How many phenols?

IN

Few at Bruichladdich would claim themselves scientists. Our whisky-making has always been about heart and soul, and intuition. Rarely do we keep ourselves awake at night worrying about compounds or congeners. Our best work uses the senses because at the end of the day, whisky is for drinking.

That being said, we have come to respect analysis and accuracy in our work, in order to pass on information to you at home. Our commitment to transparency, and to feeding your thirst for knowledge has led us to divulge an abundance of information on our bottles, tins, labels or webpages. We believe our loyal following has come to respect these declarations.

Octomore enthusiasts will notice the readings on the side of our tins are precise, with the measurement of phenol parts per million (PPM) stated to the decimal point. This measurement refers to the PPM of the malted barley before distillation. It is not commonplace for any distiller to declare the phenol content of the spirit after distillation or maturation. Indeed, phenols are lost throughout distillation and maturation, so the PPM level displayed on our tins is a reference point for where our malt started on its journey. It is not the solo indication of flavour in the glass.

The validity of this measurement has been called into question in recent weeks. It has been refuted that you cannot achieve a PPM level higher than “over 120 or 130PPM”. Furthermore, it has been claimed that you cannot measure the accuracy of phenol PPM down to the decimal point.

For anyone as intrigued as we were by these claims, we have provided the malt analysis of one of our Octomore batches – measured by High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC). It’s worth noting that there are several means to test phenol content of malt, and HPLC is considered most accurate. Our example below had been sampled for us by our malting partners in Inverness, Bairds, and was analysed by Tatlock and Thomson, both independent entities.

Adam Hannet working in Bruichladdich's sample room

Once we receive each load at the distillery we draw a sample of the malt and send to Tatlock and Thomson who specialise in analysis for the whisky industry.

Shedding some light on Octomore, our head distiller Adam Hannett:

“Bairds peat the malt for us, of course, and with each batch they send certificates of analysis to give the PPM. Baird’s Inverness site uses Saladin boxes for malting, each with a capacity of around 40T of malt which is relatively small batches, giving us varying PPM levels from batch to batch The kilning process Bairds use, at our request, is especially long over peat – five days at low temperature – this helps us achieve a high PPM but slows the production process down for Bairds and is a reason why other commercial maltings do not produce in a similar way.

“Once we receive each load at the distillery we draw a sample of the malt and send to Tatlock and Thomson who specialise in analysis for the whisky industry. They analyse the samples using the  HPLC method to give us a certificate of analysis with a total PPM – this is the certificate we would use to declare the PPM for each Octomore release and it refers to the start of the journey of discovery with Octomore. Historically Bairds requested the analysis from Tatlock and Thomson to verify their own results, however we now take control of the analysis at all stages of distillation and maturation so we can trace the phenols through the process to better understand the final flavours and the influence that our distillation style and cut points have on the differing levels of phenols that make Octomore so unique.

“There is no consistency in the PPM result from each batch of Octomore malt. Rather than seek consistency by blending in unpeated malt, we use what we’ve been provided with, so long as it is over 80 PPM, which is our minimum requirement for Octomore. While it is common practice for Scotch distillers to pursue a consistent PPM level in their malt, we have questioned this pre-conceived wisdom in our Octomore experiments, deviating from the norm in each limited release. Octomore came into being as a question, as a challenge, and an exploration of how we distil, and how we think about peat in our whisky.

“I consider Octomore an exploration of Single Malt whisky. Our PPM levels are a huge factor in the base layer of our flavour profile, but it doesn’t end there. We have always been interested in the nuance, and the detail, in pursuing flavour through variation; through age, distillation style and techniques, cask maturation, or bottling strength. With each release of Octomore, we declare several details that influence its flavour profile, the PPM of the malt when we started production is just one of these. To focus solely on the PPM number is to miss the point of Octomore entirely.”

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