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T.Rex-powered smoky treats of Islay
Peated Scotch is an acquired taste, but it’s one hell of a taste, to be honest. It’s also quite badass: the unmistakable smoky scents and flavors are the result of ancient alchemy - sorcery, really - that turns dead dinosaurs into delicious dram.
The majority of peated Whiskies come from the islands of Islay, known for primordial bogs of peat that’s reputed to bring the best flavors out of Scotch. Luckily for you, all three samples come from this peaty paradise.
The trick in creating such a delicacy like peated Whisky is turning decayed world into a fossil fuel (it grows back, don’t worry) and use it to smoke grains (usually barley). Bricks of peat are set on fire under grates on which grains are evenly distributed, and dried in order to be stored safely without losing their magical germinative capacity. That goes on for 30 hours, while the grains are infused with fumes and thingies called phenols - organic compounds that give peated Whisky that distinctive smoky flavor.
We can also use phenols to measure peatiness - the higher the number (PPM - parts per million), the peatier the Spirit. The peatiest Whisky at the moment is Bruichladdich Octomore 6.3 with 258 PPM - the scientists call that “peaty AF” - while the legendary Lagavulin 16 clocks at 40 PPM.
The Whiskies that’ll introduce you to the treat of peat are Kilchoman Sanaig (50 PPM) with a lovely Sherry influence; Compass Box The Peat Monster (30 PPM) that combines Islay smoke and Highland peat; and Port Askaig 110 Proof (30 PPM) with an award-winning smoky character.
Peat may not be for everyone, but it’s true: once you go peat, you always go neat.
1) When it comes to Whisky, if there is smoke, there is also peat. False. While the two can occur together in the glass, a Whisky gets the peaty-aspect from the peat bricks set aflame to dry the grains while smoke most likely comes from the char inside the barrel in which it was aged. So they can co-habitate or fly solo.
2) Bog grows one millimeter a year. This means a bog that’s a meter thick is one thousand years old. Looks can be deceiving.
3) In bogs, once believed to be spiritual places, anthropologists and archaeologists have found corpses with preserved skin, internal organs, and even beard stubble due to the lack of oxygen, which slows decomposition. In some cases, bodies have been discovered with nooses around their necks and arrows through their chests.
4) The degree symbol in Port Askaig 100° Proof dates from an old proofing system no longer used but here it’s used to for a hint of nostalgia. This product is by today’s ratings 57.2% ABV.
5) An Islay old-timer’s funeral is not complete without the draining of a bottle of one of the island’s best, accompanied by the enthusiastic telling of stories about the deceased.
6) Peated Whisky is not limited to Scotland only. India’s Peated Amrut is an emerging classic, Japan is also bit on the peat, particularly at the Yoichi distillery, Swiss Saentis is an absolute hit, whilst in New Zealand the Manuka Smoke single malt has recently been introduced.
7) Peated Whisky-makers entered a pact long ago that forbid them from employing new oak in the aging and finishing process. Instead they use Bourbon and Tennessee Whisky barrels for aging and finish things up sometimes in casks used for sherry and port.
8) Kilchoman is the first Whisky-maker to set up shop on Islay in more than 124 years. Anthony Wills, otherwise known as Andy the Brave, is one of only two makers on the island to oversee malting, distilling, maturing, and bottling on site, plus that’s where he grows 30 percent of his barley.