Fad Focus #1: Peat

Whisky, like most things goes through phases. Some of these phases are more macroeconomic like the historical boom and bust periods for whisky sales and their impacts on production and distillery openings and closings. Other phases tend to seem more like fads.

fad – noun
a temporary fashion, notion, manner of conduct, etc., esp. one followed enthusiastically by a group

– Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006

Fads are not necessarily a bad thing. All fads aren’t the equivalent of a polyester leisure suit. In whisky fads tend to be inroads to innovation. This blog will be my first in a 3+ part series discussing the various fads in whisky that have come and gone. Today’s focus will be the continued “peatification” (I just made that word up) of whisky in recent years.

What is peat you ask? Peat is an accumulation of decayed or decaying vegetation that typically forms in damp regions that can be cut, dried, and used for fuel. When it comes to whisky, peat can be used in peat fires to dry malted barley that will go into making whisky. At a very basic level this tends to impart a smoky flavor most prevalent in Scotch. Peat taken from coastal areas may also impart a salty or briny flavor in addition to the smoke.

In years past Scotch was easily categorized by its use of peat. Today the degree of peat used in Scotch production varies widely by region and distillery. Islay tends to be known as the powerhouse region for producing peaty whiskies but peat branched out. Connemara Irish Whiskeys use peat and tend to taste more like Scotch than their Irish brethren.

How do we measure how peaty a whisky is? Peat levels are measured by the phenol level in parts per million, usually abbreviated as “ppm”. Phenols are organic compounds imparted on the malted barley when peat is burned to dry the barley. The higher the ppm level is, the more heavily peated the whisky.

So you may be saying “thanks for the history lesson but this has gone on for decades, why is this a fad?” Well, using peat isn’t. The degree to which we’re seeing peat used is. A long time ago in a whisky industry far, far away whiskies were all easily categorized and labeled. Irish was triple distilled and unpeated. Speyside had very little peat (0 to 10ppm lets say). Islay whiskies were heavily peated (20 to 30ppm lets say). Campbeltown and Highland whiskies fell somewhere in the middle. In this land of yore the Speysides were deemed the most desirable because they were easier to drink without all that peat and more closely resembled the famous blends that sold so well. This is partly how brands like Glenfiddich and Glenlivet became the powerhouses that they are today. The more peaty stuff was relegated to aficionados and blends.
Jump a head a few decades and Scotch started seeing a boom in interest. With the boom came the desire for new and differentiated experiences. Those peaty whiskies started getting more attention because they have a more robust flavor.

With me so far? Good because this is where things start to turn the corner. As the push towards peat accelerated we started seeing distilleries releasing peatier and peatier whiskies. At first these whiskies came from their peatier stocks that may have gone into blends before. However, soon they started making their whiskies peatier. From out of nowhere Bruichladdich comes out with Port Charlotte at 40ppm and Ardbeg blasts out with whiskies like their Uigeadail release. Now peat is really kicked into high gear. Then last year Bruichladdich came out with Octomore at whapping 131 ppm.

Let me just say that I like peated whiskies. I like them a lot. Some of my absolute favorite drams are very peaty. But it’s seems that we’re getting to the point where we’re kicking up the peat notch more and more just for the sake of doing it.

I liken it to hot sauce. I love spicy food. I love hot sauce on just about everything to some degree. But there are sauces out there that take the heat to such an extreme that they sacrifice flavor. I worry that Scotch may head in that directions. 131ppm! When will the madness stop?

– Richard

Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon

45% ABV/90 Proof
Available in the United States and Europe – $30

What the distillery says:
Marrying, or mingling, multiple Bourbon flavors is an art in itself. Four original and limited Bourbons have been expertly selected by our Master Distiller at the peak of maturation to create a perfectly balanced small batch Bourbon that rewards you with a mellow symphony of rich, spicy flavors along with sweet, fruity aromas and hints of sweet oak and caramel. Finishes soft, smooth and pleasantly long. Best enjoyed straight up, on the rocks, or with a splash.

What Richard says:
Nose: I found this whiskey to have a light and delicate nose that only hinted at the sugar and spice within.
Palate: The first thing you taste is sweetness at the center of the tongue. A subtle pepper blanket surrounds the sweetness and the tongue from the outside in. However the pepper is never too much and really plays a supporting roll in the flavor profile. There is a candy note in there that I cannot place.
Finish: The finish is smooth but slightly astringent and medicinal. There isn’t an overwhelming burn on the finish.
Rating: Stands Out.

What Matt says:
Nose: Light, not overly alcoholic. Hints of brown sugar and white pepper.
Palate: I feel like writers often say a whiskey is spicy, when they mean that it has an alcoholic burn. This whiskey is are great example of actual spice, but is perfectly balanced. It makes me think of Christmas with notes of vanilla, cloves, caramel, and kettle corn(?).
Finish: The whiskey’s astringent qualities mean that the finish does not linger. This, and the minimal burn, mean that the experience is over all too soon. Overall, the Small Batch is not as complex or interesting as some of its brothers, but well worth a taste.
Rating: Stands Out.

Overall Rating: This is a good bourbon, suitable for everyday imbibing. It’s balanced character and unobtrusive alcohol make it a great entry into the world of whiskey. It also makes a fantastic Highball. Stands Out

How We Review

Whisk(e)y Apostle is getting ready to post our first whiskey review. Our format is pretty easy to follow, but may be different from what you are accustomed.

Whisk(e)y Name
Info (ABV/Price/Availability)
What the distillery says (tasting notes)
What Richard says (tasting notes/rating)
What Matt says (tasting notes/rating)
Overall Rating

Whiskeys will receive a rating of ‘Must Buy’ (highest rating), ‘Must Try’ (high rating but may be rare or expensive), ‘Stands Out’ (above average), ‘Average’, ‘Probably Pass’. If something is a particular bargain (a great Scotch/Irish for under $50 or a great bourbon for under $25), it will also receive a ‘Great Value’ rating.

As much as possible, we will both review each whiskey and attempt to sample in similar circumstances. We pay for our samples 99% of the time. Any samples we receive from distilleries or distributors will be clearly noted.

Our reviews will appear periodically in our blog. To access all of our reviews, click the ‘Taste of the…’ link. We hope to post reviews weekly and, as we gather more reviews, you will be able to view by distillery. Additionally, we will occasionally review non-whiskey spirits and beer. We hope you enjoy our reviews. Let us know if they are helpful.

The Wind That Shakes The Barley

A short time ago, I was introducing my friend Chris to the ways of whiskey when he asked me a question I never heard. Chris, an avid beer drinker, asked if the barley used in whiskey making was the same as that used to brew beer. I told him that to my knowledge, the strains of barley used for whiskey were very different, but I would do some research.

Chris did not know it, but he was ahead of the curve. Recently, several distilleries have introduced beer malts into the traditional whiskey mix while others have taken to making whiskey directly from commercially available beer (or from commercial breweries). There are several things driving this decision. There is currently a boom in the whiskey market and boom leads to innovation. Distillers all over the world are trying to find ways to distinguish their product from everything else out there. A few years ago, wine finishes were all the rage. This led to some wonderful experiments that paid off (Glenfiddich 21 aged in rum casks) and some that did not (Glenmorangie Burgundy Finish). This also opened up the market for all the French Oak varieties (Glenlivet, The Macallan, etc.) that I so love.

For a handful of micro (or craft) distilleries this innovation is completely economical. The distilleries are so small that they lack the capability to produce the beer necessary to make whiskey.

So, you may ask, what do these whiskeys taste like? Well, like anything, there are some hits and some misses. Bushmills 1608 (made with crystal malt) gets good reviews and I can personally attest to the quality of Glenmorangie’s The Signet. The Signet is partially made from chocolate malt and offers a very complex and wonderful experience that goes very well with dark chocolate or a good cigar. Charbay makes an American whiskey with pilsner beer. Unfortunately, at $325 a bottle, I doubt that I will get to try the results and further doubt that it would be worth the absurd cost (it’s three years old and aged in stainless steel!). Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey has a local brewery make their beer, but I’m not sure what kind of malt is used. The results, I can say, are uninspiring. This is one of the blandest whiskeys I’ve tasted. Since I tasted Stranahan’s at a large tasting event, in between some bourbon heavy hitters, I would be willing to give it another shot (so to speak).

So, there you have it, the results of my malt research. The beer malt trend is so big that it made Malt Advocate‘s ‘What’s in Store For 2009’ list. So far, the results are somewhat expensive (except for Stranahan’s) so your best bet is to find them at a tasting event, but I hope you get to try them. Experiments can be pretty tastey. Thanks for the inspiration Chris.

-Matt

Doh!

Okay, so I screwed up this weekend. I decided to head out on a whiskey search. Let me tell you that this is no small endeavor. Atlanta is not known as a hotbed of whiskey activity. Finding a quality dram is not as easy as you’d think. Finding a tasty bottle of some rare or hard to find tipple is almost impossible. It’s the nature of the beast. We’re the Grandpoobah of all Blue Law states so what do you expect. But I digress. So I started searching a few of my regular haunts.

First, I went to Total Wine in Dunwoody. This place just opened and it is a new liquor superstore. Think Binny’s in Chicago but with more wine and less liquor. No luck. There was a lot of “been there, done that“.

Next, I trotted on down to Pearson’s Wine Merchants in Buckhead. Pearson’s is actually listed as a “Malt 100” liquor store by The Malt Advocate but going in there now you’d never know it. Pearson’s selection must have declined since grabbing the “Malt 100” notation. There was one high point, Ardbeg 10 Year Old. Since Glenmorangie PLC’s purchase by LVMH and the relaunch of their brands the price of Ardbeg has sky rocketed. In Atlanta the 10 Year Old normally sells for around $65. (It’s 10 freakin’ years old!) But Pearson’s happened to carry it for about $42. Sold! But the initial search continued.

Finally, I rolled into Mac’s on 10th & W. Peachtree in Midtown. I thought I’d seen something here a few weeks ago and prayed that it was still there. As I walked down the bourbon isle I saw it…Parker’s Heritage Collection First Edition 1996! Ooh I was excited. They had two bottles. I snaked one, paid, and walked out happily on my way.

Then I got home. The recent issue of The Malt Advocate noted the second edition of Parker’s with a 96/100 and a pretty phenomenal review by John Hansell. I looked at some back issues and found the first edition in the Q1 2008 issue. Uh oh. There were three listed. All titled the same but one was 61.3% ABV (95/100), the second was 63.7% ABV (94/100) and the third was 64.8% ABV (80/100). Which one did I have? Yep, 64.8% ABV.

I realize this is just an arbitrary rating. But that said, I respect Mr. Hansell’s opinion. I found through trial and error that he and I share a more similar palate than a lot of other whiskey writers. But still, it’s the taste right? Well I was so flummoxed that I couldn’t open it. I’ll dive in later this week and post a review. For now I’m a little annoyed, both with myself and a little bit with Heaven Hill. I understand that it’s 95% my fault for not doing my research. However, I do feel Heaven Hill should have distinguished their bottlings a little better. The idea of three separate whiskies as a first edition seems counterintuitive to me. But I’m just me and what do I know? Anyway, I’ll do some tasting and maybe it will all work out in the end.

Cheers!

-Richard