Celebrating Guy Fawkes With A Peated Whisky


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.)

(Photo by Jens Mahnke on Pexels.com)

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.”

What Is Vermouth?


The short answer – but that doesn’t mean that you should stop reading – is:

Vermouth is a fortified, aromatised wine.

Essentially, you take a neutral wine (historically, a poorly made, probably oxidised, local wine), give it some flavour and then stabilize your concoction by adding brandy (or some similar distilled spirit.)

The hallmark botanical for vermouth is artemisia, otherwise known as the mystical herb, wormwood.

Wormwood in English -> Wermut in German -> Vermouth in French.  Continue reading

Knowing Your Yeast: a follow-up.


Did you read the blog post I wrote last year called “The Importance of Knowing Your Yeast“? In short, I said that I didn’t know of any studies identifying and analysing naturally occuring ambient yeasts in winemaking.

I’m happy to say that I stand corrected!


The Benanti Winery, on Mount Etna in Sicily, embarked upon an ambitious five-year study with Istituto Regionale della Vite e del Vino in Palermo in 2005. The full methodology and results are going to be published later this year. This is just a sneak-peak.

Before I launch into the detail, I should be explain what a palmento is. Essentially, it is the building containing an open-air stone tub into which the crushed grape juice runs for the alcoholic fermentation. It is very similar to Cantillon’s “chapel” and the fermentation pits in authentic mezcal production. Ventilation is vitally important in the palmento because not only is there indigenous yeast on the grape skins but there are also many ambient yeasts in the air.


For this study, the researchers took 4 palmenti where commercial yeasts have never been used. They then identified over 400 different strains of yeasts that were naturally present in these places. Of these, there were 13 strains that were considered interesting for alcoholic fermentation.

The conclusion is that Benanti have taken 4 of these strains and patented them for their own exclusive use. It’s a selected indigenous yeast, if you like.


That, admittedly, is rather a contradiction in terms. I’m sure there will be some people who would argue why even bother selecting a naturally-found ambient yeast.

It should be understood that nowadays, the palmento cannot be used for making Etna DOC wines…. and that’s a whole other kettle of fish… Winemaking now takes place at controlled temperatures in stainless steel rather than in those traditional palmenti. The Benanti winery has also grown to a size and gained such a reputation that consistency is very important for them.

It seems to me that this study is effectively their manifestation of a desire to create a link between tradition and modernity. Of wanting to dock their caps to history albeit in a contemporary context and to find a way to use nature in conventional winemaking.

The full report will be published later this year.

How About Some Sweet Potato?


When they say you can make alcohol from anything… they weren’t joking. This week, I have two samples of shochu to share with you.

In case you’re not familiar with shochu, very simply, it’s a distilled alcohol made in Japan.

There has been a huge buzz around Japanese whiskies recently. I’ve been lucky enough to witness the growth of one of these brands first-hand but that’s a story for another day.

Shochu will never have that same widespread appeal. It is a far more culturally entrenched product. Whereas whisky has only been made in Japan since the days of Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru (grosso modo, the 1920s), shochu can trace its production back over 500 years to the 15th century.

How is shochu made?

The principal components are water, koji, yeast and a base ingredient. You can use practically anything as the base ingredient – 40 different possibilities are permitted – but the most common are rice, barley and sweet potato.

kome = rice
mugi = barley
imo = sweet potato
kokuto = brown sugar
soba = buckwheat
sakekasu = sake lees

But first of all, you have to choose your koji. Koji are mold spores which serve as a fermenting agent for your base ingredient. It provides an enzyme that breaks down the starch molecules into sugars which can then be fermented. (I know that doesn’t sound at all pleasant but, when you think about it, it’s not far off the process of malting barley in whisky production.) The preparation of koji mixed with water and cultivated yeast is called the moromi.

kuro = black
The most traditional type of koji – it is now most often used in the production of awamori.
shiro = white
This mutation on the black koji first appeared in the 1910-1920s. It is said to be a very powerful koji and easier to handle than the black. It is most often used for making korui shochu.
ki = yellow
The yellow koji, first used in sake brewing, has become rather popular nowadays despite being extremely sensitive to temperature fluctations during the brewing stage.

Once the koji is ready, it is added to the base ingredient for a second fermentation before the distillation. For honkaku shochu (the “authentic” variety) only one distillation (in a pot still) is allowed and there can only be one kind of base ingredient. This is the opposite of korui shochu which is typically a blend of multiple base ingredients and can be produced by a column distillation.

How do you drink shochu?

There are several ways: straight (which rather like missionary-style is practical but not always the most enjoyable.) Second: on the rocks. Alternatively, it is traditional in Japan to drink shochu diluted with hot water. Apparently, they pour hot (not boiling) water into a ceramic cup and top it up with honkaku shochu. A fourth, and more contemporary, method would be in cocktails. I can totally imagine a sizzling hot variation on a Bloody Mary being made with shochu. There are savoury, slightly umami characters that, in the hands of a good mixologist, could be amazing. To write the following tasting notes, I did methods 1 and 3.



TOMINO HOUZON honkaku shochu (25%) 

This is made from sweet potato (imo) at the Nishi Shuzo Distillery in the Kagoshima Prefecture on Kyushu Island (aka shochu heartland, right in the south of Japan) and made using the slow-acting yellow koji (kikoji.)

At first, I am astonished by the fruity and floral aroma. It is light, clean and with no strong alcohol presence. There is a slight sweetness too. Upon taking a sip, some earthy spice becomes apparent. It is very smooth (clearly just the heart of the distillation) and I am told that one of the characteristics that you typically find in shochu made with kikoji is a mellowness. I can’t argue. This is indeed very pleasant.

I’m rather disappointed by the fact that I only have a small 4cl sample of this. I would happily share this amongst friends as an introduction to shochu. You may think you won’t like a white spirit made with mouldy sweet potato… well, I dare you to try this!


Rating: ****

TENSHINO YUWAKU honkaku shochu (40%)

This is also an imo shochu from the Nishi Shuzo Distillery. I learn that the distillery was founded in 1845. This shochu, whose name translates as “the angel’s temptation”, was aged in refill-sherry, oak barrels for 7-8 years.

Oh gosh, this is far more original. There’s a musty smell jumping out of the glass. It reminds me of the smell of a freshly-opened tub of play-doh. That’s probably a reference that will speak to a very limited audience. How else can I describe it? A bit chocolatey, a bit smoky, a bit musky.

The mouthfeel is also more powerful and more complex. You do feel the 40% alcohol. Diluted with water, it becomes much smoother and refreshing. There is still a taste of chocolate but it releases more subtle aromas too. Clearly a very high-quality alcohol but for the price (I’m told this retails at around 80 euros for 70cl) it will remain a very niche product.

Price: €€

Rating: ****

The Importance of Knowing Your Yeast


The first type of yeast that I was introduced to was bakers’ yeast, aka saccharomyces cerevisiae.

I would drag my teenage self out of bed every Thursday morning at 6am to head down to the bakehouse and knead 200 2lb loaves. I also used to volunteer on Wednesday evenings to prepare a big vat of yeast and warm water. By morning, the yeast was ready to go. I loved that funky smell and the way it had miraculously frothed up.

Yeast is also one of the buzzwords of natural wine. The debate between ambient vs cultured yeasts is one of the key sticky points between the two camps.

Yet very rarely do we find out exactly which yeasts are being used. For the layman who is curious about natural fermentation, the answer “it’s precipitated by yeasts which are found naturally on the skins and in the air” seems to suffice. The thing is, have we ever actually stopped to ask exactly what is doing the work?

Most natural wine producers are so small they don’t have the means to do extensive lab-testing. If the yeasts do their job and the alcoholic fermentation happens correctly, the winemaker seems content enough.


Open-air Fermentation Tanks

Mezcal, the agave-based spirit that is too often thought of as tequila’s little brother, is “naturally” fermented in large oak vats, in the open air, before distillation. For the basis of this comparison, I’m only refering to small-scale, traditional mezcal where the addition of any kind of “fermentation accelerator” is not permitted.

Despite the elevated temperatures in Mexico, it takes approximately four to ten days for the fermentation in Oaxaca. Very definitely comparable with natural wine-making.


Hipocrates, the President of the CRM (previously known as COMERCAM) gave a fascinating masterclass at the La Perla bar in Paris in April 2014. Four months on and I’m still thinking about it. He shared some pioneering research that he had conducted on the presence of yeasts at the different stages of fermentation in different palenque.

mezcalHe identified sixteen different strains of naturally-occuring, airborne yeasts. The diagram above shows the extent of the presence of these yeasts in different producers within the Yautepec region at three different moments during the fermentation. Take the Palenque ZA for example (top left), at the beginning they have equal amounts of 1, 2, 4 and 11. Half way through, there’s just 2, 3 and 4. Right at the end, there’s a lot of 2. Conversely, Palenque VB (bottom middle) only has two strains (1 and 5) which both appear late in the process and in equal measure.

Why does this matter? Well, we know that the yeasts play a key part in defining the flavour profile of the final liquid. If we know which yeasts are present, we have a scientific explanation for why certain mezcals taste alike and why others don’t.

I do not know of any similar studies for winemaking.* The most recent study I’ve seen in a similar field coming out of Europe was from INRA in Montpellier (here) confirming that wasps are a vector for the natural spread of yeast within a vineyard. But, seriously, did we not know that already?!

I suppose the crux of the matter is to ask why natural winemakers are happy to maintain a veil of mystery? I would be prepared to argue that natural wine has long been defining itself by what it is not. A rather reactionary, anti-establishment approach, if you like. I am certainly not advocating any kind of manipulation in winemaking but wouldn’t it be nice, just sometimes, to know what nature is doing instead?


Gracias to Hipocrates and the CRM and a shout out to a mezcal fan so notorious that he just goes by the name Pancho. 🙂

For further reading, I recommend this article on “yeast communities in a natural tequila fermentation” by Marc-André Lachance at the Herradura distillery… but if you want to get any further than the abstract, it’ll set you back 40€.

* I acknowledge that we test barrels for the presence of “bad yeasts” such as bretts before resell, but this is for a commercial interest rather than furthering our knowledge of natural winemaking.