An old saying goes: ‘the other man’s grass is always greener’. You glance furtively across at your neighbour and infer from some marginally neater borders and the way their bird bath stands so proudly on the lawn that they are generally better at life and comporting themselves. This is just as common a phenomenon within the Scotch whisky industry when it comes to peat.
Unlike their forebears, distillers these days are not subject to the limitations of their geographical location regarding the type of whisky they can produce. Heavy peat can come to BenRiach if Billy Walker chooses, just as Caol Ila can go peat-free should the need arise. Of course, a bit of peat reek in your whisky is terribly fashionable at the moment, so many mainland distilleries have been staring across to Islay where their grass is greyer and smokier.
The latest to introduce a bit of peat into the equation is the normally fruity and frisky anCnoc. Since 2004 they have devoted a couple of months each year to creating a smokier spirit and the matured results of these were released last month. The Peaty Collection comprises three single malts, christened Rutter, Flaughter and Tushkar, distinguished not by age but by PPM (parts per million of phenols, the scale for measuring how ashy your whisky is likely to be). However, unlike some other brands, where piling on the peat has been the one and only prerogative at the expense of distillery character (Tomintoul Peaty Tang comes regretfully to mind), there is real balance here across the range between those lush waxy green fruits and a farmy smokiness. This is even more remarkable when you consider that this new range is comprised only of peated stocks laid down between 2004 and 2006 – no older, unpeated anCnoc has been added to balance or flesh out the flavours.
anCnoc Rutter (11ppm) 46% £52
Colour – clean lemony gold.
Nose – pleasant thick peat at first recalling turned earth and wood-burning stoves. Next come banana skins and bran flakes with hugely clean, fresh and fruity spirit underneath. Banana chew sweets and just-caught shortcrust pastry. Creamier with time.
Palate – turfy peat, well smoked and rich. Then in comes apple bubblegum, toasted sourdough and grapefruit. Sweet and round.
Finish – impressions of the kiln: brown and damp smoke. Fruity spirit in good balance with the smoke: apple and gooseberry.
anCnoc Flaughter (14.8ppm) 46% £52
Colour – straw gold.
Nose – more minerally peat with a harder edge: wet slate and smoky feints. Key lime pie and brick dust. Focused and expressive. Razor clam shells on a sunlight beach, honeysuckle, apple and redcurrant jelly. More farmy peat with time.
Palate – mouthfilling but gentle at first: puckering cherry and pastry with a rich warming smoke all round the back. Slowly dries.
Finish – drying gradually but there is a magnificent triumvirate of cherry bark, vanilla oak and sweet chilli-flecked peat that builds. A touch of creaminess and smoked fish.
anCnoc Tushkar (15ppm) 46% 449SEK (Swedish exclusive)
Colour – greeny gold.
Nose – very creamy with juicy mango, peach in syrup and apricot flesh. Wellington boots by the Aga and Italian herbs thrown on the barbecue are the only hints of smokiness at first. The spirit is immense: so driven by green apple and with great texture. Baked pineapple, jelly babies and nettle patch, leading into smoked paprika and Pear Drops. Easily my favourite whisky of the three to nose.
Palate – Cullen Skink panacotta - if smoked haddock were sweet and creamy. Smoke and pear, smoke and passion fruit. Just surreal. Finishes on vanilla and coconut.
Finish – lots of juicy, generous oak but a heathery smoke is building. Treacle sponge and blackcurrant. White chocolate.
So…? I must say I wasn’t sure how this trio was going to fare. A lot of publicity has gone into the launch, both at a special event in Glasgow which featured much in the way of peaty razzamattaz and on blogs and Twitter. Could the whiskies stand up? Oh yes, they could. I first tasted them a couple of weeks ago for the #LightonDark Tweet tasting and I was very impressed by how the smoke progressively built but the core spirit remained devastatingly fruity and attractive. Then, the Rutter was my favourite, along with the creamy, unctuous bizarreness of the Tushkar. Today, however, I would put the Flaughter above it with its brooding smoke but expressive oily citrus zest. The balance between the anCnoc I know and love and this new, non-seaweedy/iodine-y smoke was deliciously well-preserved.
The price is high but just about acceptable. You could argue – and some have – that another NAS whisky range above the £50-per bottle mark is being cheeky. However, anCnoc stress that the bulk of the whiskies used are between 8 and 10 years old. That ppm rating is for the liquid in the bottle, too, not that of the malt used at the commencement of production. Most important as far as I’m concerned, though, is that these new products have not simply been thrown out of the warehouse door – they have been thought about and deliberately engineered. The ambition was to provide peat aficionados with something different, and help those maybe scared by smoke to enter that particular intense flavour camp. I think the Peaty Collection will achieve both handsomely.