Is peat fashionable these days? It seems a lifetime ago where each new Ardbeg release was heralded with great fanfare, lines of Scandawegians queuing up on Islay to buy anything that might have passed a chimney on the way there.
But it seems we have passed the point of peak peat, but maybe that’s something that has come with the evolution of whisky from a niche of a niche, to being something more mainstream? Not to say peat has had its day, not at all – merely that no one makes much of a fuss about it like they used to.
Perhaps the new generation of drinker – and let’s face it, she’s way more open-minded and adventurous than the old guard in my view – merely sees peat as another flavour variable, nothing to get too excited about. Or maybe in the more global age, I see less of just a European perspective and more of a worldwide whisky perspective, where we have more interesting things going on from different grain experiments to species of wood, or issues of real provenance become increasingly the talking point.
So today we are back to peat – this curious, old-school, Scottish-derived method of adding flavour at the drying stage during the malting process. Generally, I find peated whiskies a bit boring, and their hardcore aficionados even more so (you know who you are) but there’s a time and a place for it and more often than not the whiskies are pretty decent. You do get the odd rogue barrel on the secondary market that tastes like an abused ashtray. Don’t forget, peat also covers a world of sins. Shortcut the distillate, shove it in shit wood, and if you’ve bathed the spirit in smoke most people are none the wiser. Profit’s up. Happy days.
But no one has really done much interesting with peat in recent years. It seems to be quite a traditional thing for the most part: which is to say, tradition is respected. We don’t tend to get experiments of different peat sources on a spirit, at least not that I’ve seen and not where all other things remain equal. If you’re on Islay, it’s Islay peat – and has probably washed through the maltings at Port Ellen. Elsewhere, well… by and large you use sources local to the maltsters. Wouldn’t it be fun to do cross-over peat distillations though? Same distillation formula, same barley, same peating strength, but simply different sources of peat?
Because those sources make a difference. Each peat bog has its own qualities, derived from millennia of action on decaying vegetation. Different regions having different vegetation, then, of course, the peat will be different. Different flavours will infuse the malted barley, and give different results.
But by and large, the broad differences in peated products on the market tend to be defined by the degree in which the barley is infused with peat smoke; which is to say, the peat levels. Some are gently peated, merely a waft; others are given a hefty dose of peat smoke for a longer period. Most distilleries have a few experiments, some who usually peat even releases unpeated whiskies, and vice versa. (Which is why there is no Islay style whisky, really, not anymore.) Anyway, today’s head to head consists of two higher-end peated specimens. Both use Optic barley and both are heavily peated. Both cost about the same. Why not?
Bruichladdich’s Octomore Ten Years Dialogos, another ten year old, which is sort of both not part of a series being their third(?) edition ten year old; but also part of the Dialogos series, which was released a while back, and which basically confirms that I have no idea how their taxonomy of Ocotmore really works. I don’t quite understand how there can be so many variants, either, other than to tickle the fancy of different regional markets or travel retail.
This Octomore is peated to 167 ppm, which is to say a lot. A ten year old vatted from a combination of some of the more… well, challenging barrel combinations: Port, Cognac, ex-American whiskey, Virgin Oak casks, a bizarre array of percentages, a few second fill casks, and some other combinations that I’m not quite sure about.
I’ve stuck it up against a single cask from Smögen distillery, a firecracker of a Swedish distiller – up there in my Top 10 of global distilleries. It’s distilled in 2011, a 7 year old that’s been finished in a rum cask after spending the first chunk of its life in a first-fill bourbon barrel. Pretty simple stuff.
Bruichladdich Octomore Ten Years Dialogos – Review
Colour: deep copper.
On the nose: quite a wine-driven whisky, perhaps; I suppose what’s always curious about the ultra-peated Octomores is how that peat is never as intense as you’d think. Anyway, the fruitiness of the wine shoes: red fruits, cranberries, strawberry jam. An earthiness beyond: damp moss, tobacco, charred wood. With time: caramel, burnt sugar, toffee.
In the mouth: mediumweight texture to light. Lapsang souchong, mushroom, earthiness, a real vegetative quality. Nutty – walnuts. The smoke becomes ashy, tobacco-like. Beyond, any wine-like notes take time to become apparent: plummy, red fruits, a slight balsamic vinegar tartness, with heather honey, molasses almost. Fennel, tarragon. But it lacks a certain something and doesn’t feel wholly rounded.
Not quite sure about this one at all. The use of cheaper second fill casks with the port (a cask that can often present a weird result), I don’t know… The description of the cask marriage is a ‘patchwork quilt’, which kind of suggests something of a random collection. But it creates dissonance with the deeper peat notes. The weakest Octomore I’ve had to date and, to be honest, I’d really always preferred Port Charlotte – this confirms that wonderful sister brand’s superiority in my mind. I can only imagine the challenge in a brand portfolio with the maturity of what was once a wild outlier, a mad experiment, especially with the re-branding of Port Charlotte.
Smögen Single Cask #56 – 2011 – 7 year old Rum Finish
Colour: pale gold.
On the nose: just gorgeously elegant stuff; the vanilla from the first-fill bourbon cask really elevates the top notes. Then golden syrup, green tea, honey, Madiera cake, baked pears, a touch of ginger. A slither of toasted white bread. Lemon juice drizzled over pancakes, with some briny coastal quality thrown in. A lovely oaty, porridge and jab quality. Demerara sugar.
In the mouth: that balance, a rare gem in a single cask, is astonishing. Just the contrast between striking vanilla sweetness and saline, ashy peat is joyful. It echoes the nose perfectly, always walking the line between sweet and salt: a mixture of syrups and honey, heather honey, citrus notes – lemon curd, lemon drizzle cake, brine; and then salted ham, a salty Stilton cheese even. That smoke, whilst intense, has a top-note quality; it’s at the lighter noted end of the spectrum, merging with a vibrant maltiness. If you like old-school Ardbegs, you will find a lot of fun here in this young boy. This distillery constantly amazes me.
Unfair, of course, comparing a vatting to a single cask, but the results are kind of a reverse of what I would expect. Single malts have more complexity, inherently: there’s quite simply more going on. But the blending doesn’t work in that Octomore, for my usually quite perverted tastes; the distillate is grand as always for that distillery, but this one just doesn’t work. And that the asking price of £155 is a touch steep for the flavours. Sorry!
However, the Smögen is just one of those rarities – a single cask that is more than a component. The quality is already there – good distillation (slow, considered) and good wood. (And the best quality barley, of course, but I won’t bore you with that here…) It’ll cost somewhere between £100 and £150, like just about every bottle from this distillery, which is indeed not far off Octomore. Needless to say, if you have that kind of money in your pocket and you want something to invigorate you on a sharp, cold day: Smögen more than edges this one.
Note: samples sent to Malty Towers on behalf of both distilleries.