It’s getting cold. Not cold, cold, but cooler. The post-summer dialling back of the clocks is nearly upon us, awarding us an extra hour of sleep at the price of the earlier darkening of evenings. At Ape, we’re no enemies of winter; chillier mornings justify new sartorial purchases, while consuming excessive quantities of cinnamon-covered anything is among our favourite of the many bad habits permissible at this time of year.
A choice favourite, however, from our list of not so regrettable winter sins has got to be spirits which stave off the grim weather by warming the heart, the throat… and just about everything else. Whilst we typically reach for a bottle of a rich and sherried whisky to sit by the fire with, we’re developing a bit of a penchant for the most polarising of all whisky styles: the peated, saline-driven beasts which typically hail from Scotland’s western coasts. Even non-whisky drinkers will know the style; that guy quaffing a Laphroaig in the far corner of the bar singlehandedly tearing up the smoking ban by filling the room with an unforgettably pungent and ashy aroma.
Always ones to be well equipped for the next season, we thought it wise to line up Scotches which are going to save you from braving the bitter winds and storms outside this winter by shoving them down your throat instead.
Octomore 11.3 Islay Barley
Whilst the lines of Scotland’s whisky regions are undeniably blurring and no one region can monopolise a certain style of production, we find it hard to look beyond the rocky shores of the Isle of Islay when stocking up on something coastal in profile. Specifically, we often turn to Bruichladdich and their trifecta of house malts.
In addition to an eponymous range of unpeated malts, the laddie’ team produce Port Charlotte (a heavily peated school of expressions) and the renowned Octomore, which takes the whole smoky thing up a notch (and then up another one, again).
The new Edition 11.3 from the latter has caught our attention in more ways than one. Terroir and provenance underpin every element of this release; Bruichladdich sourced all the barley used not just from the island but from a single nearby farm. James Brown, a good friend of the distillery, grew the crop in “Irene’s field” where only 28 acres were planted for the 2013 harvest, making this a single malt, from a single year, from a single field. This barley, exposed to the salinic Islay breeze and grown in its salty soils, is then smoked or “peated” – where the barley is dried by burning peats – to a level easily four or five times more than most smoky malts.
Bottled at a natural strength just a smidge bit north of 60%, this is an absolute beast of a whisky but one that shows its (relatively) more tender side too. Maturation in quality bourbon casks rounds off the briny, fiery notes with layers of sweetness.
Octomore Edition 11.3 is available for £175 for 700ml.
A short drive from Bruichladdich on the west of the island to Islay’s eastern, mainland facing shoreline brought us to Bunnahabhain, an unpolished but nonetheless charming distillery. Bunna’ is a bit of a house favourite here at Ape – their 12-year-old expression bagged a prize in our 2020 Whisky Awards and we rate the lack of gimmicks, respectable bottling strengths and the absence of artificial colouring and chill-filtering.
Bunnahabhain bucks the trend for Islay distilleries in that it is best known for its unpeated expressions but as always, this general rule has an exception: Bunna’s medium peated liquid rivals many of the louder and shinier operations on the island.
A choice example is the Caorag (gaelic for “little peat”), a hand-filled bottling we were given last year by a good friend that we have been saving for a (literal) rainy day. By combining peated and unpeated spirit (some of which was matured in Oloroso sherry seasoned casks), Bunna has crafted an impeccably well-balanced dram. The smoke is more of a warming, peppery peat taste than a full-on house fire and the use of sherried wood is spot on here; the oloroso dials down the woodsmoke without suppressing it.
The Bunnahabhain Caorag was a distillery exclusive bottling which is available at auction.
Managing to drag ourselves off Islay’s spirit soaked shores for a day or two, we came across the Isle of Mull, slightly further north along the Scottish west coast. The impossibly picturesque fishing village of Tobermory has just a small handful of roads yet has its own distillery, as you do.
Much like Bunnahabhain, Tobermory dabbles in both unpeated and smoky styles of Scotch, naming the latter Ledaig. When last on the island, we had a rather, ahem, productive visit and spent a sunny evening down by the harbour with our haul of bottles from the distillery. A local fishing boat also came into port with an equally impressive haul of scallops; the captain chatted away about their voyage and thankfully refrained from asking us what dram number we were on by that point.
A firm favourite from our barely legible tasting notes that evening was the Ledaig 18 year old; a fruiter style of peated spirit that is richer than the Islay drams. The peat smoke is there but it doesn’t dominate; it is perfectly integrated with the earthier and spicier flavours. Don’t get too cocky, Islay.