Alan hosted the online tasting this evening featuring peated whiskies. Alan is what we call a ‘sherry head’ and not the biggest fan of peated whiskies, so it was going to be interesting finding out what whiskies he would choose. As it turned out, it was a great selection, but more about that later.
Peated whiskies can sometimes be a little challenging, especially for people in the early stages of their whisky journey.
Peated whiskies came about because of the use of peat as a fuel used for drying the barley prior to distillation. This adds phenol compounds to the liquid resulting in a smoky characteristic. In the early days of Scottish distilling, when peat was used almost exclusively as fuel for the drying of barley, most whiskies would have had an element of peatiness in their flavour profile.
There is a very broad range of peated whiskies from very lightly (almost undetectable) peated through to very heavily peated. Peats from different geographic regions will impart differing aromas and tastes, and the amount of exposure to peat and the length of time in contact impacts the level of peatiness.
The level of peatiness is measured in phenol parts per million (ppm). Lightly peated whisky, Highland Park 12YO for example, are around 20 ppm; heavily peated whiskies, Laphroaig 10YO for example, are around 40ppm. Bruichladdich released one of its Octomore range at an astonishing 309ppm. Does that mean it tastes 7 or 8 times more peaty than the Laphroaig? No, it doesn’t – ppm is a measure of the phenols in the malted barley and not the level of phenol in the finished liquid. There is a lot of debate in the whisky world as to how the level of peatiness should be measured and at what point in the distillation process, but we’re not going to go into that here.
So, what whiskies did Alan line up for our tasting?
Balvenie 14YO ‘Week of Peat’: 48.3% ABV, £55
Balvenie is better known for its sherried whiskies, but one week of the year they distil using Speyside peated malt at around 30ppm
Nose: A whisp of gentle smoke with floral and honey notes.
Taste: Light smoke, then citrus fruits, apricot, honey sweetness and slight saltiness
Finish: Charcoal, creamy sweet, lingering pepper spice, and saltiness.
Ardbeg 8YO Committee Release ‘For Discussion’: 50.8% ABV, £57
A special release from the Islay based distillery aged in Sherry casks. Ardbeg describe this as a youthful and challenging whisky, encouraging people to give feedback and discuss on social media. Some of us at SWC think that this may be a hint that Ardbeg is thinking of introducing this, or another 8YO, as a replacement for its current 10YO baseline release. Ppm not given, but we would expect it to be in the region of 40-50ppm from Ardbeg.
Nose: Lots of smoke, toffee sweetness, slightly medicinal, creosote and liquorice.
Taste: Warming peppery spice, smoke, caramel, aniseed, some savoury flavours in background
Finish: Long and drying with cloves and peat smoke.
Talisker Distillers Edition: 45.8% ABV, £50
The Skye based distillery took its standard 10YO expression and gave it some ageing in an Amoroso Sherry cask to add some additional depth. Barley malted at 25ppm
Nose: Salt, seaweed, old briny rope, raisins, ginger biscuit, butterscotch, earthiness
Taste: Reminiscent of a bonfire, smoke, salty peat, and jammy sweetness
Finish: Long and drying with peppery notes and bitter dark chocolate
Kilchoman Original Cask Strength 2nd Release 2016: 56.9% ABV, £80
From the farm-based Islay distillery, this is now hard to find, and price is increasing as a result. Matured for 6 years in ex-Bourbon quarter casks and peated to 20ppm
Nose: A hit of smoke, caramel sweetness, apricots, and some salt
Taste: Peat smoke to the fore with citrus fruits and spicy wood
Finish: Creamy sweetness and smoke.
Tomatin Cù Bòcan Creation #2: 46% ABV, £49
The Cù Bòcan releases from Tomatin, based in the Scottish Highlands, are produced during winter for only one month each year and are finished in experimental casks. The release #2 is aged in ex-Japanese Scochu and European virgin oak casks. 15ppm. In case you are wondering, Schochu is a very popular drink in Japan, typically around 25% ABV.
Nose: Sweet and floral, citrus, pineapple, lavender
Taste: Very fresh, pineapple sweetness, white pepper, vanilla.
Finish: Sharp citrus, almost sour like lemon zest, orange marmalade
How did we rate them? The top three were separated by the finest of margins with the Kilchoman Original Cask Strength taking first place followed by Talisker Distillers Edition and the Balvenie Week of Peat. The Ardbeg and Cù Bòcan, left us divided, some liking, some not, and that reflected in their scores with the Ardbeg in fourth place and Tomatin’s Cù Bòcan #2 trailing some way behind. The Ardbeg was generally felt to be over-priced and their 10YO is much better value for money. The Cù Bòcan would be a nice whisky for a sunny summer afternoon, but the use of these particular experimental casks left us unimpressed and none of us could detect the influence of peat. One of us described it as alcoholic 7 Up!
Which bottle would we be tempted to buy for our own personal collections? This was split between our top three with the Balvenie just shading it from the Talisker and Kilchoman.
Many thanks to Alan for an excellent selection.