There is one flavour profile that divides opinion more than any other when it comes to whisky and that is peat. I can see how it can either put newcomers off or entice newcomers further into the whisky world. I often hear people say they prefer to only drink peated whiskies or that the more peat the better the whisky – and it is said in a way that suggests their palate is somewhat more sophisticated or that they have advanced to a level (no such thing) that they no longer drink whisky that is not peated. Maybe I am misinterpreting, but that is how I interpret it.
My relationship with peated whisky is a probably more in line with many whisky fans. To start with, I have, and still do, enjoy a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label. I think this is a well-balanced rich blend that gives your fruits, nuts and smoke in equal measure. So, when I started delving deeper into peated whisky I did not find too difficult to get into the flavours. However, I do sometimes struggle to distinguish between the smell and taste of peat and smoke. I have seen people describes these as two separate characteristics. My interpretation of peat is an earthy smell and taste and my interpretation of smoke is of bonfires. There is another element that I also sometimes get mixed up with in peated whiskies and that is the coastal flavours you would typically find in peated whiskies such as Bowmore.
I find that it takes much more concentration for me to pick up flavours beneath the peat but once I had tried all the core entry bottlings from the Islay distilleries I was able to distinguish between them beyond the peat and smoke characteristics. Nothing beats practice on this one.
Because of my fondness for bourbon I am more inclined to pick a sherry bomb ahead of a peat monster if I were to choose. Also, I tend to find that peated whiskies stay on my shelf longer than other whiskies because I need to be in the mood for a peated whisky to enjoy it. However, there are some peated whiskies which are full of some wonderful flavours that work well with smoke and ones that I class as my favourites amongst peated bottles. These are.
Ardbeg 10 year old
Hakushu 12 year old
Kilchoman Machir Bay
Kilkerran 12 Year Old
In my mind there are two types of peated whiskies, light and floral or rich and intense. I would class Ardbeg 10 and Hakushu 12 as examples of being light and floral from the list above and I would class Amrut Fusion and Ledaig 10 as being rich and intense. The difference here being that I find some peated whiskies to be citrus dominant (light and floral) and others to be dark fruit dominant (rich and intense). There has been the odd few that I find to be in between such as Kilchoman and Peat Monster. These whiskies also have varying levels of peat, measures as part per million phenol or PPM. The higher the stronger the peat presence. I tend not to judge my preference based on PPM’s because I think it’s more complex than that. High PPM content can work just as well with ex bourbon cask malts as well as ex sherry cask malts etc. I have not seen any correlation to suggest that my preference is for higher or lower PPM.
If you are not keen on peated whiskies I would suggest you persevere and sample as many as you can. Not only will you become accustom to it, but you will get better at picking out the flavours. It’s not so simple as loving or hating peated whiskies, it’s more about finding the type of peated whisky suited to you.