Peat. The iconic act of burning the small bricks of earth covering much of Scotland has captivated the hearts and imaginations of whisky enthusiasts all around the world. People love peated whisky. For others, peat, specifically whisky that has been made from barley smoked with peat, can turn them away faster than a vegetarian at a pig roast. It’s a polarizing element of Scotch whisky, peat. But is all peat the same? Furthermore, are some peated whiskies easier to approach than others?
For those of you who are just becoming acquainted with peated whisky for the first time, discerning the subtle differences between varying types of peat can be tricky, especially when it requires the initial overcoming of what may seem like an explosion of salted meat barbecued over a beach-side bonfire.
But allow your palate to become acclimated with peat and you will quickly realize that different types of peat can produce a variety of flavors, each with varying levels of approachability. Take for instance three single cask whiskies we have recently released to our members here in the United States:
Cask No. 29.221 is a peated whisky from the Island of Islay. At 21 years old, the whisky is a bit more developed than what the distillers of the region are bottling daily but its flavor profile is as classic as it gets; intoxicating plumes of bonfire smoke, smoldering meat, dampened seaweed and brine are all delivered in a rich and rather intense package.
Cask No. 4.225 is a peated whisky produced by a famous distillery on Orkney, the archipelago off the northeastern coast of Scotland. Peat from Orkney is very different from that of Islay. It’s laced with heather and offers a much more subtle, sweeter profile than the seaside explosion most people will think of when they hear “peat”. Dried grass, freshly cracked pepper and a dash of sea salt make up the foundation of this softer, more approachable peat experience.
Our third and final example is Cask No. 66.107, a beautiful whisky hailing from the Scottish mainland. While few mainland distillers are using peat today, those who are happen to be wielding an element that is very different from what is used by the islanders. Peat cut from the Scottish mainland produces a much cleaner, colder wood smoke experience than the rather hot and heavy, coastal experience most are familiar with. It doesn’t linger the same way Islay or Orkney peat tends to do, allowing the drinker to appreciate the subtle flavors of the cask with greater ease. For this reason, new whisky drinkers who are just beginning to develop an interest in peat may want to start here.
Is one type of peat better than the others? Of course not! Try them all and decide which style you enjoy most. You may just be surprised.