Words: Aly Mathers
After two years of hosting CASC’s #WhiskyClub and watching it grow from a small gathering of Scotch nerds into the huge crowd of baying whisky fiends, I thought it about time I hold a very selfish tasting just for me. And so, with fair warning to those regular attendees that weren’t into their peated malts, I set about putting a BIG PEAT tasting together that would allow me to share my love of peat even with those unforgivable few.
I had two options:
- Go BIG! Choose five of the biggest, boldest Islay behemoths and really hammer home the flavour.
- Play it cool… Stick to big flavour drams, but from a selection of less-than-obvious distilleries.
I chose the latter. As always, these five drams have now been added to the CASC Bar gantry so even if you didn’t make it along to this month’s #WhiskyClub tasting evenings, you can sample them for yourself.
AILSA BAY SINGLE MALT
NOSE: Earthy tones initially, woodchip, fresh pine and sea spray. Leads nicely into light medicinal peat which never quite overpowers. Damp straw with an underlying sweetness; like burnt sugar or the top of a creme brulee. It shows it’s youth after a time (which is estimated at 7-9 years apparently) with an ever-so-slight rubbery edge.
TASTE: Surprisingly gritty at first, great mouthfeel! And there’s the balance between peatiness and sweetness I heard so much about – long, unraveling vanilla custard and classic smoked oak all at once and never clashing at all. You also get a distinct hit of fresh cask character with rye spices, cinnamon and tannic vanilla. Eventually it’s the dryness that takes over the tongue, leaving your mouth with both comforting smoke and a crisp (almost minty) freshness.
FINISH: Delightfully long and lingering, but with a spirity hint at it’s youthful character.
VERDICT: An excellent addition to the world of Scotch whisky which seems to be pushing the bar creatively (Find out more about Ailsa Bay here) and in flavour. It’s tagline is that it balances both sweetness and peat, and it certainly manages to do just that. Is it the world’s most exciting whisky? No, but I already have a bottle at home and it makes me very excited to see what they come up with next.
LAGAVULIN 8YR OLD – 200th ANNIVERSARY EDITION SINGLE MALT
COLOUR: Pale yellow.
NOSE: Rich, harsh peat reek. It has a sharp top to it with citric notes of lemon juice and waxy rind. Very spirity and in no way shy to announce itself as a proper Islay dram. There is also some sweet elements at play here, although they tend to sit in the background – toasted marshmallows, burnt on the charcoal’s of last night’s bonfire.
TASTE: Unfolding. Waves of vanilla, surprisingly, and not medicinal peat are the first to rush out to greet you. Not only that, but the sweetness here is very creamy and soft. With each sip, however, this one starts to show it’s real colours. Eventually we are back to classic coastal flavours, salty, punchy and brittle. Dank, wet oak, spent tobacco ash.
FINISH: Long but ultimately disappointing. Where you might expect a rounded and rich finish (much like the older editions of Lagavulin available) instead you are met with a one dimensional smack of vibrant, punchy medicinal peat. Hmm. It’s good, but it’s not great.
VERDICT: Released as a tribute to the Victorian writer Alfred Barnard who, upon tasting an 8 year old Lagavulin in 1885, exclaimed “there are only a few of the Scotch distilleries that turn out spirit for use as single whiskies, and that made at Lagavulin can claim to be one o the most prominent!” and to celebrate 200 years of the distillery. This is a dram for those of you who prefer the 12yr old cask strength version, as opposed to the classic 16 yr old. It is generally a very crisp, light and straight forward whisky with some pleasant vanilla and citrus notes to cut through the peat and a punchy bite from it’s young age. A great addition to their range (and, for Diageo, at a surprisingly decent price) but perhaps not the best they can do.
BENRIACH 17YR OLD – SEPTENDECIM – HEAVILY PEATED – SINGLE MALT
COLOUR: Straw yellow.
BODY: Medium / heavy.
NOSE: Very big, bold vanilla from the get go. It’s all very comforting and warm… overwhelming sweetness even! Initially the BenRiach shows off it’s distillery characteristics and age with dollops of clotted cream, green apple liqourice, soft pears and sticky honey. The peat here slowly builds into an incredibly fragrant, floral smoke, like burning incense or birthday candles. It’s in no way medicinal or savoury for a heavily peated malt and is all the better for it. Soft, clean applewood, milk chocolate and cask spices round out the nose.
TASTE: Long and unwinding build up into cut/dried hay, warm malt and toasted grains. Millionaire Shortbread. Oh, this is gonna be good! With seventeen years behind it this BenRiach really does have a bit of everything in it – rich cooking apples, melting vanilla ice cream, pear crumble and sticky toffee. Earthy, campfire smoke infuses the palate and eventually dries it out. There’s also worn leather and smouldering peat smoke.
FINISH: Satisfyingly long, sweet and dry.
VERDICT: What we have here is an excellent example of regional peat making a huge amount of difference between expectation and payoff. When you see “heavily peated” on the label of a single malt it doesn’t necessarily mean that dram will taste of TCP. Be smarter than that. In this expression we have a big-on-flavour / light-on-smoke spirit with plenty of age to lend rounded sweetness and Speyside peat to add backbone and depth.
GLENLIVET NADURRA – PEATED SPEYSIDE CASK FINISH – SINGLE MALT
BODY: Medium / Heavy.
NOSE: Sharpest nose so far, but what do you expect at 60.5%!? Lemon and lime, coconut butter, vanilla yoghurt and tropical fruit salad. Not at all as expected but a welcome change. Have you ever soaked pineapple wedge in vanilla syrup and grilled them over a wood-fuelled BBQ? That. Mouthwatering and tantalising.
TASTE: There is no classic peatiness here, instead the use of peated cask to mature the spirit simply rounds out all of the other flavours at work and takes the edges off the alcohol. Roasted plums, banana, toffee apples and honeycomb candy. There’s also a vibrancy that fizzes on the tongue like sherbet and popping candy. Somewhat restless. A nuttiness underlies all these fruity characteristics giving the dram depth and body, maltiness too. Oat crumble.
FINISH: Crisp and very clean with dry bourbon oak chips, sweet spices of cinnamon and nutmeg. Roasted pineapple again.
VERDICT: If your general opinion of classic peat monsters is that they should be drunk by an open fire on a night where the Scottish rains beats against the window, this Glenlivet should be enjoyed in the opposite environment. Think family BBQ: one too many pilsners, the coals are burning out and after the sausages have gone cold. This is the perfect summer evening in a glass.
CAOL ILA 12YR OLD – MASTER OF MALT SINGLE CASK SERIES – BOTTLE 24 OF 274
COLOUR: Rich orange.
BODY: Heavy – ridiculous alcohol beading!
NOSE: The most classic nose of this selection. Here we find hot woodsmoke, ashen, dry leaves and spicy notes too – heavy cloves, nutmeg. Elements of medicinal peat reek, but nothing too punchy. Instead you’ll get waves of sea-salted caramel, smoked honey roast ham and sticky marmalade. Warm, buttery wholemeal toast.
TASTE: Softer than expected on the palate, opening nicely into a large and bold flavour. It’s the sherry influence that makes itself known first with those dry spices gripping the tongue. Dark fruits, bramble, cherry and dark chocolate. Soda bread and honey. And then the peat and alcohol comes. Burnt rubber, campfire smoke and rock salt. Definitely strong willed but not unpleasant. Great mouthfeel, very full.
FINISH: This one lasts and lasts with a very deep, sticky sweetness. Hoisin sauce. Peaty to the end.
VERDICT: You know it’s good when the group try and order a bottle online before you’ve finished introducing it. Unfortunately, this is a single cask that proved far too popular and seems to have been lost to the collectors. There is still some sitting behind the bar at CASC though so you can give a go too if you’re quick.