Though popular with many enthusiasts today, peated whisky hasn’t always been. Rich and full of deep, smoky flavours, it is very complex. Admittedly, peated whisky is an acquired taste, but for those of us who enjoy its earthy tone and charred smoky taste, it is divine.
The intensity and flavour vary greatly depending on the region. Generally, the flavour covers a broad range, including intense aromas and flavours of sulfur, saline, diesel, leather, meat, moss, pine and charred wood.
Peat consists of a mixture of decayed vegetation that has developed over thousands of years. It is commonly found in swamps and bogs. It has a high carbon content which is why it has historically been used as a fossil fuel.
Scotland has a large, accessible quantity of peat which was used to fuel the nation’s distilleries, which initially used it to fire pot stills. However, today peat is used less for fuel and more for flavour. The peaty, smokiness infuses the whisky during the malting stage of production. Barley is dried using a peat-fired kiln to end the malting process. Flavours from the peated smoke seep into the grain and then carry through mashing, fermentation and distillation, to maturation and finally into the bottle.
Peated whisky in Scotland varies by region. In The Highlands, peated whiskies are the minority even though it is the largest whisky region. Some peated variations to try from this region are Oban 14 and several styles from Highland Park.
The Speyside region is home to over half of the active distilleries in Scotland. Whiskies from this area tend to have fruit-forward flavours with only scents of smoke. BenRiach The Smoky Twelve offers a subtle smokiness.
In Campbeltown, peated whiskies tend to have a delicate smoke profile, with subtle mineral notes and robust character.
Islay is where the majority of peated whisky is made. Islay is the largest of the Hebridean Islands. It is home to nine working distilleries and is among the most recognizable locations for peated whisky in the world. Legacy brands such as Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg, and Bowmore are all on Islay. Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg are collectively known as the Kildalton Distilleries because of their adjacent locations. The famed Islay distilleries produce some of the most heavily peated whiskies in the world, including Laphroaig and Octomore by Bruichladdich.
The level of peat in a whisky is measured in phenol parts per million (ppm). Most whiskies will be categorized in one of the following styles: lightly peated, measuring 15 ppm or less; mildly peated, averaging around the 20 ppm range; and heavily peated, a level of 30 ppm and above. Knowing the ppm of your whisky options can help you determine how smoky the flavour may be.
In recent years a couple of distilleries have been experimenting with making even smokier whiskies. Most notable of these are Bruichladdich and Ardbeg. They have created whiskies with PPM levels in excess of 100.
The aging process impacts the smokiness of the whisky. The longer the aging period the more the intensity of the smokiness decreases.
So, in the world of peat, let’s see how the various whiskies compare:
- Talisker (30 PPM)
- Bruichladdich’s Port Charlotte (40 PPM)
- Bowmore (40 to 50 PPM)
- Caol Ila (40 to 50 PPM)
- Lagavulin (40 to 50 PPM)
- Laphroaig (40 to 50 PPM)
- Kilchoman (50 PPM)
- Ardbeg (55 PPM)
- Bruichladdich’s Octomore (80+ PPM)
- Ardbeg’s Supernova (100 PPM)
Over the years I have sampled all but Talisker, Port Charlotte, Kilchoman, and the two with PPM in excess of 80. Bowmore and Lagavulin are my personal favourites but my brother tells me Port Charlotte is also well worth trying.