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April 13, 2012

Peat: the Smell of Fear

While still in my whisky nappies, as it were, I made the adventurous but ill-informed progression from The Glenlivet 18yo I had relocated from the distillery on Speyside to a nascent dramming cupboard, to another single malt we happened to have in the house. My Mother had confessed to a certain bias with regards to a distillery I could not pronounce and was grateful for her instruction: Laff-Roy-G. ‘How different could it be?’ I wondered.

To this day I remember the savage abuse that dram of the 10yo wrought upon me. As far as a flavour is concerned, it was not etched upon my memory so much as gouged into my tongue. Rather than The Glenlivet’s rounded, floral and honeyed gentility, this potion reeked of Chemistry cupboards and my next door neighbour’s chimney when he is burning something suspect. It was not whisky as I had only recently come to know it, but an encounter with something primeval, dangerous and dirty. When the idea to tour Scotland’s distilleries came about, I labelled Islay on the map with a big red cross and a ‘here be dragons’ note. I did not want any more of this whisky region’s fire and brimstone.

Of course, today I would happily sprinkle peat on my breakfast cereal, or substitute it for black pepper. Caol Ila is (probably) my favourite distillery - Kilchoman is fast catching up – and sometimes, only a Laphroaig will do. Increasingly there are more folk like me, who relish the taste of earth and burning in their spirits and more companies eager to supply them with cutting, ashy loveliness. Douglas Laing released Big Peat a few years ago, and now Fox Fitzgerald Ltd. have shown up for the party with Peat’s Beast. I would say that they are a bit late, but the next Ardbeg Committee bottling and Feis Ile will demonstrate just what popular punch peat still boasts.

Dubbed ‘a sublime single malt scotch that’s packed with a big bite of untamed peatiness’, it also ticks the Whisky Geek boxes by being bottled at 46% abv. and without chill-filtration: ‘as it should be’ it bellows on the label. Dare I approach the Beast again? Have my Laphroaig Quarter Casks from earlier in the week been adequate acclimatisation?

Peat’s Beast 46% £34.99 available here.

The singeing effect of Peat's Beast.

Colour – Very pale (suggesting natural colouring, too) with wet straw and lemon pith shades.

Nose – With the glass a little way below the nose, homebaked bread appears first: yeasty, sweet and savoury. Beneath this is a grimey, industrial earthy smoke. Close to I find Italian salami, green fruits and certainly a full-bodied character. Whether it is necessarily ‘fierce’ I am not yet certain. With time, crackly bonfire appears, and this will change from its original moorland setting to the beach. Vanilla pod and ‘green’ peat. Later still grapefruit jelly appears with the impression of barley on the malting floors.

With the addition of water, the nose becomes slightly smoother and slippery. Burning straw and spicy malt. Develops into a smouldering charcoal barbecue. Orange peel comes with an emerging sweetness. Gentle earthy, crumbly smoke wafts around. Time reveals stables, a slight sweatiness and baked bread again.

Palate – That sure is a ‘bite’, but I don’t want to recoil in pain. Sweet malt sugars appear at the front of the tongue before a cayenne and chilli heat take over. This falls back onto smoky/sweet charred oak and eventually a deep softness.

After some water the palate grows sootier with charcoal. Another sip reveals turmeric and smoky toffee. Medium-dry, it boasts residual chilli-like heat but loses some of the nuances of the straight sample.

Finish – Some oak sugars survive, but mostly the impression is of grains of peated malt. Apple cores and smoke. Peat bog is a growing impression, but in a naturalistic, not kilned character. Vanilla returns with paprika at the end.

Water lengthens and deepens the experience. Texturally, the whisky is of real interest blending creaminess and a rough firmness. Honeyed at first, with a bit of lemon, before becoming – there’s no other word for it – medicinal. Strong vanilla and caramel from the oak and a little of the Islay iodine character. Cured meats are the final act.

So…?

Let’s be clear on this one point: this is a very capable and charming single malt. It blends youthful vibrancy with richness and sophistication and I think it is very good value indeed. However, I tried it with a couple of friends of mine and we were all in agreement: it doesn’t blow your mind with peatiness. Ordinarily that would not be a compliant. Octomore and Supernova are all very well, but would you turn to them on a daily basis? However, neither of these two expressions claim the title of Peat’s Beast and it is in the spectrum of peat that we must judge this whisky. This is not widely available, those who choose to buy it will most likely do so with a few tours of duty already completed in Islay’s smokiest expressions and they are likely to come to the same conclusion: Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Kilchoman all go peatier. 35 ppm is not a beastly phenol content; in fact, I would rename this whisky Peat’s Boisterous Labrador.

I am fairly certain this is not an Islay whisky, however, and hails instead from the mainland’s consistently peaty distillery: Ardmore. My evidence is the industrial grime I noted on the nose, in addition to the cured meats and orange, and the strong, fresh barley impression it retains through the palate and finish. Provenance is not vital, though, because this is a superb whisky. Peat – by its own mission statement, however – is, and it falls some way short of sticking your head inside the Laphroaig kiln. Therefore, buy it for the skilful manipulation of richness, spirit integrity and attractive earthiness, but bear in mind that there are bigger peaty beasts out there.

Many thanks to Pauline Graham for the sample.

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May 26, 2010

Talisker

 

You can just see the smokestack and the white buildings. That's Talisker.

You can just see the smokestack and the white buildings. That's Talisker.

Carbost, Isle of Skye, Inverness-shire, IV47 8SR, 01478 614308. Diageo. http://www.discovering-distilleries.com/talisker/

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      *****      I’ve said it before, but this is the ultimate place to put a distillery. That famous shot which is in lots of whisky books shows the loch, the hills and then the Cuillins behind with the distillery tucked into the middle ground. From the distillery itself, you cannot see the set of Medieval surgical appliances which class as moutains, but on the road to Talisker they cannot be missed. Be prepared to stop, because it is safer doing that than ploughing on into oncoming vehicles because you have forgotten you are in charge of a car.

Talisker

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Talisker Distillery Tour’: £5. See ‘My Tour’ below.

Talisker Tasting Tour’: £15. Lasting 2 hours, this is a more in-depth Talisker experience with access to areas which are normally “off-limits”, a taste of five different Taliskers and a free nosing glass to take away with you. The man I met on the tour at Benromach had been on this one and thoroughly recommended it. If you think what five Taliskers means: that’s the 10YO and 18YO at least from the standard range, and he said he received the 57N, the 25YO and the 30YO. You would, wouldn’t you? Phone up the distillery to book, and make certain of which days they are offering this experience.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      N/A

My Tour – 07/05/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **     

Notes:      We were told as we bought our tickets that there was a chance we might not see the stillroom due to mainenance taking place. As it was, we did see the still room, and they are quite magnificent. All of the ornamentation is on the wash stills: the boil-ball ad the U-shaped lyne arm. The spirit stills are squat and plain by comparison. As we entered the warehouses one of the German motorcyclists turned to me, smiled and went “Mmmm.” I took this to mean that he liked the smell and whilst it was, indeed, divine, I could detect no seaweed or spicy, smoky sweetness. Obviously that isn’t how things work for peated whiskies. We were behind a a sealed viewing window, so that might have filtered out the local maritime air, but Michael, our guide, insisted that the “salty, seaweedy air” was being sucked into the cask to replace the volume lost in alcohol and water. The oldest cask was from 1979, and Michael gave the very exact estimate of how much of the cask’s original volume they expect to find in it: only 38%. Just over a third full. That is why your older whiskies cost so much. Casks are used as many as three times, and must be filled with grain spirit before they house Talisker. The malt used to be triple distilled, but it isn’t now.

GENEROSITY:        (1 dram)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      *

SCORE:      5/10 *s

COMMENT:      A good tour, don’t get me wrong, but not a sparkling one. Michael knew his stuff and more besides, but there wasn’t a great deal more to see than you could find in Diageo distilleries closer to home. The views as you walked around the site of the ever-improving day, however, were singularly wonderful. The trademark smell of Talisker was subtle thoughout the production areas, and I got a stronger whiff of peat from the Benromach mash tun than this one. It was covered, though. The smell outside as I locked up the bike was gorgeous: super sweet and creamy. As I say, I would have loved to have raved about how the sea and the seaweed had permeated the warehouse atmosphere, but I just couldn’t detect anything beyond old stone and wood. A bone to pick, though: why don’t Diageo have a universal glass that they use? Some of their distilleries use the Glencairn, some an oddly shaped stylised Sherry glass. Well at Talisker do you know what they give you in which to savour one of the best 10YOs in the world? One of those appalling tumblers they give you in really rustic, cheap pubs. It’s like going to Chateau Neuf Du Pape and receiving one of their prime vintages in a Styrofoam cup. Why do it?!

On the other side of the hill to Carbost and Talisker, this is the phantasmagoric panorama that awaits to ensnare you.

On the other side of the hill to Carbost and Talisker, this is the phantasmagoric panorama that awaits to ensnare you.

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