Peatheads. Love ’em, or hate ’em, they’re a part of our whisky scene. We must love them as equally as our sherry bomb enthusiasts. Which is to say, really, these people are whisky extremists, of both the left and right, though that’s about as far as I can stretch the analogy. (Would peatheads be on the left? There’s certainly a touch more elitism with sherry bomb enthusiasts.)
My point being, peat – and extreme sherry casks – are not about subtleties. Not one iota. It’s not about complexity, nuance or anything akin to balance and harmony. They are bludgeons of flavour and more often than not, they are very good fun indeed.
But perhaps, when presented as a trio of whiskies – side by side, to explore differences – we can actually start to understand peat subtleties some more. Or rather, we can understand variances beyond the peat; which as a trio begin to show where the peat stops and the barley and wood begin to start? Or something like that. And not every distillery can really offer this variance – most cannot, for barley is treated as a generic commodity and production processes are, on the whole, not about exploring flavour differences. Distillations at most places are programmed to iron out nuances.
Not so, at Bruichladdich. I should really have prefaced all of this with: I rather like Port Charlotte. A lot. This peated branch of Bruichladdich is superior to Octomore in almost every battle I’ve put them up against: though I can admire Octomore, it is a blunt instrument, a pub challenge that became its own entity. But Port Charlotte? Well, that has a rather nice charm about it. It feels subtler, more wholesome somehow. And actually, when put up against the other peated whiskies on Islay – from the rather underrated Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain to the pretty awful stuff Kilchoman can knock out from time to time, I feel Port Charlotte whiskies are consistent of a high quality. Not by massive margins, but consistently it is just a little better than the rest.
What barometer do I have for this? Over the years I have found I’ve purchased more Port Charlotte than other peated whiskies. I have had more pleasing moments with friends and a bottle of Port Charlotte. I recommend to people that if they want a good peated whisky they try… yep, you’ve guessed it. These little details build up over time and you look back to think: Christ I’ve poured a lot of money in that distillery’s bank account, which is perhaps the best barometer of all.
But it is peat, which is weirdly not my go-to style of whisky. It’s a funny old drink sometimes, isn’t it? That this spirit – the most complex of all – can’t be neatly rationalised. Taste, emotions, they sort of transcend my predicable waffle. Without going all Moneyball and data science, what I am saying is that despite peat not being my style, or at least what I thought was not my style, I have perhaps bought more Port Charlotte than most other whiskies, when averaged out, which is kind of weird.
And so I find myself today with a lovely delivery courtesy of the folk at Bruichladdich. Peat to explore. Plus because these are single casks, I’m going to do the usual thing of creating a more complex single malt – equal portions of these three – to see what happens.
This was all part of an online Twitter tasting, which of course again I managed to miss. I generally like to dip into the Laddie tastings as they’re a bit different, with a bit of YouTube fun, but broadly I don’t get on well with online tastings at all: I find the spew of tasting notes that litter timelines without much context to be a bit silly, and I don’t want to drink at the same pace as others do, because I’m a miserable git. And predictably this time we got the same clodpates not understanding terroir in the slightest, but deciding to bless us all with their opinion on the subject anyway: I don’t get it, therefore it’s unimportant. That’s Twitter for you, and we’d be silly to listen to it.
But scanning down the timeline, it looks as if this tasting was another riff on the theme of what makes an Islay whisky:
Anyone got an opinion about whether it matters how much of the process of making "Islay whisky" happens in Islay? Is 5 days long enough contact to earn the name? #mp8 #weareislay
— BRUICHLADDICH Distillery (@Bruichladdich) September 13, 2019
A valid question of course; a cheeky way of highlighting that most Islay distilleries import and export the product from the island as quick as a flash.
I touched on this idea a bit in my Scarabus review, but broadly speaking – and also speaking as Head of Communications for a distillery – I always think it’s an uphill struggle for any Islay distillery to try and stake a claim to Islay-ness these days. Not only are they never going to be sourcing all of their raw materials on that island, for it isn’t practical in reality to grow all that barley there, and will never be a ‘complete’ project – but as with Laphroaig, or even skipping across the water to Jura’s latest ad campaign, many people very easily find ‘the people who work at a distillery and the local community’ and provenance’ as interchangeable notions.
It means Jura can stake precisely the same emotional claim without going to any efforts to grow barley there or even mature whisky on the island, as a distillery that does everything within 1 square meter of the distillery gates.
Does this irk me? Yes, of course, it does. Whisky is such a corrupted industry intellectually that any notion of what percentage Islay-ness you are as a distillery isn’t defined, or really that interesting to most people. So it’s always going to be a very tough fight these days; brands always copy one another, and one ends up preaching the same message to the same already-converted fans. Doesn’t mean Bruichladdich shouldn’t do this, of course; but that outside of the bubble, other brands can and do play their quick and dirty tricks to give that quick and dirty vague sense of place.
All of which makes me it was probably a good idea that I was stuck on the M25 and therefore arrived as the online tasting ended, for I would have bored a great many people, possibly even myself.
Port Charlotte Micro Provenance #3582
Oxbridge barley, second-fill rivesaltes barrel, aged 9 years.
Colour: deep copper.
On the nose: yes, now this is rather alluring, with some hedgerow fruits, damsons, blackcurrants smoked perversely on a bonfire. Sultanas, dried apricots, syrupy pears. Earthy, slightly vegetative peat, linseed oil, green olives.
In the mouth: not quite as lovely as the nose had promised, a tobacco led smoke, plenty of cloves, black pepper, and woodiness, and acidity that just, brings things too far into bitterness. Yes, a few fruits there; plum jam, a hint of cranberries and blackberries, but the earthy peat Can’t help but think what this would have been like as a first-fill barrel. That said, I imagine sipping a glass of this outdoors in the arse-end of autumn would be just the thing.
Port Charlotte Micro Provenance #1860
Oxbridge/publican, first-fill bourbon, aged 6 years.
Colour: yellow gold.
On the nose: compared to the 9-year-old below, this feels much cleaner. Custard creams, even a smidge of amaretti biscuits, nutty – toasted almonds – with sweet ginger. Golden syrup, coastal. Peaches and apricots, lychees even, underneath that bold maltiness. Simple: all fractions of sweet peat, vanilla and citrus.
In the mouth: the cleanness again in comparison to #3403: the peat feels brighter, sweeter, less of an earthy-ashy affair; indeed, the peat feels almost to stand as a bright spicy note, merging with the maltiness (as I have so often found with PCs). Lemon meringue pie. This really is a fine, pleasing, clean, sweet and crisp peated whisky; but I can’t help but think that another couple of years in cask and it would become stunning.
Port Charlotte Micro Provenance #3403
Optic barley, first-fill bourbon cask, aged 9 years.
Colour: yellow gold. (Quite pale – I wonder if this is one of those rinsed first-fill bourbon barrels where bourbon produces scrape extra from the cask?)
On the nose: rather soft peat on the nose; drifting more into Assam tea with a drizzle of honey. Plenty of vanilla, rather classic vibe about this. Mossy, earthy; tempered by bright citrus. Baked sponge cake; ground almonds. In comparison to the other first-fill, this one is much more husky, with cereal notes rising above the peat.
In the mouth: brightly peated Port Charlotte here, and the most harmonious of the three. Mediumweight texture. Ashier than the nose suggested, with cloves. Superb clean buttery vanilla notes. Lime marmalade. Stem ginger. A little husky with some feisty hops. The peat never dominates, but drifts into hay, green tea and so on. This is just a simple and very pleasing, well-made peated whisky, with a rather old-school feel. I mean that in a very complementary way.
Three 7/10s! Well, there we go. I honestly did feel that they were equally as good, none of these single casks rose above the other in quality. Perhaps the important thing to note is that they were all of good quality. And perhaps predictably, none of the single casks were better than any recent PC single malts that I have tasted (hardly a surprise, because there are more flavours to be found kicking around single malts, as I have commented upon so often; more nuances). Plus, as I had always known, peat eclipses the nuances of grain – nor were these presented in a way intended to evaluate grain influence.
But what if we bring all of these together in equal parts?
It’s delightful. The nose brings more coffee notes, Tiramisu, the mouth has more harmony of the French and American oak, dried fruits, black fruits, more depth to it all. It is all of the above, but it changes to have balance and a better, more velvety texture.
If you were lucky enough to have all three, you really must blend them together to create a single malt, because it clocks in at a cool 8/10 in my book.
I missed the live event too, stuck on a train with no signal (and no whisky) but this makes up for it. Shall try them individually and blended together this coming weekend. A wonderfully written review once again!
Thanks, Will! Get blending…
Great review and nice to have you back again. I really enjoyed the MP7 tasting but the whiskies individually were not great drinkers sadly. I’m off home to vat them together in the hope of improvement. It seems the MP8 was a much more generous affair and sadly sold out too quickly for me.
I’d like to hear more on the topic of ‘5 days to make an Islay Malt’ in due course and where else in the industry this happens.
Thanks, Graham. I’d love to write more, but my toddler seems to deny me the joys at the moment… I think the 5 days thing is essentially the time it takes to get malted barley through the distillery and out again in a spirit tanker to be matured on the mainland. I’d wager it happens almost everywhere – generic raw materials that have been grown in (gosh!) England are sent up, whizzed around a distillery and then lorried back out to sit in a warehouse in Glasgow. I don’t think it says much about Islay specifically; but it does speak volumes about the rest of the industry.
Needless to say, if this was about grapes in France, there’d be riots.
Sounds like a nice little collection. By the way, I completely agree with what you say about Octomore. I bought the legendary 6.3 because of it’s freak nature. I enjoyed it and got it out of my system but it was hugely overpriced, particularly as it was a mere 5 year old. I thought the PC Islay Barley was almost as good but a third of the price.
Hi WT. The thing everyone forgets about Octomore is that it was a pub dare/joke that got out of hand; possibly it’s taken too seriously now, but there’s not much room for nuance. PC is, by comparison not just to Octomore but other Islay whiskies, a very good value dram.
It would be nice to read a review without some form of sledging. After all whisky flavour all depends on each & every palate as they are all different. Wouldn’t it be better to support those distilleries who support the idea of keeping jobs local or even share support for sustainability.
Bruichladdich is certainly a supporter of that, wouldn’t it also be great to support someone with the same ideas as Waterford as in barley studies (Athy & Bunclody study) as we all know barley varietal has a short life span due to Mildew, brown rust, yellow rust & more. I don’t see many distilleries out there understanding barley like Bruichladdich, Waterford and Kilchoman.
I think the real concern we should be worried about is the quality of the whisky & how to sustain the whisky with a warmer UK climate occurring. After all a warmer climate will change a single grain of barley from containing 65% starch, 10 to 12% Nitrogen with the remainder being proteins. Lastly I have just read your Kilchoman piece and I must say the We are Islay campaign is who Bruichladdich are, they have strong beliefs, employ more people than anyone else in Islay, bottle and mature in Islay.
Bruichladdich have more farms than anyone else growing Islay barley for them and are currently working with barley groups on there own land to help grow the whisky industry further. So without understanding what they are doing properly then I feel it’s best left out of articles to save criticism.
I love what Bruichladdich are doing and will drink the whisky for it. Slainte to every distillery for all the hard work
Hi Mark – thanks for the extensive reply. Firstly you mention:
“some form of sledging” – where is that in the write-up? All I have done here is point out the challenge that a brand who celebrates the notion of location when they do things authentically in the face of brands who promote the same concept except having no authenticity of ingredients.
I know how they convinced many local farmers to start growing barley again as I work with the guy who did it. He was talking about the same things a decade ago there. But that doesn’t change my original point that I feel their communications are an uphill struggle: because others steal it.
I’m sure there are a great many sites out there who would be fine with cutting and pasting the lines from a press release, but we feel that wouldn’t be very fair on drinkers. Nor would it encourage people like yourself to take part in a discussion.
I disagree with this strange notion that “all whisky flavour all depends on each & every palate”. You have to make the flavour in the first place. And you can make it with more or fewer elements that contribute to flavour, depending on the production process. Otherwise, that’s like saying eating a Greggs sausage roll is on par with Heston Blumenthal’s latest banquet; you can enjoy both, and not feel ashamed of either, but one surely has more going on because of the greater effort that went into creating it…
Hi Mark, thanks for your reply, I agree with some of your comments in the article… yes. I understand your feelings and n making a flavour however have you ever educated someone on the flavour of apricots when they have never tried one…. each person responds to flavour differently. After all the nose represents more than the palate. 9000 receptors in the mouth, 50 to 100 million in the nose… so yes it will be different. Even the sausage roll will be different between people… 5 tastes relate to this. In regards to the Kilchoman article I apologise as I meant Jason who wrote this. Is he really that far out of touch on what distillery beliefs are & what each distillery stands for. I feel he needs to head out again to really understand what makes each whisky so unique. I appreciate your articles and a good debate is always welcome as we all enjoy amazing drama. Slainte
I agree on your points about flavours, they are valid. My intent on that note is to say some distilleries try much harder than others to create flavour – at great, great expense. These things are not at all created equal. My aim, I feel, is to always highlight that. Anyone can enjoy what they want: but these things were not created equally and people should know about it.
For example, at the most basic level today the industry is now spinning inert barrels that offer no maturation potential because they’ve been used several times before as “allowing the spirit to shine”. The reality is someone 20 years ago thought it would be far cheaper (a fifth of the cost, if not free) to use rubbish wood rather than fresh wood, which is far more costly. Sure, anyone can enjoy that whisky matured in poor cask – they have every right to enjoy that cheaply made Greggs sausage roll, which even I do! But let’s not pretend it was something different.