DIALOGOS Debate: Greg Dillon

IN

We asked drinks writer Greg Dillon for his personal take on our Octomore debate. The following article was commissioned by the distillery but has remained unedited in the spirit of being objective:

Being a big fan of peated whisky, I’m naturally drawn to some of the interesting, the unique and the powerful drams that the whisky industry has to offer, no matter what age the whisky in question is and the level of peat the bottle contains.

A lot gets made of age when it comes to whisky, both by consumers and producers, with the general convention being that older is better, and that an escalating number scale present on the bottle is an indication of quality and, maybe more importantly for producers, a justification of the price escalation in the range.

This all makes sense on a rational level; with age comes maturity and with time in oak comes rarity owing to the average 2% evaporation – known as the Angels’ Share – per annum from each cask. But does age always mean quality? Oftentimes yes, it does, but not just because it is old, but because of the high quality wood used in maturation that houses high quality spirit that went in to the cask in the first place.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to sample whiskies of all ages from fresh spirit flowing through the spirit safe to a wondrous independently bottled 75-Year-Old single cask whisky and what I can definitely say is that the enjoyment and flavour notes we detect when we sample our drams is so subjective that it keeps many of us in a job, and keeps the industry innovating with new releases! What you experience from your whisky will be different – either slightly or totally – to how I experience the same dram. This is part of the reason I love this mighty fine spirit.

Incidentally one of very few whiskies I’ve tried and not found a reason to enjoy it was a 50-Year-Old whisky commanding a price around £20,000. Having a very aged whisky in your bottle and glass does not always guarantee of quality.

Ultimately it would be boring if we all experienced whisky in the same way and all liked the same whiskies… there would probably only be a need for a coupe of brands; the one we all like, and the one that the hipsters pose with on Instagram.

If I may share a story from my book, The GreatDrams of Scotland; “myself and several other whisky writers were invited to a blind tasting of six single cask whiskies by The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) a couple of years back. We all went through the evening at the same pace and drinking them in the same order, no variables whatsoever. Two whiskies were in their 30s, two were in their 20s, two were sub-ten years old, but we did not know that at the time. At the end of the evening we all had to submit our favourites and a single cask whisky aged nine years won the bulk of the votes. Humbling and a welcome reminder for all involved that age is but a number, it is how you enjoy the whisky that matters”.

This is especially true of peated whiskies in my experience.

As peated whisky matures, the peat influence diminishes gradually as the oak influence increases gradually, so the irony in that sub-category of whisky is that the younger peated whiskies will give you a more flavoursome, and powerful peat influence.

So why is this the case?

Because of the above, I personally like to drink younger peated whiskies as it allows me to experience the nuances the distiller has managed to create in their spirit during their honed, or experimental, fermentation and distillation process and the balance of the peat before the wood starts to grow in influence.

Take Octomore for example, the meaty, peaty power is retained as the spirit the brand bottles is younger than most other peated whiskies in the market (or at least younger than those with declared ages, but that’s an article for another time).

This younger spirit is still holding onto those peat phenols and more of the ingredients’ flavour whilst simultaneously fighting the oaky takeover that comes with age, meaning the whiskies bottled in the Octomore range are monsters, especially as they are bottled at relatively high ABVs and packaged in heavy black or frosted glass bottles that themselves look quite menacing at first glance.

And it works.

For peated whiskies to work at this age the distillers producing it must invest in the highest quality of ingredients – especially the wood as this will be the part in the whisky creation process that has the most impact on flavour, and has all the impact on colour as when fresh spirit goes into the cask it is crystal clear.

Originally created to see if something like this would be possible, the Octomore super-heavily peated single malt whisky range – described by the brand as an “iron fist in the velvet glove” – is a tough one for some whisky folk to get into, a flag to wave for some and a natural ’next step’ for others. It really is a whisky to spend time with and to persevere with in order to fully understand it, as once you do you will see and experience the softer side to it too.

Is there an ideal age for a single malt?

I don’t think so, but I think the exploration of younger ages as well as older ages is going to grow in popularity when you get to experience the uniqueness of drams such as Octomore.

This is especially true as lower ages becomes the norm and we as a collective stop raising an eyebrow when seeing a single malt Scotch whisky with an age statement in single digits as new distilleries releasing their first mature spirit the second it hits 3 Years Old.

So go forth; rise to the challenge, experience the power and proudly master the Octomore, the untameable beast from the peaceful and serene island of Islay.

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