No longer the preserve of the Scottish islands, distilleries all over Scotland have been releasing peated variants recently. Clinton Cawood puts a team of tasters in front of a smoky single-malt selection
Given its humble origins as a cheap and abundant fuel source, peat really over-delivers in the flavour department, providing characteristics to whisky not easily found elsewhere. Iodine, seaweed, TCP…
In modern times, peat has mostly become the preserve of the Scotch-producing islands – Islay in particular. But this wasn't always so, and many contemporary distilleries in mainland Scotland have recently been looking into their peaty pasts to recreate some of the styles of whisky they might have been making when they were first established.
Meanwhile, veteran peated whisky producers haven't stopped innovating and experimenting. As a result, the past year has been a good one for smoky whisky releases from Scotland, with a broader spectrum of flavour than ever before. There's no doubt about it – peated whisky is definitely in.
We gathered a number of recent releases from around Scotland, and presented them to a panel of bartenders one smoky afternoon…
How it works
We called in a number of peated scotch whiskies launched within the last year or so, and all available in the UK. These were evaluated blind, with tasters only aware of the abv of each. Samples were given a score out of 20, with scores collated to obtain a percentage for each. All prices listed are RRPs.
Clinton Cawood, Imbibe; Neil Donachie, Beaufort Bar at the Savoy; Jay Doy, London Cocktail Club, Shoreditch; Emine Jones-Burke, First Aid Box; Gaëlle Laforest, Imbibe; Paulina Michalak, Street Feast Dalston Yard; Santiago Michelis, Original Sin; Andy Mil, The Cocktail Trading Co; Thomas Solberg, Black Rock
85 Laphroaig Lore, Islay
Distillery manager John Campbell's intention when creating Lore was to celebrate the tradition of whisky making at Laphroaig by producing the distillery's richest whisky to date. In the process, he also created one of the two whiskies to tie for first place in this tasting. A savoury, salty, leathery element combined beautifully with iodine and wood smoke on the nose.
That savoury element continued to the palate, along with abundant but well-integrated smokiness. Rich sweetness and salted caramel were present, too, along with a rich, dried sultana note. 'Perfect after a sumptuous dinner, in a grand house, in front of a fire in winter. With a dachshund,' imagined one taster.
48% abv, £85/70cl, Maxxium UK, 01786 430500
85 Raasay While We Wait, Highland
Remarkably, this unusual Highland single malt charmed tasters enough to take joint first place in a tasting where Islay whiskies would usually have the home ground advantage. While We Wait is produced for R&B Distillers while, as the name suggests, it waits for its Isle of Raasay distillery to become operational. This is a blend of two whiskies from the same distillery, one peated and one unpeated, finished in Tuscan wine casks – giving it a distinctive rosy colour.
The colour wasn't the only thing setting this single malt apart here. Smoke was notably absent on the nose, with yeast, hay, ozone and buttery Werther's Original notes instead, joined by a vegetal element. The peat was a little more evident on the rich, oily palate, joining flavours described by one taster as a mix of 'strawberry cream and pepper'. All of this really fired up the imagination of our tasters. One wanted to try this with food, while another couldn't wait to mix some drinks with it.
46% abv, £56.95/70cl, R&B Distillers, 0131 564 0761
82 anCnoc Rascan, Highland
Another high-scoring Highland malt, anCnoc's latest in its Peaty range is Rascan, named after the tool used to prepare land for the harvesting of peat. The distillery has been producing peated expressions since 2004, a tribute to the style of whisky that would have originally been made there. Light and youthful, the nose was characterised by vegetal, herbal and fruity notes – banana in particular. This was joined by a butterscotch note, as well as a moderate amount of peat, in this case a tar and seaweed element.
More of that herbal freshness shone through on the palate, along with some richer crème brûlée and salted milk chocolate notes, not to mention a smoky, spicy note that one taster identified as chipotle chilli. A complex peat with quite a classic flavour profile. 'It's not just smoke though – there's a finesse to it,' summarised one taster.
46% abv, £52/70cl, Inver House Distillers, 01236 769377
Curiouser and curiouser
In a tasting where 'coal tar', 'smoked fish' and 'seaweed' are pretty normal descriptors, it takes a lot to stand out, but there were a few instances where a whisky inspired tasting-note greatness in our panellists.
'Eucalyptus on the nose.
A whisky for koalas, maybe.'
'A bit like eating a Jacob's
cracker with no water.'
'Milky cereals in the middle of a bonfire. That’s a good thing.'
'Beef ravioli in a tin.'
'Lukewarm Guinness with
a hint of pork scratchings
and spring rolls.'
82 Tobermory Ledaig 1996 Vintage, Isle of Mull
The Isle of Mull's sole distillery produces both peated and unpeated single malts, the former released under the Ledaig name. Tobermory first started producing peated whisky in 1996 – a fact celebrated by this vintage release. It is finished in oloroso sherry casks, which shows in the whisky's Christmas cake, hazelnut and abundant fruit notes.
But there's a lot more to this complex whisky, from meaty, smoked fish aromas, to black treacle, liquorice, mushroom and saffron, along with more conventional caramel and toffee notes.
'The peat acts as a flavour enhancer, most noticeable at the finish, like a conductor bowing after a curtain call,' enthused one taster. 'This is a good whisky to get people into peat.'
46.3% abv, £120/70cl, Distell International, 020 8614 2720
80 Ardbeg Dark Cove, Islay
Some of the whisky that goes into Ardbeg's latest limited edition, Dark Cove, has been matured in sherry casks, along with other Ardbeg from ex-bourbon casks. This results not only in this whisky's rich, dark colour, but in an unashamedly big and bold flavour profile. Smoky coal tar notes opened things up on the nose, along with some toffee aromas.
The palate was complex, with sweet and savoury elements combining with abundant ashy smokiness. Artichoke, asparagus and 'American-style bacon pancakes' were just some of our panel's tasting notes. Perhaps most importantly, the end result was described by more than one taster as balanced and well integrated. One extravagant panellist wanted to see this in a Whisky Sour.
46.5% abv, £95.99/70cl, Moët Hennessy UK, 020 7808 4400
74 Elements of Islay Peat, Islay
Not only was it the highest abv whisky in the tasting, but this latest whisky in the Elements of Islay range was also the only non-single malt in the flight. Rather, it’s a blend of single malts from various Islay distilleries.
Some tasters found the high abv a challenge, while others praised its bold flavour profile, starting with apple, pear, olive and evocative bonfire smoke on the nose. The palate followed with nutty, salty notes, as well as fruit salad, salt and liquorice, and a granitic minerality.
'A comfort whisky if ever there was one,' said one panellist, who also thought this would be well paired with a cigar.
59.3% abv, £35/50cl, Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367
73 Talisker Skye, Skye
Peated whisky stalwart Talisker recently released Skye, an ode to the island where the distillery is located – it's the only one on the island. The intention was to create an accessible, approachable expression, and judging by our panel's tasting notes, it has succeeded.
Panellists described battenberg, vanilla, butter and cream, as well as a distinctive honey note. All of this, of course, was in addition to the abundant peated characteristics – oak smoke, as well as 'dying embers on a bonfire'. The palate was similarly rich and smoky, with hot cross buns, toasted nuts, ginger biscuits and some peat to finish. 'Rounded on the palate – a really beautiful whisky,' said one panellist.
45.8% abv, £33/70cl, Diageo, 020 8978 6000
71 The BenRiach Peated Quarter Casks, Speyside
As if being a peated single malt wasn't enough of a unique selling point for this release from BenRiach, it's also matured in smaller, quarter casks, speeding up maturation. You'll be forgiven, therefore, for expecting this to be a massive, bold spirit, but our panel instead found a gentle, sweet single malt. That said, there was no shortage of peaty notes here, with smouldering bonfire joining the generous Christmas pudding and dried fig notes on the nose.
The palate was similarly smoky and sweet ('cream soda and banana' said one taster), with some added peppery spice, all leading to a good, long finish.
46% abv, £51.99/70cl, The BenRiach Distillery Company, 0131 456 2611
69 The Glenrothes Peated Cask Reserve, Speyside
The peat in this release from Glenrothes comes from the Islay casks used to finish it, rather than the barley used to make it. These casks are filled with Glenrothes from the 1992 vintage. The result, unsurprisingly, isn't particularly peaty, especially alongside some of the other whiskies in this tasting. Panellists nevertheless praised a delicate floral note on the nose, along with some baked pastry aromas, and a grassy note, too.
The palate showed a little more smoke and toast, which played nicely with some salty and sweet elements, as well as rich fig and date flavours.
40% abv, £45/70cl, Berry Bros & Rudd, 020 7022 8973
67 Glenglassaugh Octaves Peated, Highland
This is one of a pair of releases from Glenglassaugh this year that have been aged in 'octave' casks – made out of staves from a used cask, and holding about an eighth of a butt. This peated version seemed to divide our panel, with some identifying some challenging notes such as pimento and soy sauce, while others were enamoured with what they described as a more approachable and appealing whisky. Cocoa nibs, salted caramel, cinnamon and chilli were all elements included in this whisky. 'Like roasting marshmallows by the sea,' said one taster. Who wouldn't like that?
44% abv, £57.99/70cl, The BenRiach Distillery Company, 0131 456 2611
66 The Glenturret Peated Edition, Highland
When producing a peated expression, The Glenturret didn't hold back. In addition to straight-up wood smoke and ash, there was an abundance of marine-type notes here, such as seaweed and dried fish, as well as some leathery elements. This was joined by vanilla and caramel on the nose. The palate once again opened with a big whack of ash and smoke, as well as some smoked salt, along with a walnut note, maple syrup, toffee apple and brandy snaps. All in all it is a good single malt whisky, although tasters thought it perhaps lacked a little complexity in this company.
43% abv, £45/70cl, Gordon & McPhail, 01343 554801
Clinton Cawood, Imbibe
'I think peated whiskies are far more accessible than many people realise, and this tasting showed that the category is arguably broader than it's ever been before. What was most interesting here was the wide range of other flavours interacting with the peat, not to mention the many faces of peat itself in these whiskies. These ranged from literal smoky notes to marine characteristics.'
Neil Donachie, Beaufort Bar at The Savoy
'We don't sell a lot of peated whisky, but I think that's a lack of understanding when it comes to peat. People have this perception of these peat bombs from Islay, so it was good to see a variety in the way peat was used here.'
Jay Doy, London Cocktail Club, Shoreditch
'I really enjoy peated whisky in cocktails and think they add a layer of depth and complexity that other spirits can't. One of my favourite drinks to have or to serve is a Penicillin, and I see it as almost a gateway drink for new whisky drinkers.'
Emine Jones-Burke, First Aid Box
'Some of these whiskies were so accessible. Others were maybe too much on their own, but would work in a highball, or served with venison. I now want to incorporate more smoky notes in my cocktails.'
Gaëlle Laforest, Imbibe
'There was more variety in the flavour profiles than I expected. The lighter, more citrus-led ones might be easier entry points for customers who are put off by peat. This tasting proved that it's increasingly worth it to not look only to Islay when it comes to peat.'
Paulina Michalak, Street Feast Dalston Yard
'I was expecting the peat to be more prominent, and bolder. It turned out that there was a great variety in intensity, and in some cases I found it difficult to detect peat notes at all.'
Santiago Michelis, Original Sin
'I try to always think and taste in terms of how I would use something in a mixed drink, so I'm looking more for character than balance. A perfectly rounded whisky is for people that drink it neat. Thinking about cocktails, there are certain notes here, like TCP or burning wood, that you don't get elsewhere.'
Andy Mil, The Cocktail Trading Co
'The smoky character here was a lot more balanced than in a lot of the established peated whiskies. The peat added to the backbone of the dram, rather than being the centre of attention. And having that toned-down smoke also makes them more mixable – I think a few of these would work well with shrubs.'
Thomas Solberg, Black Rock
'Peat is definitely a favourite at the moment. People do come in and ask for smoke and peat, but I find there's a lot of misunderstanding about what that is. Some of the higher-proof examples would work well in highballs. Also, smoke is a great way to balance out sweetness – I use smoky whiskies when I don't want to add citrus to a cocktail. It's a component that works really well with other flavour modifiers.'
On the whole, scores were incredibly high, with an average score of 75.8%. Considering this is supposed to be a challenging style of whisky, this is particularly impressive.
The most striking element was the number of entrants from the Highland and Speyside regions. That said, while some Highland expressions really excelled, the lowest scorers were from these regions not usually associated with peat, perhaps suggesting that experience counts for something.
Tasters were surprised by the careful use of peat in many of these whiskies, allowing it to play a supporting role, rather than a dominant one.
You don't have to spend huge amounts of money to get good quality in this category either. While some of the top scorers were among the highest priced, there were a number of excellent whiskies clocking in around the £50 RRP mark.
While extremely high abv could pose a challenge, it was the higher-strength whiskies that fared better here, with all of those below 46% abv placing in the lower half of the peated whisky tasting.
The majority of the peated whiskies in this tasting would no doubt end up served neat, but a number of our tasters commented on the mixing potential here, too.
Many thanks to the team at Black Rock for hosting the tasting and for all of their help on the day.