Peated or unpeated? There's typically no happy medium for whisky drinkers. Photo: iStock
For some it's a whiff of oysters and cured meat in a hospital, or car oil and burning rubber in a pastry shop. Others say it's bandaids and Betadine, or seaweed and cigars.
The ally of connoisseurs and the enemy of the uninitiated, peated whisky courts love and loathing the world over.
Peat in a kiln creates heat and smoke that gives the barley its distinctive, polarising flavour. Photo: iStock
In the winter months, a smoky dram is the perfect companion for some. For others, though, even the smell of these tar-like, medicinal whiskies causes instant revulsion.
Why do we either love or hate this distinctive branch of the whisky family with such passion?
A fiery relationship
Peat is the main ingredient contributing to the signature smoky flavour. It is spongy, organic matter dug from peatlands and bogs that have formed over thousands of years in waterlogged areas.
The Scottish and Irish have used peat as a fuel and energy source for centuries. When malting barley for whisky production, they would use peat-fired kilns to send heat and smoke rising through perforated floors. The grain spread out on these floors would then be dried and incensed with a smoky flavour that survives all the way through the whisky's mashing, distillation and ageing life.
While some people can't get enough of the peaty aromas this method produces, others can't stand them.
The perfume of the peat
To get a better understanding of why these scents and flavours are repellent to some, I spent an afternoon with people who have dedicated their lives to analysing such problems. Fleurage Perfume Atelier is a specialist perfumery in Melbourne run by master perfumer Emma Leah and co-director Robert Luxford. I brought along some peated whiskies for evaluation, in order to work out what makes them so polemical.
We smelt a range of Emma's personally crafted and natural extracts against some smoky whiskies to see which scents would be removed, altered or enhanced. "It's a practice that is commonly used when designing and analysing fragrances," Emma told me. I've met Master Blenders in the whisky industry that use similar exercises when blending and analysing whisky. So all in all, it was a handy excuse to drink and investigate some stellar whiskies.
I decided to kick things off with two lesser-known peated single malts: the Bakery Hill Peated Malt, made near the foothills of Melbourne's Dandenong Ranges, and the Benromach Peat Smoke, produced on the northern tip of the Speyside region in Scotland. Both of these whiskies obtain their peated barley from commercial malting firms in the north of Scotland. And because of this, we initially found barbeque and wood smoke characters instead of the commonly expected maritime and medicinal notes.
The Bakery Hill, with its honey and fruity earthiness, is a great whisky for those looking for a gateway into the world of peat. The same goes for the Benromach, which we nosed alongside guaiacwood oil revealing an ashy sweetness, while a natural vanilla extract actually brought forth its salty and peaty notes.
The isle that peat built
It was then time to turn our attention to Islay. The small island off the Scottish west coast has long produced the iodine and seaweedy malts that people either love or abhor. We had four Islay malts to interrogate: Kilchoman 100% Islay, Bunnahabhain Cruach-Mhona, Laphroaig Quarter Cask, and the Octomore 06.1. Having visited Islay's distilleries earlier in the year, I knew what to expect. But Emma and Rob were blown away by the complexity and intensity of these single malts.
The Kilchoman 100% Islay is a unique whisky. Everything used to create it comes from the farm around the Kilchoman Distillery, one of less than a handful of distilleries in the world with this approach (the stunning Redlands Distillery in Tasmania is another). We immediately recognised the difference. The peat bogs on Islay are composed of more sphagnum than their mainland counterparts, and this had imbued the Kilchoman with more phenolic, medicinal and seaweedy characters than the previous whiskies.
Then came the Laphroaig and Bunnahabhain, and we were suddenly using civet, tobacco, cocoa and agarwood to unearth their numerous flavours. Emma surmised that the dominance of these scents in Islay whiskies is what may put people off. She told me that when it comes to fragrance creation, such formidable notes would only be used sparingly to add depth to a cologne or perfume.
When nosing the Octomore, distilled at the Bruichladdich Distillery and considered the most peated whisky in the world, the prevalence of such pungent elements was remarkable. With more examination, all the Islay malts developed floral, fruity and vanillin characters. But while everyone perceives scent differently, it's easy to understand how the big, peaty base notes that dominate these whiskies might frighten people off.
Where to start?
You might have been offered one of these intense Islay malts by some overbearing idiot who then ordered you to like it. With peated whisky, as with most things, it's best to start out light before progressing to the heavy stuff. Along with the two malts we started with, Springbank, Highland Park and Bowmore are good examples of moderately peated whiskies that won't blow your head clean off.
But if you simply don't warm to this style then fear not; most whiskies produced around the world have little to no discernible peaty character. However, like any good relationship, it's definitely worth persevering.
Because love it or loathe it, it's hard to find a liquid that gives you a better distillation of centuries of natural history and tradition in a single glass.
Peated whisky: do you love it or loathe it? In either case, what's your personal favourite whisky?