Archive for Peat

Putting the “MORE” in Octomore

You have to appreciate the chutzpah (חוצפה) in creating the most heavily peated malt…ever. According to Bruichladdich, as released today, they have achieved (wait for it…) 309 ppm phenol level in the latest Octomore: Check it out. This is astounding…it’s over 3x the nearest ultra-peaty whisky (Ardbeg Supernova).

No earlier than July 2014, you’ll be able to buy this product (it has to be at least 3 years old to call it Single-Malt Scotch Whisky). Get in line. I’m already in that line with all the other peat freaks. 🙂 If it’s as good as they say, it will be an astounding whisky, even at a young age.

A Wonderful Tribute

Peat is all the rage these days in Scotch whisky. It seems that whisky lovers can’t get enough of it. Bruichladdich has produced Octomore, first made from malt peated at 80.5 ppm phenol, now made from malt peated at 131 ppm. Ardbeg just released their Supernova, peated at about 100 ppm. Both of these are significantly higher than Port Charlotte, peated at about 40 ppm. Peat is also prominent in the Bruichladdich 3D, 3rd Edition (3D3 for short), which first shipped in 2006. It was produced in tribute to Norrie Cambell, the last traditional peat cutter on Islay. Bruichladdich has this to say about 3D3:

Bruichladdich 3D3

Bruichladdich 3D3

3D3 is the third version of 3D – the peated Multi-Vintage Bruichladdich. This single malt selected from several vintages is even more peaty than the previous two releases due to the debut of the mighty Octomore – the heaviest peated whisky in the world at a whopping 80.5 ppm. Combined with other versions of the Bruichladdich it makes for an awesomely complex and layered version of Bruichladdich: peat without the medicine. Listen to Jim McEwan’s Podcast here. For more information click here. For a tasting note please click here.

I got this bottle today as an early Valentine’s Day present. I’m a very lucky man! This is one smooth malt. The peat is very well balanced and the fruit is not overshadowed. Yes, it’s complex, but not shockingly so. There isn’t overwhelming sweetness (the color might make you assume there would be a lot of sherry sweetness, but there is nothing approaching treacle), and the mouth feel is slightly oily, which I suppose is what helps leave such a nice finish.

I paid just over $60, and I think that’s a good price for such a well-executed product. Yes, there are peatier whiskies on the market, but speaking for myself, I don’t buy exclusively based on phenol ppm. When I am in the mood for whisky, peat is not the only thing that determines which I will select. The 3D3 is a good example of a whisky that uses peat as an ingredient to complement the rest of the product, not to dominate it. (Now, I’m not saying that Octomore or Ardbeg’s Supernova are just peat with no other flavor. In fact, I’ve heard that they aren’t as peaty as the numbers make it sound. I would like to be able to sample them and I’ll see what I think at that point.)

The 3D3 is peaty, but it’s a gentle peatiness compared to, for example the Port Charlotte PC5, which is quite a stormy beast! Despite the fact that they both rate around 40 ppm phenols (the 3D3 was a combination of several different malts, vatted together so the ppm value is approximate), there is a vast difference in flavor. The more different whiskies I try, the more I realize that they can’t be reduced to numbers. There are bad whiskies, to be sure, but I luckily haven’t purchased any to date. Among those that I own, or have tasted, there are so many nuances that I can’t imagine how hard it is for professionals to rank them. For me, I can just say that this is an interesting Bruichladdich because it’s a blend of old and new, and the peat aspect is very well executed, to my non-professional palate.

To Norrie, I say: Slainte!

What Is Peat, Anyway?

The un-poetic answer is that it’s basically decaying vegetable matter (with, perhaps, some decaying animal matter thrown in). The more poetic answer is that, when burnt, it’s the signature smell of Scotland.

The sense of smell is one of our deepest and most meaningful, and when a colleague of mine opens a bottle of Scotch, the smell takes her back to when she was staying at a pub in the Scottish hinterlands. Of course, Scotland is very far north. In the Winter, it’s dark. And wet. And cold. Perhaps the appreciation of whisky isn’t such a surprise! Anyway, in order to survive the Winter, the inhabitants needed to burn something for warmth. You guessed it: Peat. Whenever my colleague would come in from the cold, to the shelter of the pub, the first sensation would be the smell of the peat smoke. The smoke smell was always associated with protection and warmth.

So, why do some whiskies have a noted “peaty” character? I read a lot about whisky, and some folks’ tasting notes separate a “smoky” nose from a “peaty” nose. Others may refer to “heat.” I think this variance of terminology is what makes tasting in groups so much fun. You can compare notes and help each other converge on the right words for the flavors and smells you encounter.

The reason peat is burned during the production of whisky is that heat is what stops the malting process. Barley is malted by adding water and waiting until it sprouts. The sprouting process liberates the complex carbohydrate molecules in the barley, which are then available to the brewers’ or distillers’ yeast for fermentation. Actually, I am skipping over quite a few steps.

First, the barley has water added so it germinates. It’s a seed, so adding water makes it grow. At just the right point, the sprouted barley is heated to dry it. The heat stops the germination process. I’m no plant biologist, but it seems to me that the heat must kill the barley plants. The goal is to extract those valuable carbohydrates from the inside of the barley before the plant consumes them to fuel its growth. The first step of that extraction is to add more water and this is when the wee beasties are added: The yeasts! (Actually, yeast is a non-chlorophyll-bearing plant, but since yeast rhymes with beast, it’s hard to resist using the word “beastie.”)

The yeasts do their work and convert some of those carbohydrates to alcohol. It’s hard to get this solution to have more than about 15% alcohol by volume (ABV) because the alcohol that the yeast produces is toxic to the yeast. At some concentration, the alcohol will kill the yeast. So the first-level output of the fermentation process, a product very much like beer, is about 7-10% ABV, a point well below that which would kill the yeast. Then, distillation is used to increase the concentration of the alcohol. The output of the stills is called “new make” spirit.

Back to the peat: Traditionally (like perhaps 200 years ago), all whisky was made after drying the malted barley over peat fires. As the industrial revolution wore on, other fire-making technology became more common: Coal, natural gas, etc. For a variety of reasons, perhaps pragmatic, perhaps stylistic, peat-fired distilleries became rarer on the Scottish mainland. There is no reason why any Scotch today couldn’t be made using peat. As it happens, the predominant peat usage is on Islay, the small island just off the western coast of Scotland.

What would affect how peaty the final product will be? Well, some people say that the water plays a part, and it’s hard for that not to be true (it’s debatable to what extent water affects the final product). The water sources for some Islay distilleries filters through peat bogs. Water used for Highland whisky production filters through limestone. This can’t be the only (or even the dominant) factor, since there have been peated Highland and Speyside Scotchs produced. The peatiness has to come from more than just the water. Strangely, it seems that the thing that really affects the peaty aroma/flavor is the weather!

The prevailing winds bring storms across the Atlantic and hit the coast of Scotland heading in a northeasterly direction. Islay is positioned such that it bears the brunt of these storms. The distilleries on the southwest side of Islay get lots of rain. It’s moist there. Very humid. How do you think that affects the malting process? Right. It takes a longer time over the heat to stop the germination. That would account for some of the peaty texture of the whiskies like Laphroiag and Lagavulin and Ardbeg (go ahead, look at a map of Islay and confirm that they are, in fact on the weather-facing southwest corner of Islay).

I hesitate to attribute all of the peatiness to the weather. I think the most likely explanation for the peatiness of Islay malts is a combination of weather and preference. At first the peatiness may have been borne out of necessity, but I suspect that the folks on Islay grew to like their whisky this way (and so do many others; this is a boom period in the whisky business, and the broad “Scotch” category is hot — and in particular, the Islay Scotch market is incandescent). I suppose that they could make the whisky with less peat if they wanted to. But why?

Bruichladdich is in a slightly more protected cove (Loch Indail) and as such may (just a theory on my part) have more flexibility in their use of peat. Bruichladdich Islay Scotch whisky ranges from virtually unpeated to Octomore II, clocking in at 167 ppm phenols. Remember I said Port Charlotte was a bit peaty for my taste when I first had it? Well, it’s at 40 ppm. The Octomore II is fully four times as peaty as the Port Charlotte (and that’s twice as peaty as the first Octomore was). I think that the use of peat, and how many times the spirit is distilled, should not be about dogma…it should be about good results: Do consumers like the taste?

Note: When I say “dogma” I am referring to some people’s assertion that there is a regional flavor profile or distilling style that is somehow etched in stone; there is no rule that says that all Islay malts must be peatier than others; there is no rule that says that only Irish whiskies can be triple-distilled; etc. Bruichladdich’s master distiller Jim McEwan and his team are not constrained by the expectations of the market for what an Islay malt should be. They are clearly willing to take risks and do their own thing. So far, the results have been outstanding: Bruichladdich has won many awards within the industry and the market has taken notice, as they are the fastest growing brand on the market.

The next posting will be about the history of Bruichladdich, cobbled together from a variety of sources. Then I’ll get back to the important stuff (the whisky!) and start to work my way through their many expressions. I will break them down into categories to make this a bit more tractable.