I recently posted a fairly unflattering account of the Chenin Blanc finished Bruichladdich, which will go down in memory as one of the more peculiar bottles of whiskey I’ve had in my life. Well before having that adventure, I’d planned on opening a bottle of Octomore early in the new year. I’ve had the bottle open for a while now and let it develop as I’ve gotten to know it, and I think it’s safe to confirm that the Chenin Blanc just had something weird going on. Bruichladdich (and Jim McEwan) can make a great whiskey, no doubt about it.
Octomore, for those who aren’t following the intricacies of whiskey nerd-dom, is a whisky produced by Bruichladdich. Unlike Bruichladdich, though, Octomore is heavily peated. If you’re thinking Ardbeg peatiness, think again. Ardbeg measures 24ppm (ppm is a measure of the phenols from peat smoke). Octomore Orpheus? Oh, not much – just 140ppm. Yes, it’s a little crazy and extreme – but there’s nothing wrong with that. Beer drinkers have their IBU wars with hops; why can’t whiskey go extreme with ppm?
Orpheus actually is my first encounter with a super-peated whiskey. Though it had gotten good reviews, I half-expected it to have the nose and palate of a raging inferno at a tannery. Unlike the mainline Octomore releases, Orpheus is finished in Chateau Petrus casks. Sometimes wine finishes can be a little gimmicky or overpower the underlying spirit. In this case, the spirit is so intense that I wondered if the wine finish would have much influence.
As expected, the nose initially had a strong kick of intense peat – an earthy richness with a faint rubber note. Underneath the peat were some grains – barley and a hint of popcorn (of all things). Not unexpectedly for a Bruichladdich, it was lightly briny and had just a slight bit of perfume. After this initial show, the nose started to reveal the fruit – hints of cara cara oranges, lemons, and after some time, a touch of grilled pineapple and apricot. There’s also the faintest hint of buttercream vanilla as well. Despite the high ABV it wasn’t initially strong on the nose (though subsequent pours have occasionally been a bit sharp).
The palate is rich and coating, and low heat despite the proof. Obviously there’s plenty of peat influence – tar, rubber, and some smoke. Underneath the peat on the palate, citrus fruit notes come through again – orange and lemon. There’s some slight brine and faint fennel; hay and gentle malt provide a foundation for it all.
The finish is as long as you’d expect – eternally long. It’s more reminiscent of a cookout than a campfire. Again, on the finish, the fruit notes pop up a bit – lemon and orange, but they fade relatively quickly. There’s a rubbery note again, and the grilled pineapple from the nose makes an appearance again, as does a bit of banana.
At 61%, I thought I’d check to see what happens when a little water is added. It simplifies things in a fairly pleasing way, but it does cost some of the more unusual fruit notes. The nose focuses on barley and lemon, with the peat providing a foundation for everything. The palate is similarly changed – barley comes through in a big way and subdues the fruit influence overall. A bit of white pepper creeps in too. Finally, the finish becomes more generally sweet, but has a more pronounced kick of fennel.
Overall, Orpheus is a richly nuanced whisky. Despite the massive peat, it’s still fruity and light. In fact, I’ve had pours where the peat recedes quite dramatically and you’re mainly left with the fruit notes. I tend to think of Orpheus as a December cookout just off the Pacific Coast Highway. Despite the high ABV and intense peat, it can have a light character.
It’s a pretty interesting whisky – I’ll be interested in trying more Octomores in the future. It’s possible that without the wine finish they’re much more one-dimensional. However, this is a great one to start with.
At a glance:
Octomore 02.2 Orpheus 5y (61% ABV) – 140ppm
Nose: An initial strong kick of intense peat – earthy and rich, with a faintly rubbery tone. Underneath, some grains – barley and a hint of popcorn. Slightly briny tone, lightly perfumey. There’s a lot of fruitiness – slight hint of cars cars oranges, a little lemon, and a touch of grilled pineapple with some apricots. There’s the faintest, faintest buttercream vanilla as well. Water focuses the nose more on barley and lemon with the peat.
Palate: Rich and coating, low heat despite the high proof. Plenty of peat – tar, rubber, smoke. Some orange underpins it and lemon too. Slight brine, faint fennel, some hay and gentle malt flavors. Water brings up more barley notes, subdues the fruit influence and adds a bit of white pepper.
Finish: Eternally long smoke and peat. Cookout versus campfire. The fruit notes pop up a bit – lemon and orange fade. Hints of rubber, some grilled pineapple, and a touch of banana. Water makes the finish sweet but with a pronounced fennel kick.
Comment: Richly nuanced. Fruity and light around all the massive peat – it’s like a December cookout with fruits and veggies off of PCH. Despite the intense ABV it still has a light nature.