Last week we took a Whisky baby step with the approachable and interesting Oban 14 Year Single Malt (read here). Today, dive deep into the depths of what once defined Whisky for all of Scotland, peat:
No, not that Pete, peat:
Yes, peat is special dirt. Basically boggy swamp plants died, partly disintegrated, but void of oxygen and high in acid made for a burnable fuel brick…after at least 1,000 years. In addition to warming homes in a treeless Scotland, most distillers used barley malted by the heat and smoke of peat to make alcohol.
Thus, peat flavored most Scotch for much of the 18th and 19th century. It smelled and tasted of smoke, medicine, herbs, and burnt turf. Cleaner, efficient gas technology replaced peat on the mainland. Yet, the island of Islay, by choice, isolation, or necessity, stuck with peat.
If you like wine. If you believe in terroir. If you support local traditions. Be patient and learn to fall in love with peaty Whisky from Islay.
A coworker gifted me a bottle to honor the birth of our newborn, Alexandria. He blew $200 on a 750ml of Bruichladdich Distillery’s Octomore 6.1: the cutting edge of peated Whisky. Grain comes from one barley farm. They experimented and concentrated 167 parts per million of peat: a record.
After a month of a thousand diapers, I think I have earned it (or need it).
Its appearance looks brilliant and clear with glistening straw yellow core and golden highlights.
It singes nose hairs on its way to smelling of smoldering kindling, burnt mint, dried orange peel, strawberry sauce, grilled pineapple, and dried coconut.
The palate feels like chewing on dry tree bark while drinking viscous molasses. It is weighty, smooth, yet undeniably edgy and heady towards its finale. The alcoholic heat (57% abv) swells the head, burning a trail through your sinuousness straight to places above your ears and eyebrows.
Sip it, hold it, and flavors taste surprisingly fruity with strawberry vanilla cream, pineapple juice, and bourbon coconut, but breath in and out and grey smoke, black pepper, scorched earth, and burning cedar swirl it all away.
Make sure this is the last thing you drink. There is no going back for your palate. It attacks you with horrific intensity at first. Imagine eating a burning match. But keep sipping it. Each sip cracks open an ancient, velum book page. You take time, read it, and then ready for the next. With patience, it flows smoother and subtler, until the last drop feels silken, quiet, honeyed and endless.
You may loathe peated Whisky. Like everything from coffee to blue cheese, it is a taste one must learn to acquire. Even if you hate Bruichladdich’s Octomore, objectively it is of outstanding quality (5 of 5), because it unequivocally knows and presents its place.
But let the experts explain it:
For a more lighthearted tour of Bruichladdich, here is James May and Oz Clark visiting it: