I can’t believe it’s November already. This year has flown by… and whilst I know people say that every year, I was expecting this particular year to pass more slowly than most because I’ve spent nearly the entirety of it sober.
Anyway, the baby is now almost two months old, I’ve lost all sign of the pregnancy belly and I think my taste buds have just about returned to normal, finally! (I didn’t write any tasting notes during the nine months because my palate was all over the place.)
November 5th is Bonfire Night in the UK. I’ve been trying to persuade the Italians of the appeal of standing in a damp cold field, eating an impossibly hard toffee apple and watching the effigy of a man be consumed by flames… but I think somewhere it’s been lost in translation.
So the closest I’m going to get to recreating those old Guy Fawkes memories this year is sitting down with a tiny drop of peated whisky.
Peat is used during the malting stage of whisky production. More precisely, in order to dry out the barley grains and halt germination, a fire is lit and traditionally, briquettes of peat are included to help with combustion, just like how you and I might use coal.
Peat is decomposed plant matter and it is found in bogs all over Scotland. Peat was used across the entire country and so once upon a time, all Scotch whiskies would have been peated, but the arrival of the railways brought a more convenient heat source and thus the more accessible parts of the country (namely the Lowlands and Speyside) were the first to adopt coal. In remote parts of the country however (islands like Islay and Orkney) peat can still be found used even as domestic fuel.
When peat burns, it releases chemicals called phenols which stick to the barley and even though some are lost during the process of distillation, enough are carried over to give the finished whisky its tell-tale aroma.
Tonight I’m drinking a single malt Scotch whisky called “Don’t Tell The Taxman.” It’s a special bottling from a distillery on Islay whose name needs to be kept secret and an exclusive edition, which as you might have guessed by the name, technically does not exist…
I’ve chosen this one because then the nitty-gritty particularities of the whisky don’t count because you’re not going to find it on the market anyway, so it allows me to talk more generally about the typicity of peated whiskies.
There’s something racy and exciting about the nose. Aromas are earthy, herbaceous and savoury. Much like salt in cooking, peat can accentuate the flavours and it can bring out the umami character. On the palate, the smokiness does not dominate but it just gives a kick to the finish.
Peat is the Marmite of the whisky world: drinkers tend to be polarised at either ends of the spectrum… but there is a middle ground and it lies in the skill of a master distiller and blender. Each distillery will have their own style – both in terms of intensity and character; just because you’ve tried one or two and don’t like it, doesn’t mean you should write off all peated whiskies. Keep trying different expressions and you might find one that speaks to you.
There’s a detailed article about the significance of peat on whisky.com if you want to find out more.
Want to get geeky with phenols? Read “The Professor’s” explanation on quantifying the PPM (Phenol Parts Per Million) but the following soundbite is worth highlighting:
“Phenols are big molecules with a high boiling-point which are only released as vapour towards the end of the distillation cycle. Their capture will therefore depend on the cut points set by the distiller. A good example is the difference between Caol Ila and Lagavulin. Both distilleries use the same malted barley, yet Caol Ila doesn’t only seem less smoky, but has a different set of aromas due to its process: ferment times, still shape, fill level, speed of distillation and cut points. Coming off spirit at an earlier cut point will only capture lighter smokiness, while a later cut will pick up more of the heavier phenols. In addition, many phenols will be always be left behind in the feints and are never retained in new make spirit.”