Another fall is upon us, and that means Islay’s Bruichladdich is pushing out its biggest releases of the year. Normally we’d see these trickle out in bits and bobs, but for 2023, the distillery dropped a bomb on us all at once, with Bere Barley, Black Art, a new Port Charlotte, and the three Octomore releases all arriving at once. As is often the case, master distiller Adam Hannett walked us through the lineup via a live Zoom tasting from Scotland. It took me another week to fully work my way through the samples and get this writeup put together.
With that: Slainte! Thoughts follow.
Bruichladdich Bere Barley 2013 – As always, this whisky (made from 100% Orkney-grown barley and aged 10 years in 80% bourbon casks, 20% second-fill Pauillac wine casks) showcases Bruichladdich at its freshest and most approachable. Very lively and light, the nose is light on citrus and heavy on the grain its very name suggests. Lemon cookies dance on the tongue, with a bite of pecan sandie thrown in as a chaser. Dig deeper and more persistent vanilla and milk chocolate notes reveal themselves, with hints of peach adding a touch of fruit. Just a hint leathery on the back end, evoking its time in wood. This is a whisky that rarely seems to do anything wrong — though those looking for more powerful, expressive whiskies from Bruichladdich may find it a touch too tame. 100 proof. A- / $140
Bruichladdich Black Art 11.1 – Black Art is designed to be full of mystery, and Hannett will say only that this year’s release features some very old stock, the youngest in the blend dating back to distillation in 1998, making this a 24 year old product officially. The influence of various wine casks is immediate here, full of well-dried fruits, roasted nuts, and — most curiously — an exotic note of saffron-laden curry powder. Boldly flowery as it develops on the nose, the whisky becomes decidedly perfumed with time in glass. The palate reveals immediately that this whisky has spent time in Madeira casks and probably Marsala too. Thick flavors of oxidized wine drive a pungent, brooding body that is both sweetly raisiny and dried-up leathery at the same time. Notes of Christmas spices blend strangely with funky earthiness and those notes of the spice market, punchy with coriander and notes of green tea. The finish is forever, like rolling around on the floor of that spice market. Complicated as all get-out, but as is often my experience with Black Art, it’s not something I truly love. 88.4 proof. B+ / $550
Bruichladdich Port Charlotte PMC:01 2023 – A 9 year old peated offering from Bruichladdich’s Port Charlotte brand, aged for four years in first-fill bourbon casks, then five years in Pomerol wine casks, the first time the company has used Pomerol for a Port Charlotte bottling. A hearty whisky, just as expected, this bruiser offers an appropriately peaty punch from start to finish, nosing with a lightly ashy quality and influenced by toasted grains, some walnut shell, and a hearty bite of roast beef. Earthier than expected on the palate, the wine influence soon makes itself known with that ruddy, gamy quality that you often get from red wine barrel-finished whiskies. Five years of smoldering in the stuff has given it ample time to make an impact, and while the lush peat smoke dominates up front, it eventually leads to a doughier, chewier finale than I’d like. The fruit on the finish queues up a curious dichotomy: If you’d like some apple pie with your beach bonfire, well, here ya go. 109 proof. B+ / $150
Bruichladdich Octomore 14.1 – The peat-lover’s standby as always, a 5 year old ultra-peated malt (distilled in 2017) made from Scottish Concerto barley, malted to 128.9 ppm of peat, and aged fully in ex-bourbon barrels. As bold as ever, the nose is intense with elements of baked apples and ample creosote, then a nutty quality that suggests smoked almonds. It’s quite harsh on the back of the throat at full proof so I added some water to temper it for most of my tasting. This is quite helpful, allowing notes of dried apricots, fresh toffee, and some coconut to come into clearer focus, the finish here less briny than I’ve encountered in past expressions, which I kind of miss. The coconut note lingers the longest, making me dream of a cream pie to pair with this. 119.2 proof. B / $220
Bruichladdich Octomore 14.2 – The same 128.9 ppm malting and also 5 years old, but here the aging is all European, completed in 40% oloroso sherry hogsheads, 16% first-fill Amarone casks, and 44% second-fill Amarone casks. That explains the delightful pink color on this whisky, one of the prettiest I’ve encountered in a while. Much lighter and fruit-driven on the nose than 14.1, this whisky melds red fruits and berries with black pepper and mixed spice notes, leaning toward tobacco over time. The palate isn’t nearly as burly as the 14.1 is, though a drop or two of water is still a good idea to temper the hefty proof just a bit. Fresh biscuits and almond cookies kick things off on the tongue, more red fruit — here closer to strawberry — coming along in short order. While coming across as far less peaty than 14.1, the palate still has plenty of bonfire smoke and salty sea spray on offer, tempered again by strawberry cream, then a nougat note. Such a lively journey to go on. My favorite whisky in this lineup. 115.4 proof. A / $260
Bruichladdich Octomore 14.3 – The Islay-only edition of Octomore 14 is a 5 year old made from 100% Islay-grown barley, peated to 214.2 ppm, and matured in a combination of first-fill bourbon and second-fill “European wine” casks, which I take to mean sherry (50/50). Similar to 13.3’s regimen. A pure expression of the power of peat, this whisky showcases bruising levels of smoke on the nose, plus notes of turned earth, red pepper, and a suggestion of rhubarb. Official tasting notes are laden with fruit elements which I don’t pick up with or without water; instead I get a lot of char — like burnt pizza crust, in a good way. On the palate, again I’d suggest water, which doesn’t evoke fruit but does bring out some sweetness. Smoky almonds, brown sugar, nougat, and a layer of salted seaweed all percolate on the finish, which sees some vanilla notes lingering. More elegant than 14.1, but less interesting on the whole than 14.2. 122.8 proof. A- / $300