Like all great things in life, Scotch is often misunderstood. An alarming number of casual drinkers actually fear the liquid, assuming it to be a smoky spirit, its flavor akin to licking the working end of a chimney.
This unshakable stereotype is largely the work of peat — a carbon-rich component of soil, formed as vegetative matter that decomposes over thousands of years. What does it have to do with Scotch? Well, whisky from this corner of the globe — Scotland — is traditionally distilled from malted barley — a cereal grain that's heated in a kiln prior to fermentation. Since peat exists as an abundant fuel source in many parts of Scotland, historically it was used for malting, warming the barley while its residual smoke imparted a pungent, iodine-like quality into the grain.
Nowadays, peated whisky is used in small quantities to balance out blended Scotches, as well as in several notable varieties of single malt. But not all peat is created equal. Every chunk of earth actually carries its own distinct terroir, exhibiting regionally specific characteristics. To better understand Scotch, you must understand peat.
And contrary to popular belief, peat is present in only a small fraction of whisky coming out of Scotland.
"Let's put it this way," says Robin Robinson, a professional consultant in the whiskey industry, "you were to take the 102 malt distilleries in Scotland and place them on the face of a clock, starting at 12 and ending at 12, you wouldn't taste peat until around 9:30."
The most notorious offenders are located in Islay, an island off the southwestern coast, where peat is economical and readily available. Notably, their style of peat tends to offer a strong, medicinal quality — think of Band-Aids or burnt rubber. Needless to say, this type of whisky doesn't track well with the novice drinker. But this is merely one end of a broad spectrum of what peat offers.
"There are many phenolic compounds responsible for imparting the typical peated flavors to a peated whisky," says Gordon Bruce, of Knockdhu Distillery. As distillery manager, he measures seven compounds, each with their own distinctive characteristic. They range from the aforementioned medicinal phenols, through smoky and spicy notes, into the realm of sweet, vanilla components. For those interested in exploring the sweeter side of peat, Knockdhu produces a series of expressions under the AnCnoc ("a-KNOCK") label. Of these, both Rascan and Rutter — named after tools used in peat harvesting — offer hints of citrus, green apple, and even wildflower honey. These flavors are amplified by the use of spent bourbon barrels during aging. As Bruce explains, "through our releases of the AnCnoc peaty collection, we are able to taste not only the differences in the amount of total phenols present, but also the effect of the cask type and its overall influence on the maturation of the whisky."
You can find them at fine liquor stores across the city for about $60 a bottle.
Similarly approachable — and imported locally by Anchor Distilling — is the new Peated Cask Reserve from The Glenrothes. At $55, it's an affordable entry into the peated category, delivering but a whimper of smoke to round out a vanilla-rich mid-palate. At a slightly higher price point, you can sample what a peated Macallan whisky tastes like. But since the highly regarded distillery hasn't employed this method in more than half a century, it requires purchasing their recently released Macallan in Lalique 65 Years Old. It's full of plum fruit, dates, almond biscuits, and angel kisses. It's also $35,000, entombed in a stunning, custom-designed crystal decanter.
When you're ready to come back down to Earth, land in Islay, where you'll dive, headfirst, into the surrounding peat bogs.
"Peat is cut between the months of April and June, when the ground is not too wet and not too dry," explains John Campbell, Laphroaig's master distiller. "After lifting it from the ground, it rests on the bank where the Islay air gently dries the outer layer, which in turn locks in the moisture inside."
This is the way its been done here for 200 years. To honor that legacy, the brand released Lore earlier this year, a $130 bottle described as their most heavily peated label to date. Although there is an intimidating salty brine at the top, its lengthy finish reveals softer, lemony intonations. Just down the road, Lagavulin also commemorated its bicentennial with a special release: Lagavulin 8 ($80 suggested retail). Showcasing tar and roasted hazelnuts, it's far more pugnacious than its 16-year-old counterpart — the brand's flagship. More aggressive still is this year's release from another major player in the peat category: Dark Cove from Ardbeg Distillery. The limited-edition, $109 bottle contains juice aged in both spent bourbon and dark sherry casks, resulting in a curious collision of toffee, roasted coffee ... and petroleum. Love it or hate it, it will taste unlike anything else you've ever taken to your tongue.
Islay is also home to Bruichladdich, the makers of Octomore, an expression touted by the brand as the "world's most heavily peated whisky." Beyond quantity, though, Master Distiller Adam Hannett is quick to note distinctions in the quality of the peat he uses.
"The other Islay distilleries that are well known for producing heavily peated whiskies all use peat extracted from areas located closer to them." He notes. "We are currently engaged in sourcing peat from a very different terroir on the north end of the Rhinns [along the remote, western edge of Islay], which we hope will meet our criteria. In any event, we believe that changing the terroir will change the character of the spirit."
Octomore, priced at more than $200, is a geography lesson in a bottle, blasting the nose with the ocean mist of the North Atlantic and tingling the tongue with dank earth from the most remote regions of Scotland.
Peat is as transformative on the palate as it is transportive to the soul; it will take you places if you let it. So don't be swayed or scared by preconceived notions. Know your palate, and enter the category accordingly. If you mistakingly land on something that doesn't exactly float your boat, it's all part of ride. Pour it for friends at dinner parties — as one man's charred chimney is another's delicious digestif. Either way, it'll be a lot cheaper than a round-trip journey to rural Scotland. Unless, of course, you're considering that 65-year-old Macallan.