges of the glass. I once likened it to a candle flame, flickering softly in your palm. In fact, I'd be surprised if your face didn't glow a bit (or perhaps it's just those peaty embers) if you lowered yourself down to it. Either way, you're holding your own little Glencairn vigil every time :-)
You don't want to nose this one straight out of the glass, not at 61% ABV. You'd burn the hair out of your nostrils (that is, if you have any left anyway)! Here comes the careful process of adding water. I can tell you from experience that this spirit can take quite a bit, but you need to add it in measures. As soon as you can nose it without blinking, stop. Add any more water and it quickly goes to soggy spirit hell, and trust me, there's nothing sadder than realizing you just ruined a pour from at $150 bottle :-(
On the nose we have that intense farmland smell, and I'm not necessarily referring to manure (wouldn't that be repugnant). It's definitely cow pasture though, which is fitting, because Octomore is named for the farm on Islay that sources this malt's barley. Earthy. Dirty. The sound of insects chirping in the mid-day sun comes to mind, along with grainy grasses sighing in the ocean breeze. If you're a lover of the earth (not the world, but the earth) then you'll dig (pun fully intended) the nose on this thing. That ABV heat is radiating something fierce. A little more water then.
Reveal your secrets! It's in subsequent dips that those winey notes finally make themselves heard under that barnyard symphony. A faint, subtle meaty sweetness. Alright then, I think I'm ready to go swimming!
As the spirit enters the palate, the first sensation is a an angry heat. This comes partly from the ABV, partly from those Octomore phenols. The peat takes a different form in this dram than your usual Islay affair. It's purer, less boggy, and decidedly not what you were fearing when you read it was 140 ppm phenols (phenols in parts per million are how we measure the "peatiness" or smokiness of most whiskies). I think one website likened this flash of heat to white pepper, but I'm going to go straight ahead and say that it's like biting into a fresh-picked cayenne pepper. Welcome to your first OC-flavored whisky ;-) Just kidding. Sort of.
Now that Laddie malt starts to shine through, and it is a sweet one. Take it from someone who generally abhors cereals (I know, Cereal Alchemist - who knew?) that this is one of the purest expressions you'll find in a whisky. In fact, I think Bruichladdich showcases the malt better than any Scotch on the market, always making it the star of the show. I credit this first to their extremely traditional malting method (despite their motto "progressive Hebridean distillers") and to the oldest operating spirit stills in Scotland. I do believe I like the cut of their jib! (and their whisky).
Just before the malt gives way to that winey finish I always notice a somewhat vegetal tone. This kind of makes sense - after all, we're talking about cayenne peppers and farms and what-not. I likened the flavor to the smell of tomato vine. If you could extract that scent and place it into a whisky, that's what you'd find here.
Where's the Bordeaux? It was hiding, but now it steps out into the sunlight, blinking as it stands amid the smoldering farmland. Take a bow, good sir! I love this finish in a whisky. Spoiler alert: I got to sample all of Glenmorangie's cask finishes for their next private edition at Whisky Live this year (part of their cask masters project). I thought the Burgundy finish was too much at war in the glass, and the Manzanilla wasn't distinctive enough to draw a line with Glenmo's existing flavor profile, but the Bordeaux was fantastic. I maintain the same here - of all the wine finishes I've sampled in a whisky (Bordeaux, Burgundy, port, manzanilla, sauternes, "Super Tuscan", Madeira), Bordeaux has to be the most intriguing. The finish is long (I'm still tasting it all in my mouth 10 minutes later), smoky, but predominantly sweet. It's like quenching a cajun-food fire in your mouth with a delicious red wine. Make sure you don't skip the water.
To quote master distiller Jim McEwan: "Wow! A single malt life support system! Massive, power-packed yet not aggressive. Petrus and Peat – who would have guessed that such diverse flavours could create something so amazing? Single malt sorcery! [...] Cunning, conspiratorial, Machiavellian. Whatever next?"
I do love how this man writes about his product! I'm reminded of a line from Dostoevsky: "We all come out from Gogol's 'Overcoat'". Only this time, we all come out from Jim McEwan's thesaurus ;-)
Tasting is a synesthetic experience. In this blog, every whisky gets a song - one that describes, suits, and evokes. I review any whisky that suits my fancy, and some that don't. I don't give scores. You'll know whether it's a winner or loser when we peel back its mysteries and start putting pen to paper.