After a whirlwind week walking and distillery visiting on Islay, well you have to have somewhere to go when it rains, I left with a much clearer understanding of peated whisky. I have to say this style of malt used to be a bit of a struggle for me and I had to very much be in the mood for it. After extensive tasting I now find myself really enjoying the smoky malts from these parts. Some Islay whiskies are peated more than others. Kilchoman, a new(ish) distillery established in 2005, is peated to 20-25ppm; considerably less than Coal Ila, at 30-35ppm, and less still than Ardbeg (a whopping 55ppm). The important thing is how this affects the flavour so let me explain ppm and how peat influences the style of a whisky.
To make alcohol for Scottish whisky you first need to convert the starch within barley into sugar because without sugar you cannot ferment and then distill to produce alcohol. Heating the barley and adding water tricks the barley into germinating and the by-product of this is a conversion of starch into fermentable sugars. Dry this out and at this point you can call it “Malted Barley”.
On a hard to get to place like Islay, where electricity or coal need to be imported to create heat, you need to use something cheap that you already have. Enter peat, a layer of compacted organic matter formed over thousands of years that is in abundance on most of the west Scotland. Once cut from the ground and dried it is a superb and slow burning heat source. The smoke from this slow burning heat imparts a smoky flavour to the barley which over the course of production stays with the spirit all the way through to the final bottled product.
This level of smokiness is measured in what we call ppm (phenol parts per million). Malted barley is usually purchased smoked to order and a distillery will use the same level for all its malts. However it’s then cask ageing, and indeed the type of wood used, that go on to make the biggest differences in flavour. Gas and electricity are now commonly used for heating the stills but Islay whiskies are known for their smoky flavours so distilleries still use peat to keep that distinctive traditional flavour. A couple of years ago the Scottish government ran a study on the ecological impact of peat extraction and the distilleries got very nervous. Fortunately they found that Islay alone has enough peat to last the next 800 years with no discernible change to the habitat. Although taking peat is not the free for all it was and is now licensed.
Finally to produce enough malt whisky you need a plentiful source of water, and believe me it rains an awful lot in west Scotland. About 10 litres of water are needed to produce 1 litre of new make spirit. Blimey, if anybody is still with me well done, lesson over and please read on!
Well after that it wouldn’t be right to have a malt of the month from anywhere else would it? Caol Ila is one of two Diageo owned distilleries on the island and the Caol Ila 12 Year Old is the distillery’s signature malt. As soon as you mention the word peat, people expect to taste big medicinal smoky drams, but this is just the opposite. It’s light and fresh. Yes you can smell the smoke, but it’s gentle and interwoven with lovely nuances of cream, apple and hints of raisin and is floral, almost Pinot Gris like. On the palate it’s more of the same, fresh and alive with an extremely smooth texture. Caol ila showed me this malt paired with some creamy blue cheese, sounds strange but blimey did it work. A big thank you to Justina who showed my wife and I around and paired the whiskies with different food.
We will be hosting Kilchoman for an evening of Islay malt whisky here in our Pulborough shop on Friday 4th November from 7.00 to 8.30pm. Places are limited to 24 so please call me on 01798 872671 to book your place.
Please view our events section for information on all tastings.