Back in March of 2015, I took a long-needed vacation to Scotland. I’d gotten pretty heavily into Scotch starting in about January of 2012, after I flipped through a book Brad had gotten for Christmas. That book reminded me that I’d enjoyed some of Scotland’s finest when I was younger, and I was looking for a new hobby for various reasons. So I started reading what I could, watching YouTube whisky reviews, and tasting what I could afford on my meager grad student’s salary. It’s a slippery slope, that one, but the vast amount that there is to learn about whisky and its production fascinates me. My posts on The Jar are often going to have some very nerdy digressions into the minutiae of spirit production — my tastes range all over the map as far as Aqua Vitae is concerned — so if that’s your jug o’ spirit, let’s go! Today we’re talking about peated whisky.
Once you get into Scotch, you tend to start learning about the regions, since they all have pretty unique styles. When you come to Islay whisky, you expect peat. Why Islay whisky has so much peat is an interesting question, but in order to answer that, let’s get into a little background about the main ingredient from which Scotch is made.
Single Malt Scotch is made from 100% malted barley, like most beers you’ll come across. Blended whiskies are a different beast, but that’s a subject for another post. Barley is a cool weather grain, which makes it ideal to grow in northern Europe. The British Isles are awash in the stuff — partly because they tend to drink rather a lot of ale, and beer is usually made almost exclusively from barley. But barley on its own doesn’t ferment. You could toss a sack of barley in a fermentor with water and some great yeast, and not much is going to happen. The grain is almost all starch when it’s harvested. See, grain is generally the seed of a grass, and barley is no different. Seeds often have to wait quite a while before they can sprout, due to cold or drought, and they need a way to store food for the plant that will later germinate from the seed.
Plants, like animals, burn sugars for fuel. All of that starch in the seed needs to somehow be converted into sugar.
In an amazing feat of evolution, as seeds begin to germinate, they produce a host of enzymes — organic compounds used to catalyze chemical reactions — that are extremely efficient at converting those starches into sugars, predominantly maltose. The seeds get wet from rain, which signals to them that it’s time to start growing. The seed sprouts, the enzymes are produced, and the plant grows and grows, eventually making more of the same seeds, continuing the cycle.
We, however, want those enzymes for our own devious purposes. We want to convert that starch into sugar, which we will then ferment with yeast into beer (in this case, without hops), pour that into a copper pot still, and distill that beer into alcohol with lots of lovely flavor chemicals to boot.
That’s really all malted barley is — seeds that have sprouted to produce the enzymes we need to convert as much of their starch as possible into fermentable sugar. In fact, most other whiskies like rye and bourbon use a fairly small amount of malted barley in their mashes in order convert the starches into sugars.
But there’s a bit of a problem here. If you let the seeds germinate too long, the sprout starts consuming all of your lovely sugars. So distillers and brewers need a way to stop the germination process. The obvious method of carrying this out is to simply dry the barley after it’s sprouted.
The most efficient way to dry something is through the application of heat. In the case of drying barley, most malt producers (some distilleries malt some of their own barley, but most is from large, dedicated malt producers called maltings) use large rooms called kilns that are heated by lighting a fire underneath and allowing the warm air to rise up through the wet malted barley. Over the course of several hours or days, the barley dries, and it’s then used to make whiskey.
Traditionally, most maltings tended to use coal to fire their kilns. The British mainland has lots of that, which fueled the Industrial Revolution. Distilleries in areas like Speyside, near Inverness, had easy access to all of the coal they needed due to the arrival of the modern miracle of the railroad.
But Islay is different. See, Islay (pronounced eye-lah) is a low-lying island off the western coast of Scotland in an archipelago called the Inner Hebrides. There aren’t many trees; it’s rainy and often windy, and there’s no railroad or highway that’ll take you there. To this day, the only way to get to Islay is on a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry. In rough seas, those aren’t even necessarily available. So, the whisky producers on Islay used what they have, and that’s peat.
Peat is, simply put, dirt. But it’s a special kind of dirt. Peat occurs in wet areas, where lots and lots of organic matter is compressed over time. Many parts of Scotland — and, incidentally, North America — are temperate areas where it never gets too warm, stays wet and boggy, and promotes a very special kind of plant decomposition. Peat bogs in Scotland are old. Some have been accumulating plant matter for a thousand years or more, decomposing that plant matter anaerobically (without air), eventually turning into packed layers of brown matter that’s actually quite flammable once dried. Peat bogs also tend to preserve things that become buried in them. Bodies of men from the stone age have been found in peat bogs, almost perfectly preserved.
This lack of fuel on Islay prompts residents and local businesses to often burn bricks of cut peat in their fireplaces. Walking around Islay’s charming villages, you’ll often smell the peat fires as people try to keep warm in the chill and the damp. The pubs on the island, like the one in the Port Charlotte Inn just south of Bruichladdich on Lochindaal, usually have a roaring peat fire going to warm you as you sip a dram from their substantial whisky selection.
Many of the distilleries on Islay make their whiskies from malt exclusively dried using peat fires. There are exceptions, which I plan to cover in another post one of these days, but the majority of the juice coming out of the stills on Islay is well peaty stuff. These days, the distilleries are largely owned by huge multinationals, but they mostly operate in a very traditional fashion, although with broad use of computers, with an entire distillery operation maintained by one or two people on shift.
Tonight, as I write this, is Burns night. Robert Burns was a Scottish poet, and around Scotland on this night, people gather together to celebrate him, often with a dram of their favorite Scotch whisky. My choice for tonight is Ardbeg Uigeadail.
Ardbeg Distillery is on Islay’s south coast, in a row of distilleries that are within fairly short walking distance of each other. Ardbeg is on the far eastern end of this row, followed by Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and then the former site of the Port Ellen distillery, which is now a maltings run largely for Diageo, the huge multinational responsible for the Johnnie Walker blends. I was unfortunately unable to tour the Ardbeg distillery when I was on Islay. They were closed for repairs and maintenance, as I was on the island before the tourist season really starts swinging there. I was fortunately able to tour the neighbors, but Ardbeg will have to wait for another trip.
Uigeadail (oo-gi-doll) is a seriously peaty whisky. Peat is certainly not to everybody’s taste. I recall once when I handed Brad a glass of Laphroaig Quarter Cask. He commented that it tasted like somebody took perfectly good whisky and soaked Band-Aids® in it. And as far as the flavor description goes, this isn’t too far off the mark. Peat, especially Islay peat, can have a very iodine-like aroma, full of phenols and other volatile compounds. But Uigeadail does mellow the peat a bit, as it’s partially matured in sherry butts. The sherry adds notes of lovely dried fruit to the massive bonfire of peat. After a few whiffs from the old Glencairn glass, the peat steps aside and allows you to unlock the grain, the floral notes, and all of that lovely dried raisin and cherry. It’s bottled at a relatively low cask strength of 54.1% ABV, and takes water like a champ. (I know Brad likes his cask strength whiskies neat. I unfortunately can’t partake that way for too long without my tongue becoming a barren wasteland bereft of taste buds.)
Jim Murray named Ardbeg Uigeadail his World Whisky of the Year in 2009, and it pretty much always garners extremely positive reviews. Ralfy Mitchell (ralfy.com) has reviewed it favorably many times, and for very good reason. Ardbeg makes a really consistent and unique product. Their malt is from Port Ellen, and so is much like a lot of the other whisky distilled on Islay, but Ardbeg’s stills seem to allow more of the briny, phenol nature of the whisky through.
If you’re new to peat, or a pro who’s just never bitten the bullet, Ardbeg’s Uigeadail, in its appealing green bottle with Celtic script, is a can’t lose option. And at cask strength, it’s a lot of bang for your buck.