Peated Scotch whisky: Rise, fall and triumphant return
As soon as a bottle is opened, writes Ian Wisniewski for WhiskyInvestDirect, the aromas communicate an unmistakeable message.
Embers. Barbecue. Billowing smoke, carbolic soap; creosote and tar. Such an intense line-up explains why peated malts are, for some, synonymous with their ultimate whisky experiences.
But peated malts have far more to offer than extremes. Peating levels can be minimum or medium as well as maximum, and the resulting malts range from gentle, wafting, background smoke, to a more upfront toasted, smokey character, and culminate in barbecue, chargrilled, roaring bonfire notes. There’s something for everyone, in theory.
But for some whisky drinkers even a hint of smoke is too much.
“I would guess Scotch whisky drinkers can be divided into three distinct groups: those who never drink peated malts is the largest group, those who drink peated as well as unpeated malts is sizeable, while the smallest group is those who only drink peated malts,” says Brendan McCarron, Head of Maturing Whisky Stocks for The Glenmorangie Company.
McCarron knows this all too well, as The Glenmorangie Company owns two sharply contrasting malt whiskies: the eponymous, unpeated Glenmorangie; and the distinctly peated Ardbeg.
The traditional route into peated malts always began with blended Scotch. Blends would provide a bridge to elegant, fruity examples of malt whisky, which in turn could potentially lead onto richer styles, including peated malt.
However, this three-step journey has recently become truncated. Newcomers to whisky are now just as likely to go straight into fruity malts, then graduate to peated malts. And some people by-pass blends and elegant malts, getting straight onto the phenolic superhighway: destination peated malt.
What is it about peated malts that endows them with such allure? Flavour is, naturally, at the heart of this, with more people seeking rich and distinctive characteristics (a trend also evident in the move to red wine, away from white).
But there’s another vital component: Emotion. Flavours do of course evoke feelings, but so do other aspects, such as the provenance. Islay, for example, is considered the ultimate source of peated malts, and consequently an ultimate destination for peated malt lovers (enhanced by the island’s deeply romantic landscapes).
“You don’t just drink a whisky, it evokes feelings and you think about it. We try to get the influence of Islay into every drop of whisky, and if you come to Islay and have the experience that also becomes a big part of it. You relive that experience whenever you drink the whisky, and it tastes better at the distillery than anywhere else,” says Adam Hannett, Head Distiller at Bruichladdich, one of the eight active distilleries on Islay.
Interest in Islay malts accelerated in the 1990s and into the Millennium, acquiring a superlative status. The number of peated malts produced across Scotland has also been increasing. It’s a fascinating development, though in some ways a return to tradition, rather than innovation.
Historically, all malts were peated. This was a practicality, not a stylistic choice. Being readily available, peat was burned to create the heat required to dry barley at the end of the malting process (malting is a pre-requisite in order to produce malt whisky).
However, as other methods of drying malt emerged during the mid-Twentieth century many distilleries moved to unpeated production in the 1960s-70s. One reason for this was demand for unpeated malts in the USA, which was a vital market to conquer.
However, growing interest in peated malts has also led to many more distilleries around the world producing this style, and greatly extending the range of choice.
“I welcome the growing level of competition, it shows the health of the category. Scotland is famous for peated malts but we don’t have a trademark on them, and I expect the number of peated malts to continue growing around the world. However, peated malts are a tiny fraction of the malt whisky market,” says Brendan McCarron.
Greater choice inevitably entails more detailed comparisons, and a focus on the individual credentials of a peated malt. The influence of the peat, for example, depends partly on its composition, which varies according to the source (and can also vary significantly within the same peat bog). Peat with varying levels of seaweed, heather or wood, for example, has a different influence on the resulting malt whisky.
“More distilleries want to produce something that speaks of the place where they are, and increasingly explore what’s local to them, whether it’s barley or peat. Each distillery wants to stand out from the crowd, and as appreciation of whisky grows people increasingly consider distilleries on an individual basis, and think of its house style,” says Adam Hannett.
The audience for peated malts, variously referred to as smoke heads, peat heads, and peat freaks, is rising across the world. But Germany and Scandinavia are the ultimate peat zones. And within the peat lovers community some like to display a certain ‘alpha mindset,’ along the lines of: ‘I can handle the smoke, can you ?’
“Peated whisky can be quite extreme, which means that if you enjoy it you have the sense of belonging to a special club,” says Adam Hannett.
Meanwhile, appreciation of peated character has also evolved significantly among peat fans. The first decade of The Millennium saw this group reserving their palates for the most heavily peated malts (and nothing less). While many still find it very appealing to order the smokiest malt on the menu, there’s also a greater appreciation of various peating levels, and the accompanying flavours.
“Many fans want peated malts which also have other flavours in addition to smoke, and these can be as broad and complex as in unpeated malts, with a range of floral, malty, cereal, and fruity esters; though the higher the peating level the harder it is to find these accompanying flavours,” says Brendan McCarron.
Which flavours accompany the peated notes (technically phenolic compounds) depends on the house style of the new make spirit, and the level of fruit notes it contains, for example, in conjunction with the choice of casks and length of ageing. This is typically Bourbon barrels, which contribute vanilla and coconut, and Sherry casks, that add dried fruit with a rich, dry sweetness. And as these flavours accrue during the ageing process, the balance between them and the peated character is continually changing.
“Time is a really important factor as phenolic compounds are more prominent in younger malts. With Benromach for example, the smoke begins to soften and the balance changes at around 5-10 years. At 15 years the cask influence begins to be more apparent, with the Sherry cask influence of rich dried fruit, sherry and chocolate becoming more integrated and balanced with the smoke. The tropical fruit notes present in Benromach’s new make spirit also remain in evidence,” says Stephen Rankin, Director of Prestige and fourth generation member of the Urquhart family that own Benromach Distillery.
This underlines the comprehensive range that peated malts offer: phenolic characteristics that can provide an extraordinary foreground, or subtle background, for a medley of accompanying flavours such as fresh, ripe fruit, dried fruit, honey, vanilla, chocolate and fruit trifle.
There really is a peated malt for everyone. Even whisky drinkers who assume they don’t like them.
Ian Wisniewski is a freelance writer and leading authority on spirits, with a focus on Scotch whisky. Over the course of his two decades covering the industry he has published seven books, including the Classic Whisky Handbook, and has contributed to publications such as Whisky Magazine, The Times, The Malt Whisky Yearbook and Scotchwhisky.com.
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