To be honest, peating levels shouldn’t be a competition. “My ppm is bigger than yours” sounds pretty ridiculous however you dress it up. This sort of thing might be construed as macho willy-waving and not very big or clever – but it’s certainly sparked debate and everyone seems to have an opinion, judging by the deluge of comments we had on the blog after the previous Octomore / Supernova post!
So it is with a certain irony that I’ve christened this tasting The Mega Peat Face-Off. Now, before anyone gets their Calvins in a twist, can I just say that I’m not trying to stir anything here. Who knows (or indeed cares) the reasons, if any, that led two of the most talked-about distilleries in the industry to release super-peated whiskies at practically the same time? Whose idea was it first and who nicked it? Does anyone actually give a monkey’s thingummy? I can say with confidence that the answer to literally none of these questions is below.
However, the facts are that, whatever anyone may think about them, these whiskies are out there and (intentionally or not) they would seem to be in competition, so we’ve put them up against each other. No-one is going to lose anything by this comparison as all of them have sold out on release, to be devoured by those voracious masses that Willie JJ (to whom I’m indebted for a sample of the Octomore 01.1) has brilliantly dubbed ‘Madbeggars’.
This tasting was conducted with my good friends and compadres Joel and Neil, Drammie award-winning bloggers (he said through only slightly gritted teeth) of the famous caskstrength.net, and our friend and committed peat-freak, Darrell. Many thanks to Joel for hosting the event and cooking some delicious food.
So, to business. Up first was the Octomore Futures (for which many thanks go to Warren for his extremely generous sample). We decided to go with this first as it was the only one of the whiskies tasted that wasn’t cask strength, having been reduced to 46%.
Octomore Futures (bottled April ’08, 46%)
Nose: More restrained than I expected. Dominated by coal dust, but with a background of lemon and a creamy aroma. Lemon curd? Peppery. Develops the Caramac (it’s a creamy chocolate bar for non-UK readers) character that I associate with young whiskies. Becomes farmyardy.
Palate: Extremely intense pepper and coal flavours, and a sugary sweetness – but somehow lacking in texture and depth. Salty. There’s no getting round the fact that this is clearly a young whisky – not necessarily a bad thing by any means, but what you gain in exuberance and vitality you lose in complexity.
Finish: Hot. Coal, pepper and lemon again. Saltiness.
Comment: Pleasant enough flavours, but unbalanced and tastes young. Lacking in complexity, as the coal character knocks everything else out of the way.
Next up, it’s the official
Nose: See above. Caramac, instantly, and again the impression is of youth. Farmyardy aromas – hay, manure. Cocoa powder. With time, develops grassy aromas, possibly runner beans and a faint whiff of shortcake or pastry.
Palate: Again, it’s all about lemon juice and coal. Salt, a chilli pepper hotness and some clove. Water magnifies the coal. Lacks balance.
Finish: TCP, pepper and coal.
Comment: Obliterates the palate with pepper and hot coalsmokey flavours. As with the Futures, the abiding impression is of immaturity.
On to the Ardbegs. For the sake of comparison we included the Elements Ar1, which obviously I have to declare an interest in as it’s bottled by TWE. As far as I know this doesn’t include any super-peated stock (and I’m sure Ardbeg wouldn’t have allowed any of those casks to get onto the independent market), but it’s a cask-strength Ardbeg of a slightly older average age to the Supernova and Octomore, so it’s worth including.
Elements of Islay Ar1
Nose: Much richer than either of the Octomores, with a strong honeycomb character. Also peppery, develops hints of fruit (pineapple?). Natural caramel sweetness.
Palate: Big pepper and coal once again. Burnt turf. Chilli heat. A medicinal character not present in the Octomores, with bandages and toffee. A richer texture and stronger flavours.
Finish: Long and very warm, without being harsh. The coal lingers but there’s also a balancing sweetness.
Comment: Deliciously peppery. This has a bigger body and more depth and texture than the Octomores. A more complete whisky.
Below are my original tasting notes for this bottling when we released it last year.
Nose: Fresh and clean. Sweet and peppery, with soot and spices. Hints of Caramac bar and smoked cereals, then becomes grassy, with damp earth, kippers and wet peat. With time, natural caramel / white chocolate & nougat (Toblerone?) and some faint smoky bacon characteristics. Water soothes the peat and lifts the grassy characteristics.
Palate: Honey, then white pepper, cinnamon, chilli powder, coal. Warm and mouthfilling when neat. A very big peat presence, but not overpowering thanks to some lovely sweet, syrupy malt notes. Water seems to make the palate more savoury and emphasises the spices.
Finish: Epic. Very long and warming, with persistent spice, pepper and earthy peat settling in, but also some honey to maintain the balance.
Comment: A deliciously intense sweet peat treat. Fine with water, but you’ll get more joy out of it neat.
This has been very interesting so far. Time for the
Ardbeg Supernova, for which I’ve already done in-depth tasting notes here, so I will keep these brief.
Nose: Easily the sweetest so far, with Crunchie bars, golden honey, brine, lemon and shortbread.
Palate: As per my previous notes, coal and pepper dominate, but crucially there is a compensating creamy sweetness rounding out the palate.
Finish: A slow fade, with all the flavours for the palate persisting very well. Becomes more citrussy, with lemon juice and orange zest.
Comment: Very enjoyable, and again the impression is of a more balanced, multi-dimensional whisky. I am becoming very fond of my bottle of Supernova.
So there you have it. You can probably tell that I felt that the Ardbegs showed better than the Octomores on the night, and I think this was the view of the other guys as well. I think it’s clear that these kind of uber-peated whiskies are fine as long as there’s other flavours in there to balance them out. Without balance they can be a bit mono-dimenensional.
To sum up, in my view the law of diminishing returns applies to ppm and there is such a thing as ‘too peaty’ – it’s when you can’t taste anything else.
Overall, the Octomores probably were peatier, but peatiness in itself shouldn’t be the object of a whisky, and the Ardbegs were both more enjoyable because of their broader range of flavours. No doubt future releases of Octomore will show the extra maturity and more complex flavours that a very peaty whisky needs.
We had a few more drams afterwards, mostly Ardbegs, with the Corryvreckan committee bottling showing particularly well. I’m afraid I didn’t do tasting notes for these as by then we’d moved into a discussion of the abundant merits of John Lennon’s solo oeuvre, my fondness for mid-’90s electronica and the recurring theme of just how very excited we all are about our upcoming trip to this year’s Feis Ile – 59 days and counting!
Thanks again to Joel for having us round for what was a great evening.
So, have I been fair? What do you reckon to the Peat-Off and its results? Please feel free to post your (preferably non-abusive) views in the comments section below…