More divisive than the ice and/or water debate, the growing trend of peating even Speyside whiskies risks the loyalty of many a whisky drinker. Why are peated whiskies on the increase? I have a suspicion that it is to appeal to the die-hard Islay drinkers and the younger whisky fans who seek an experience in their glass. Just as some want the hottest chilli, the strongest Cheddar and the 100% pure cacao bar, I believe that there is a small but possibly growing number of people who want whiskies in a Peat Parts Per Million (PPPM) that is bordering on ear-melting - just to have the Experience.
I know well from my Whisky Women that peated or smokey notes are amongst the most difficult, both on the nose and in the mouth, even for life-long whisky drinkers to engage with. Many people falter with whisky having been given one of the challenging old-school drams from Laphroaig or Laguvillan early in their drinking days. This has put them off, perhaps ever since that first sip. Peat, like salt and pepper, can be too much but, used with flair and aplomb, it can be the most wonderful seasoning, especially in whiskies for the colder months.
PPPM is recognised throughout the whisky industry as the measure of just how heavily peated a whisky is, the flavour generally being imparted by the slow, smokey burning of peat through the malting or drying floor. I say generally as sometimes there is a trace of peatiness in the water used by a distillery, coming from the land over which it flows. You can taste traces, for example, in the Tobermoray 10yo and the Classic Laddie from Bruichladdich as well as the completely unpeated Hazelburn 12yo from Springbank in Campbeltown. I often interchange the words peat and smoke but both are used to describe the phenol level of a whisky, and thank heavens that they are! Phenol, carbolic - no! That's not what I want to think about with my whisky, but it is what I am talking about.
In 2015 our whisky holiday was on the west coast of Scotland travelling as far north as Ardnamurchan and so most of the bottles that we returned with were of peated spirits. Several of the bottles now need 'tidying up' or finishing and so I have made a collection of differing styles of peated whiskies, in the hope of encouraging you to give them a try - for peat's sake.
Ardbeg 10yo is a cult amongst Islay whiskies and I find it a wham bam dram. Dryness on the palette is quickly followed by huge smoke which settles and balances on the second sip. I find the smoke coats my mouth and lingers right through the aftertaste. It is forceful but light and stylish and has definite cross-over appeal for both traditionalists and modern whisky drinkers. If you want to try it with food, seafood is an obvious choice or try a rich risotto of wild mushrooms with truffle oil or venison steaks. For a pudding try plums with cinnamon, either in a fools, ice cream or crumble.
Ledaig 18yo, from the Tobermoray Distillery, marries big smoke with the sweetness of a whisky finished in rich Olorosso sherry barrels. Pronounced Laychick (see if you can catch me saying it wrong, not just once but twice!) this is the peated range from Mull's only distillery (did I really say Islay on the vlog? Hopeless!!). Complex, challenging, spicy and smokey, it is interesting to compare what I got from this whisky on a warm summer's evening to my original tasting on a stormy autumn night, when I found winter notes like oranges and ginger. This is a big, complex whisky with vanilla and fudge, dried fruits and pepper, the required smoke and then almost a hint of coffee. The smoke arrives after the sweeter flavours but lingers. This is quite an assault on the senses and would tame very sweet fudge and toffee, yet complement mackerel, especially with a rhubarb or gooseberry sauce, salmon and smoked salmon. I know that this whisky would be too big for many, but it is one that I like very much. Tasting it again in late August against an October tasting has been fascinating for me. Tasting anything, be it whisky, cheese, or roast chicken, is all about where you are and what's going on around you as well as the quality of the product.
Longrow 18yo from Campbeltown is a richly flavoured, peated single malt from Mitchel's Springbank Group. I find the peat more subtle than in the Ledaig, perhaps because I find the balance with the sweetness more exact. This whisky has fire in the way of ginger and a hint of chilli and marries up to strong foods very well - if you have watched my Campbeltown cheese and whisky pairing video you'll know how well this worked with Mull of Kintyre Cheddar. This Longrow is also amazing with dark chocolate - I particularly like it with the 71% cacao Madagascan chocolate from Pure Origin. The two together are just magic in the mouth. Two full flavours can sometimes make outstanding complementary pairings.
Smokehead Islay single malt Scotch whisky is a mystery – there’s no distillery with that name and the branding on the bottle is all about adventure, modernity and experience. The thing is, there isn’t really a producer on Islay who measures up to that description. Bruichladdich and Kilchomann are the most progressive, but neither set out to be ‘ in your face’ in terms of image. I think my money is on Bunnahabhain, but that’s just a punt. I don’t really want to know, I am content that Ian Macleod Distillers have worked their magic yet again and are offering an affordable, smokey whisky that I really enjoy. The nose is challenging. Without water it initially tastes light, starts to unpack itself and then a tang of seaweed arrives. The second sip is smoother and shows how an upfront whisky can deliver on flavour but maintain elegance. Unreservedly modern, slightly brash but, underneath it all, Smokehead wants to make friends. It’s a fine whisky with oysters and mussels, with oily white fish like mackerel and even bass, and with rich hard cheeses, especially those made from ewe’s milk. I drink this with water all year round but without it is less of a winter drink. You might find my thoughts on that surprising? There is an 18yo Smokehead – I’ll let you know when I have tasted that!
Six Isles Reserve Blended Malt Scotch Whisky I usually find that mixing too many ingredients together produces less of a flavour than more – with the possible exception of spices for Indian cooking. So whiskies from six distilleries/islands might seem a recipe for disaster but, yet again, Ian Macleod have pulled it off. No, this blog post is not sponsored by them!
I first enjoyed the Six Isles Reserve as a purchase from The Wine Society. Any of you who are Members will know that their selection is seldom short of excellent. I have since bought this delicious blend from M&S as well as The Whisky Exchange, so it is relatively easy to source. I ran out of a few islands in my vlog, but here are whiskies from Arran, Islay, Jura, Mull, Skye and Orkney. They are all quite big and characterful and the Six Isles is smokey on the nose but also surprisingly soft, sweet and easy. It is bigger on the palette than the nose suggests with complex notes of seaweed, smoke, and a richness of sweet fudge and spicy pepper. This evens out on the second sip and with water it is gentler and easier still. A whisky to hold in your mouth as you savour a light honeyed sweetness, reminiscent of a pudding being served near a barbecue. The finish is long and I find sweetness dominates with a seasoning of smoke in a well balanced whisky. A great dram with skate, brill or chicken, and especially with pancakes, baked bananas, panacotta or crème caramel.
There is no doubt at all, in my mind or on my palette, that peated, smokey whiskies are wonderful when paired with food and that the range of foods that can be complemented by them is surprisingly varied. Shellfish and summer fruits might need a courageous host to match them to a well peated dram but the rewards are there for anyone who is that bold.