Smokey. Mysterious. Highly polarizing…
…A few apt descriptions for the peaty assortment of Scotch. For those who do not like Scotch, an experience with peaty Whisky is often a strong motivator behind declarations of emphatic displeasure. Even long-time Scotch drinkers will avoid Islay Malts like the plague. However, these Whisky’s take a little time in order to be enjoyed. And it’s important to know a couple things about them before fully dismissing them as bon-fire water.
1. Peated Whisky is a Taste of Scottish History… Literally
They say that peat grows about 1mm per year, or in other words, a metre a millennium. It is rather remarkable when you consider that peat farming looks something like this:
What you are seeing here is the deep harvesting of millennia of decayed Scottish vegetation (peat). Historically it has been used a fuel-source, and in this case, it will be dried and burned to add flavour to barley. In a sense, infusing peat is incorporating every single piece of natural history to have occurred on its soil – in my opinion, an expansive and humbling thought. At this point I must note that there is a common misconception that Scotches are peaty because water from the peat bog is used in the Whisky… I’m happy to inform you that this isn’t the case.
2. Peat Adds Complexity to the Whisky
Each region offers something different to the peat as it absorbs its surroundings. Peated Whisky from Islay, for example, reflects the extraordinary setting of the island; heavy winds from the sea whip salty water onto the peat bogs which play a part in the briney flavour associated with the region. The peat-smoked barley not only imparts a localized flavour, but an element of mystery. Separating the peat character from the barley & cask flavours is a monumental task and a gratifying journey.
3. Peat Lets the Other Flavours Shine
Consider this for a moment, when salt is used to flavour food, it not only adds saltiness, but it heightens sweetness while suppressing bitterness. I propose that peat accomplishes a similar effect as it provides a powerful backdrop for different flavours to contrast with. I only recently discovered this first hand while enjoying Bowmore Small Batch; after the initial permeation of peat, I found the Scotch offered an immense sweetness and saltiness. The flavour transformation a peaty Scotch can undergo in a single drink is nothing short of mystical. Of course, as with food, this theory is only applicable when the Whisky has balance… one can’t escape the peat if you open a bottle and it triggers the smoke alarm.
4. Phenols in Parts per Million – The Peat Measurement
Don’t you love when your hobby has its own unit of measurement? Get lost Scoville scale, PPM is the new scale of conversation. Now, what is a phenol and what does PPM actually mean? The chemistry definition of a phenol is a mildly acidic toxic white crystalline which happens to be aromatic. When peat is burned, it releases these aromatic phenols that saturate the barley. And as simple arithmetic would have it, the more peat that is smoked into the barley, the higher the phenols in parts per million.
The next time somebody asks you if a certain Scotch is peaty, you can tell them exactly how peaty it is via PPM. In fact, I’ve made a handy comparative chart for you below:
The peat monster on the far right is what I would refer to as a novelty Scotch, otherwise called the Bruichladdich Octomore which weighs in at 258ppm. When you consider the typical Speyside is around 1-3ppm and Bowmore around 25ppm, it would be like licking a peat bog. And yet, my curiosity persists…
In closing, the point of this Scotch Journal entry is not to convince you that you’ll enjoy peaty scotch, it’s to provide some context behind what it is and why it’s a compelling facet of Whisky. Always remember, if you’re struggling with a particular dram, especially a peaty one, try a drop of water to open up the flavours. And thus concludes another peaty post.
P.S. If you felt a bit lost when I alluded to smoking barley, check out our previous malting process post