I’ll say it again: we hear this term “entry level” batted around the whisky playing field all the time.
Yes, I’ve said it before: it is not the greatest of terms, but it’s in use, so let’s go with the flow. One use of the phrase has always given me cause to question how it is used, and that is in relation to Islay whiskies.
Now, I’m not wishing to tar all drams from that wonderful island with the same peaty brush… but, for the purposes of this article, I’m going to concentrate on the peated side of the golden liquid (let it be said that there are some very fine non-peated drams produced on Islay). So folks, who out there can hold up a hand and say that the first Scotch whisky they ever sipped was peated?
Yup, I don’t see too many hands, and I include myself in that number. But – my word! – I’ve consumed a fair amount of it over the years since those early days. So, why do I have an issue with entry level as a term for Islay whisky? Yes, each distillery probably has an expression that sits within our understanding of the term, but for me the exploration of peated expressions needs more than that, and I’ll get to what I mean shortly.
My own introduction to peat was relatively straightforward: a friend offered me a dram, I threw out the “you choose” reply, and – moments later – my first Laphroaig had graced my lips, ravaged my tongue, and brought a tear to my eye. A sharp intake of breath did little to damp the fire; in fact, it somewhat fanned the flames.
Over 25 years later I have grown to love those burning embers. I’ve learned to find the often sweet complexity of the expression that flows below the ashy, medicinal, and hot initial hit of a heavier peated dram. No, Garry, you ain’t in Speyside anymore!
So, what is it that makes that difference? And (for those that don’t know): what is peat? Well, peat is a fossil fuel, for many years used as a domestic heating source in areas of Scotland and Ireland. In very simple terms it is a brick sized “lump” cut from a muddy bog composed of decayed trees from thousands of years ago, dried and then stored, ready to be thrown into a kiln as the fuel.
The peated whisky takes on its smoky influence from the release of compounds as the peat burns in fires at the distilleries used to dry malted barley. The longer and hotter the barley is exposed to the peat, the greater the smoke will influence and impart its effect on the flavour. The harsh or soft characteristics of the type of peat also play a role.
In early days, the peat “flavour” was perhaps more just a coincidental part of the production process and not necessarily any real attempt to influence the flavour profile. Today much of the peated barley used in the production is from commercial providers and not done on the site of the distillery. With brands overtly buying in peated malted barley, it has become a deliberate decision to influence the flavour of the liquid.
Peat is popular, as bad as many non-whisky drinkers (and often some whisky drinkers) think it smells. It has become fashionable to add that smoky or peaty influence to a brand, sometimes only for a short portion of the year. A normally non-peated producer will do a run of whisky that has used peated barley, releasing it with perhaps a different name, or some form of additional branding on the label to specify that it is a peated expression such as “peat week” added to the description.
Now, this is where I head back to my earlier ramble about “entry level” Islay expressions. As someone who enjoys both a non-peated and peated dram, I am acutely aware of how the aromas and taste of one can be so different from one another, often harshly. Perhaps rather like a slap in the face at the Oscars it can be a sudden, unexpected surprise that leaves you thinking “Do I want to see this again? Hell no… um, maybe… no… no… OK, a wee bit… no nope”
So, yes, it can take a good period of time to become accustomed to peat, if in fact you ever really do. It can often scare people away from trying what really is fantastic whisky.
Something that I have done with friends to try to bring them over to the dark side is introduce them to some of these non-Islay peated whiskies. “Think outside the box” if you will; find an expression or a region they like and check out if a producer does a wee deviation down the peated route. Allow them to try something they are familiar with that is lightly peated, and then build from there. Some distilleries do 50/50 expressions (half non peated, half peated). Yes, it’s maybe a wee bit of cheating, but if we are talking about flavour gateways on our whisky adventure, then perhaps the gateway to peated Islay is not actually on the island?
I recently sampled a Sauternes (sweet French wine) finished whisky that was produced with peated liquid and from a Scottish Lowland distillery, it was simply divine in sweetness, and addictively spicy and harsh. Go give the experiment a try, and once you’ve got your friend accustomed to peat then perhaps it’s time to cross over the sound to Islay!
For those ready to make the crossing, here are three “entry level” (that phrase, again!) drams that are accessible in price, if not in flavour.
Ardbeg 10 Years Old – Review
£45.95 from The Whisky Exchange.
Colour: Light gold.
On the nose: If we were to pick one Islay “entry level” that is probably know the world over, then here it is, the expression that created a cult… but, as peaty as it is, there is a sweet influence on the nose, a caramel toffee that has been steeped in rose water, then sprinkled with white pepper and ground chilis.
In the mouth: The taste starts as the nose does with a sweet approach, perhaps even soft, followed by a fast-approaching peat train spraying out the spice as it warms your mouth, settling to a lovely balance, perhaps just tipping toward the sweetness. On the finish, decently long, warming the sweet side giving way to the spicy peppers and drifting smoke
Bowmore 12 Years Old – Review
£35.95 from The Whisky Exchange.
Colour: Shiny amber.
On the nose: A strong smoky sweet fruit influence on the nose, pineapples on a grill, a fresh youthful citrus lingers, honey and the syrup in tinned fruit, but all with a smokiness
In the mouth: A nice welcoming smoky entrance. Again, like on the nose, fruit shows up strongly. It’s a bit like a wee tropical kebab on the BBQ fuelled with peat. Yup toasted, perhaps even slightly burnt tinned fruit, with the sweetness of the syrup battling the smoky burnt char of the fruit. On the finish, long, mellow, heavier on the sweet than the peat.
Laphroaig 10 Years Old – Review
Colour: Bright gold.
On the nose: This dram just makes me smile as I sip it; the nose brings me to a wee place locked in my head; it’s a memory sparker. The ashy smoke is heavy, almost rugged, a coastal air influence lingers, air drying seaweed, but someone has a wee fire going on the wet pebbled beach and are cooking beef sausages glazed in honey.
In the mouth: There is a salty sweetness from the get-go; the peaty smoke is a powerful influence, hints of honey and sweet tomatoes drift through the ash, opening the mouth and breathing as you sip intensifies the smoke, a wonderful full mouthfeel. On the finish, long, the smoke lingers; it’s a spicy, sweet smoke.
The availability of peated whisky has evolved. More non-Islay brands/distilleries and blenders are releasing expressions using peated malt, making the journey toward peat perhaps easier, more accessible. the Islay distilleries still produce drams at the gateway stage, and these remain available to all to explore; on the whole, they are damn good drams. But, all that said, the “modern” developments and moves to utilise peated barley have created perhaps an easier route on the tasting map to understanding the peated side of Scotch whisky. I will not (now, or in the future) ever discourage people from sampling the delights of peated Islay whisky… but perhaps to help them understand it, and not just run away at the first hurdle, it may just be worth approaching it from a slightly different angle?
Lead photo author’s own. Additional photos courtesy of The Whisky Exchange.