I’ll never forget the first time I tasted a peated whisky. The moment is so vividly encapsulated in my memory for one simple reason: I absolutely hated it. “How could anyone possibly enjoy drinking something that tastes like a hot ashtray doused in gasoline?!”, I thought to myself while grudgingly sucking down the vile liquidly handed to me by a friend and self-proclaimed “peat freak”. Needless to say, the whisky was less than enjoyable.
But it was in that moment that I was taught a very important lesson, one that would forever change my relationship with whisky and, well, the course of my own life. I learned that, while I may not enjoy peated whisky today, it is possible that I could eventually come to love it. I was fascinated by this idea that the human palate can evolve and develop a taste for certain flavours that at present were less than approachable.
So what is the quickest and easiest way to develop an appreciation for peated whisky?
The first step toward becoming a true peat freak yourself is simply knowing where to start. Something I wish I knew years ago is that not all peated whisky is the same. Some styles of are more approachable than others and therefore, better suited for anyone who is just learning to appreciate it. They say you must learn to walk before you can run. I find that couldn’t be more true when it comes to developing an appreciation for peated whisky. I recommend finding a peated whisky that is easier to enjoy from the start.
In a previous edition of Cask Curriculum, “For Peat’s Sake”, I explained how the origin of the peat used to produce a particular whisky can have a significant impact on flavour and in turn, its ease of enjoyment. Today I’d like to call attention to two critical elements that are also worth considering when choosing your first peated whisky. I call them Wine & Time.
Perhaps the greatest combatant to intensity is a wine cask. This type of oak will tend to give a whisky a rich, warming and fruity character to counteract the otherwise cold, coastal and intensely smoky character of the peated spirit. Whether it be red wine, Sherry, Port or Madeira, a wine cask can transform a peated whisky into something far more balanced and easy to enjoy. Personally, I love the combination of a peated whisky influenced by a rich wine cask.
A great example of this unique style is Cask No. 66.128 ‘Great fun’, a peated Highland whisky matured for 11 years in an American oak ex-bourbon cask and a final year in a first-fill charred red wine barrique. That final year in a wine cask combats the harshness of the peat smoke and makes for a wild yet satisfying dram.
Generally speaking, the older the whisky the more mellow it is. If you’re looking for a [relatively] palatable peated whisky to build your palate with, you may want to start with something a bit older and work your way toward the younger juice over time. An example of a fully peated spirit that has evolved into a lightly smoky, complex and more approachable whisky is Cask No. 29.250 ‘Peat fire flame’. After maturing for nearly two decades in oak, the once wild and ferocious smoky characteristic has become relatively subdued, allowing an abundance sweet and fruity flavours to rise to the surface. Is it still smoky? You bet it is. But when compared to a similar whisky aged around 10-12 years, it is miles ahead in terms of its ease of enjoyment.
So what’s the lesson here? With an open mind, a bit of patience, and a basic understanding of where to start, you too will learn to discern and even fall in love with peated whisky. You’ll be amazed at how in time, your palate will evolve, eventually detecting new and complex flavours that were previously masked under that thick veil of smoke. But be warned: once you enter the smoky incarnation abyss, you may never look back.