It’s no secret: I’m a fan of Waterford Whisky.
I love the farm-specific terroir experimentation, the revival of barley strains, and the seamless partnership between farmer and distiller. Aside from the whiskies themselves, there’s also a new level of transparency that I don’t think can be matched. Seriously – visit their site and put in one of their “TEIREOIR” codes and see down to the barrel how many barrels were used of each type, the fill levels, just insanely detailed stats.
(Also, quick note, I’ll be using whisky instead of whiskey following Waterford’s choice of spelling.)
Whether it’s distilling from a single farm’s barley or reviving a nearly extinct strain (Hunter barley, anyone?) Waterford has dived into the terroir conversation as much as any other distillery in the world. This is all built on the idea of translating single malt whisky back to Ireland at the site of Waterford, from which place founder Mark Reynier was told the best barley comes.
In a way, however, that translation has felt deeply of-the-moment. In the positive sense, that means addressing the questions whisky has long ignored about terroir and provenance. On the negative, it has meant a necessary focus on the here-and-now, even excepting the heritage barley strains being revived. I say “necessary” because when your goal is to elevate and highlight the farms and barley varietals, the worst thing you can do is hide it behind a too-strong cask or some other element that detracts from the stars.
Peat Isn’t Just from Scotland
Peat is perhaps the most overpowering flavor commonly associated with whisky. For better or worse, peat is intense on nose, palate, and finish and can be detected at as little as 3-5 parts per million (ppm). Talisker, for example, is a 5ppm Scotch, and no one would call it unpeated. It also has a way of sticking to machinery and even staying in the air. Bruichladdich’s The Classic Laddie is an unpeated whisky, and yet I swear every time I try it there’s at least a little peat smoke. Coming from the same distillery as Octomore, one can’t help but think that peat is going to go where it wants to go.
Common in Scotch whiskies, peat is relatively unknown in today’s Irish whisky landscape. With the exception of Connemara, peated Irish whiskies have been extinct for decades, if not over a century. Only in the last decade have Irish distillers started to use peat again, and it’s a return to the true history of Irish whisky. After a century of Midleton and Bushmills dominating with single pot still, unpeated Irish whisky, brands like Waterford, Sliabh Liag, and others are reminding drinkers that peat was once as common in Irish brands as in Scotch ones.
Whether you use the term peat or turf – the latter the common usage in Ireland – the material is basically the same. Take organic material, waterlog it enough to stop oxygenation, and let it decompose for at least a thousand years. Organic means both vegetal and non-vegetal, so yes, there is animal matter in peat as well. Leave it for a much, much longer time and eventually you’ll have coal.
Peat is found in nearly every country on Earth. The few exceptions are North Africa, Saharan Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the southern Asian Steppes/Middle East. Oh, and Greenland, just because it’s too cold. As long as liquid water and decomposable organic matter coexist, peat is possible. And just like barley, water, and even yeast strains, peat flavor is entirely dependent on its provenance.
That provenance isn’t limited to broad geographic strokes, either. Islay is a tiny, tiny island belied by its prominence in peated Scotch whisky, being about 25 miles long and 15 miles wide at the most. There are just 3,000 year-round inhabitants. And yet, there are 10 operating distilleries (soon to be 12) that each have their own peat profile. Want something ashier? Bowmore is for you. The full-on iodinated and rubbery peat? Laphroaig. Caramelized earth? Lagavulin. Kilchoman and Caol Ila give briny and smoky character. The differences in peat on just this island are mind blowing. Throw in the types of peat from the other Hebrides (Jura, Arran), Orkney in the north, or the Highlands and Lowlands of the mainland, and dozens of profiles appear from Scotland alone.
Humans used peat as a fuel source for a simple reason: it was the cheapest and most readily available. On Islay, Orkney, and Northern Ireland (geographically, not politically), there are few if any trees, and other fuel sources like natural gas are modern additions to areas inhabited for thousands of years. It’s unclear why Irish whisky stopped using turf to kiln and dry their barley, which had imparted the smoke and vegetation of the area. The prevailing theory is to differentiate their whisky in the era of consolidation from Scotch whisky, and if that’s not the main reason it’s almost certainly part of it. Unfortunately, that meant centuries of peated Irish uisce beatha history went by the wayside.
I know there are people for whom peat is their favorite thing about whisky. The people who got started on the Ardbegs and Laphroaigs rather than the unpeated Speysides like Glenfiddich or Macallan. I’m not one of those people.
My first tastes of peat were at Chanukah or Passover family gatherings (yes, I know whisky isn’t kosher for Passover, but neither am I most years). My cousins loved their Johnnie Walkers and the Black Label was omnipresent. I detested the smoky, vegetal, compost-like flavors I got. Why in the world would anyone like that? Looking back, those were fairly mild peat levels, too. A Laphroaig may have made me heave.
My route to loving peat went through Highland Park, and it took a long time. Would my journey in Irish peat be as winding?
What Does Irish Peat Taste Like?
For as much variation as you’ll find today in Scotch-derived peat, I have a strong feeling we will eventually find equal diversity from around Ireland. In just the whiskies from Waterford and Sliabh Liag in Donegal a hugedistinction is clear. Compared to Scotch peat less than 100 miles across the water to the north, it’s night and day.
Waterford’s peat comes from the Irish mainland, about 26 miles west of Dublin and 88 miles north of Waterford’s distillery in the south. If one looks just at the geography, a few things can be assumed: this peat won’t be particularly smoky, being away from major water sources, and it won’t be salty, being away from the sea. Both proved true upon tasting.
In tasting both peated editions – the Ballybannon and Fenniscourt – the peat profile was the same: weird. I’ve tasted both a few times now and beyond the two assumptions I made being right, this was completely unfamiliar terrain. I think there’s a pun in there.
This was vegetal in the extreme, like sticking your face in a freshly turned pile of sphagnum moss and earth. It was full of detritus, with enough fresh grassiness to remind you of what it once was. None of the Scottish, Danish, or American peat I’d tried was remotely similar; even Northern Irish peat was unrecognizable to this.
The peat came from a bog in Ballyteige. Asked why that place of peat was chosen, Waterford’s Mark Newton had a telling answer: it may have been the only viable source. Peat is heavily protected in Ireland for its environmental and carbon-capturing benefits; the decline in use of it for peating barley and home fueling needs also consequently led to few peat harvesters left on the island.
It’s possible that in the coming years some more peat becomes available, but it’s safe to say that despite many Irish distilleries’ urge to honor tradition and bring back peated Irish whiskey the peat available from the Emerald Isle will remain small compared to that of Scotland.
Back to Waterford and the taste: as weird as the peat profile was, it did bring up a significant taste memory for me. During our honeymoon in 2018, my wife and I were fortunate to get a reservation at Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, at that point the #1 restaurant in the world. It was an experience of experiences, and even though I didn’t love every dish (even Massimo Bottura couldn’t get me to like mushrooms) it introduced me to flavors and combinations I had never imagined.
One of the odder combinations was a fall-themed pumpkin risotto that came with slivered almonds and burnt orange dust. To get that dust, they literally put an orange in an oven and cooked it until it was black and charred inside and out. It looked like a shriveled cannonball. Out came a microplane, and the orange was grated over the risotto.
The burnt orange added surprisingly bright citrus flavors while charcoal, ashy embers, and a bitter pithy character suffused each bite. Paired with the nutty, toasted almonds and the earthy pumpkin-laced rice, the taste was remarkably balanced (my wife felt differently; I finished hers before the staff came back).
Pumpkin risotto with almonds and charred orange at Osteria Francescana. Author’s own image.
I think about that dish often, first because it was delicious but second because of its relative simplicity. Pumpkin risotto is sweet and creamy. Almonds are nutty and toasted with a crunchy element. Orange adds brightness and bitterness. They’re hitting multiple textures and flavor profiles, elevating a simple dish into something complex.
Tasting the Waterford Ballybannon and Fenniscourt, I struggled to find some description that would make sense to readers. I wanted them – you – to try these whiskies and taste Irish peat, so how could I explain what it was like in a more familiar way than “weird.” I tasted it maybe four times, thinking each time, “there’s something I’m remembering in this craziness…what is it?” Finally, the memory came to me, and this dish was it. Charred, citrusy, earthy, vegetal, creamy, and ashy all in one.
Both of these bottles have a suggested retail price of $105. They were provided free of charge by Glass Revolution Imports. Per Malt editorial policy, this will not affect notes and scores, but is being disclosed here in the spirit of full transparency.
Waterford Peated Ballybannon 1.1
Color: Apple juice concentrate. Medium but breaking rims, hang-on blobs.
On the nose: That peat is SO WEIRD. Intensely vegetal, some burnt oranges (this is where I started thinking about that dish from Osteria Francescana), urea, mild salinity. The underlying malt is piquant and bright, close to a classic malt or barley-driven profile but concentrated.
In the mouth: What a battle right off the bat. Both malt and peat come out swinging, bright and punchy with smoke and turf. 100% Dutch-processed cocoa, oak astringency, spiced dashi. Mouthfeel is filling but silky, thinner than expected, with white pepper smacking the tip of my tongue and malt syrup covering the whole palate. Mouthwatering, draws you to another sip in a way the Fenniscourt doesn’t. The peat settles into a gentler rhythm after a few sips, suffusing the whole palate with a pleasant coating. The malt coats the tongue before the peat does, leading to a two-layer lacquer that’s smoky and intriguing. Medium-to-long finish.
Waterford Peated Fenniscourt 1.1
Color: Pale straw, thin fraying rims with pencil thin legs.
On the nose: Sphagnum moss and fresh compost, not saline at all. Candied lemon and expressed peel. Vegetation that’s not immediately familiar or recognizable as leafy or detritus, more like plants immersed in freshwater. A toasted, brandied note high in the palate with burnt ginger. A little more…decomposed as the nose opens, not enough to be off-putting but enough to give pause.
In the mouth: Effervescent and peppery, like a whiskey soda. Super strong peat, back to being fresher rather than decomposed, brightened by the lemon peel. There’s a pressed and fermented watermelon with the rind, and another flavor that’s kind of sweet/bitter/sour all at once like…tamarind? (Thinking to myself, “what is this?”). Mouthfeel is silky and creamy, peppery in all the right places especially on the tip of my tongue and along the sides. The peat fades to dark cola syrup and burning savory herbs. This turns surprisingly herbaceous with sweet and savory herbs burning on a wood grill. The peat continues to fade into darker and darker tones – now 100% cocoa powder – on a medium-to-long finish.
If you’re new to peat, I highly suggest trying something a little more mainstream first. I’m as game to throw someone in the deep end as the next reviewer, but this threw me for a loop. Ultimately, I did enjoy this for both its objective flavors and the new experience it brought. In full transparency, it took me three or four tries and a conversation with Waterford’s Mark Newton to understand what I was tasting on both of these. Between the Fenniscourt and the Ballybannon, the Fenniscourt was more approachable despite being a slightly higher ppm (47 vs 38).
Peatlands image credit: Levi Westerveld, Smoke on the Water collection, retrieved from https://www.grida.no/resources/12546