Peated whisky shares the same rep as Malaysia’s beloved durian–you either love it or you don’t.
For those who feign indifference, they just haven’t gotten to truly know peated whisky yet because trust us, peated whisky demands an opinion about it. And for the most part, the existence of peated whisky slips by unnoticed as its flavour tends to be mistaken for smoky instead.
Don’t beat yourself up too much if you’ve never heard of peated whisky before. As “peaty” is not a word we’d normally use when describing our whisky or any other food for that matter, it’s understandable if you’re completely clueless about it.
And if you’ve heard of the term “peated whisky” being mentioned somewhere before but don’t know enough to contribute to the conversation, you’ve come to the right place because we’re about to give you the lowdown on everything you need to know about peated whisky–from how it’s made, to how it tastes, and how to tell the difference between peaty and smoky.
What is peated whisky?
You clearly know what whisky is, but what does peated mean? To start off with the basics, peated is a derivation of peat. And peat is a type of soil made up of partially decayed vegetable matter such as moss, reeds, tree roots, shrubs, and grass in wet areas.
It can even be classified as fossil fuel as it takes thousands of years for the decayed materials to amalgamate into hardened layers of dense mud–otherwise known as a bog.
Photo by islay.com.
Peat was initially the most widely available and easily accessible fuel in Scotland. This is because many parts of the country were covered in it. Apart from being a fuel source for kilns in distilleries, peat was also used to fire hearths back in ancient Scotland.
It burns exceptionally well and for a long time, while maintaining its scalding hot heat. You can imagine why it was the perfect fuel source for drying grains.
So, there you have it, peated whisky is essentially whisky that has come in contact with peat fire and smoke.
How is peated whisky made?
Peat comes into the picture in the whisky-making process during the malting stage. To the uninitiated, malting is the practice of steeping, germinating, and drying grain to convert starches into sugar, which then converts into alcohol.
When peat bogs are used as a fuel source during the drying process to stop germination–a crucial step of whisky production–the grains are exposed to peat smoke. This largely contributes to the peaty flavour, as the grains are then slowly infused with the aromatic and pungent smoke during its prolonged burning time, which can take up to 30 hours at times.
While peating may have been exclusive to Scotland for the longest time, that’s not the case today as Japan, India, New Zealand, and Australia have also hopped onto the bandwagon of producing peated whiskies. Could this be a testament to a worldwide acceptance and love towards peated whisky?
In fact, New Zealand’s Thomson Whisky Distillery and Australia’s Bakery Hill Distillery are both renowned household names when it comes to producing quality peated whisky in their respective countries.
What does peated whisky taste like?
This is not a blanket statement but it’s said that no other whisky flavours can entice our palate, enliven our senses, and provoke our olfactory receptors as much as peated whisky can. Perhaps this is why it’s so memorable, instigative, and impossible to be nonchalant about.
Before we dive into the question of what does peated whisky taste like, let’s explore and understand the variables that affect and contribute to its taste. They include the region the peat is extracted from, the amount of peat used, the span of burning time, the duration of maturation, and the strength of its phenols level.
Phenols are part of the chemical composition found in peat. Their levels tend to reduce with maturation. This means that the younger the whisky is–typically six to eight years old–the peatier it is likely to be.
In fact, how deep into the ground the peat is retrieved from–no matter if they’re only one metre apart–can contain significantly different chemical compositions, which will have an influence on its resulting flavour.
A few distilleries on Scotland’s mainland are big peated whiskies producers, but the distilleries in the west coast–the famous Islay, home of Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Caol Ila, and who can forget Bruichladdich, the distillery famed for producing the Octomore series, described as super heavily peated scotch whisky–are known to produce some of the world’s peatiest whiskies.
Blessed with an abundance of peat, they first used it out of necessity, but overtime, it became a product of heritage. Today, they infuse tradition and modernity by continuing the use of peat while coming up with unique peated whiskies bearing lots of variations and flavours.
To say that the taste of peated whisky is intense and hard to discern is an understatement of the century. As aforementioned, there are several factors that add to the complexity of a peated whisky’s final flavour.
There are drinkers who have expressed that some peated whiskies taste burnt, musty, smoky, and earthy–think burning tires, barbecued meat, bacon, diesel, tar, ash, and a bonfire. You also have those who reported a strong sulphuric and sharp medicinal note, likening it to saline, antiseptic, and iodine.
When put into words, we can see how peated whisky can come off as downright unappealing, or repelling even. But don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. For all you know, you may come love it.
What is the difference between peaty and smoky?
We noted earlier on in the article that it’s a common misconception to mistake peaty for smoky. Hopefully we’ve provided you with sufficient information on peated whisky to get you by, but if you’re still scratching your head, here’s how to tell the two apart.
While peat and smoke are comparably similar, they are definitely not identical nor are they both present together in whiskies.
Peat is basically fossil fuel extracted from the ground, imparting earthy notes to whiskies, while smoke is literally that cloud of dust you get when you start a fire, which gives off an ashy flavour instead.
As we’ve learnt, the peaty note emerges during the malting process. On the other hand, whiskies get their smoky profile from barrels that were charred. The smoky aroma interacts with the spirit and gets soaked up during maturation.
Whiskies that are dubbed as smoky tend to taste like wood, pipe tobacco, charcoal, liquorice, and ash.
Bourbons, in particular, have a smoky and sweet profile as they’re often aged in newly charred oak barrels. And because the liquor is mostly made from corn–that’s where the sweet flavour comes in, it is imbued with subtle hints of vanilla and caramel.
Approach peated whisky with an open mind
It’s safe to say that peated whisky has accrued an audacious reputation in the whisky world. It might even be possible that it’s the one and only spirit that has garnered such polarising views in the whisky community.
Some look at peated whisky lovers with awe and reverence–marvelling at how their palates can enjoy such a potent dram. On the other side of the same coin, there are also those who look at the same peated whisky drinkers with suspicion and doubt. “Is there something seriously wrong with their taste buds?” they wonder.
There is no concrete epiphany here. We won’t tell you whether you’re right to love it passionately or despise it intensely.
But is peated whisky widely misunderstood? That’s for sure. Sometimes, its exaggerated reputation might cloud your judgment, so we say approach it with an open mind, and whatever opinion that you form about it, let’s all agree to disagree.