The whisky industry’s use of sherry casks goes back to an age before even our grandparents were born. Their use being a factor of the economic realities of time, as much as for the flavours the would imbue into Scotch whisky. And yet, the combination of natural, elemental peat smoke with juicy, rich, sweet sherry has endured as an extremely popular style in its own right since. Sit down at any gathering of enthusiasts and I guarantee you there will be some form of split between peat-heads and sherry-monsters. And yet, present both of these groups with something drawn from right out the middle of their flavour preferences and you’ll likely find fans willing to cross the divide.
Day-to-day, it’s easy to understand why peat and sherry would go together. Just think back to being a kid and toasting marshmallows over the fire. Or sticky sweet barbeque sauce slathered over brisket from a smokehouse. Or to the current boom in mixology with a cocktail imbued with the additional aromas and flavours of a smoke gun. The individual flavours that you associate with smoke are released at different times during any burning process – and the types of fuel (wood/peat) used all bring with them a distinctive profile – some with additional chains of glucose which means that they already burn slightly sweet. But sweetness and smoke just seem to go together right?
Yet at the same time, physiologically there isn’t a specific taste bud for smoke itself. Which means that the influence of burning/smoke/peat must provide some other olfactory stimulus. Indeed, several notable sensory scientists have suggested that as much of the flavour of smoke comes from its aroma, that in some ways we’ve all evolved (from early-humans) to associate this with cooking and being fed. In essence a survival instinct. At the same time, sweetness is detectable to humans – on receptors on the tongue and around the mouths. And our desire for sweet things is certainly evolutionary – we both need and crave sugars, and our bodies convert most carbohydrates down into glucose-based compounds for energy. Some of us might perceive we have more of a sweet-tooth than our peers, but regardless we’re all consuming sugars of one form or another.
Whilst some would inadvertently argue against it (especially the Octomore brigade), balance in whisky is tantamount to its overall quality. Note: that’s not the same as your enjoyment of it. But, balance when playing with peat and sherry can be hard to come by. An expression which is composed of both elements needs to allow both elements to sing. Together. In harmony. And yet, it is often the case that one of the flavours dominates – and that’s because of cask maturation. In simple terms, leave a peated whisky in a cask and over time its peat influence will gradually subside and mellow. But, leave a peated whisky in a sherry cask, and whilst this mellowing is taking place, the influence from the wine is increasing – rich, fruity flavours yes, but also often heavy oak and tannins. As such, there’s a fine balance here – and it's why some of the best peat and sherry combinations (in my opinion) come from refill casks. The sherry and cask influence diminished to a point where a longer-term maturation will still allow both the smoke and the sweetness to complement each other and not fight.
I believe this is why there’s an increasing trend for finishing peated whiskies in sherry rather than leaving them full-term. It’s simple easier to control the influence of the secondary cask over a shorter period of time – and potentially more likely to produce the perfect balance between smoke and sweetness that is desired. No easy task. Producers have been quick to wise up to this sub-category – to the point where you’ll see traditionally sherried-whisky producers messing around with peated runs. Whilst the flip side of the coin – peated producers adding sherry - often seems to result in good things, I’m far less convinced the other way around. Managing the influence of casks is a relatively well-honed art…..playing with the composition of the distillate itself much more risky. I suspect finishing in ex-peated casks would likely produce more balanced results in many cases. Peat and sherry can be the best of friends, but they can also be uneasy bedfellows.
Elixir Distillers are no strangers to selecting and vatting up both smoky and sweet casks for their ongoing Elements of Islay series. Whilst the range originally started as a showcase for single malts, in 2016 it was expanded to include blended malts – the inaugural bottling simply being entitled ‘Peat’ – no confusion as to what you’re likely going to get there. In 2018, LMDW offered up the first ‘Peat’ aged in sherry casks and the Elixir distillers naming team quickly swung in to action, spending at least 90 seconds deciding on the moniker of Peat & Sherry. The shop exclusive sold out rather quickly and other exclusives have followed (For Belgium, Sweden, Germany and the SWF 2019 music festival).
This month sees the release of the TWE Exclusive Peat & Sherry. It is similarly composed to those which have gone before it – namely an undisclosed blend of ex-Islay casks (likely a majority if not all ex-bourbon) which have been finished in oloroso sherry for two years. The release is bottled in the standard Elements 50cl science-y flask glassware and clocks in at £49.95 from The Whisky Exchange.
Nose: Smoked oranges and jammy red berries are joined by a combination of vegetal and meaty smoke – smouldering moss and damp bonfire leaves alongside soy and BBQ sauces and a selection of cold-smoked dried meats. Running throughout – plump raisins, resinous tree sap, hints of rubber types and a fabric note – bung cloth and bookbinding. The addition of water adds ozone and petrichor alongside fish stock and corkboard – altogether more relaxed, but not more expressive.
Taste: The arrival is viscous and heavy. BBQ briquettes are joined by road surfacing and felt roofing whilst chocolate and raisins are giving a fruity lift from reduced berry fruits and preserves. Smoke is fairly pervasive – burning logs, roaring fireplaces, charred dried soils, touches of medicinal wipes and briny water. Reduction adds an ashy dimension emphasising the earthiness – dried, cracked and powdery. It also adds sweetness from candied lemon making for an easier-going slightly cleaner overall experience.
Finish: Long with bitumen, smoked vegetation, salinity and stewed red berries.
This TWE Exclusive Elements of Islay does indeed make good on its namesake – there’s plenty of peat and there’s plenty of sherry. And, if you enjoy that sort of thing - you’ll more than likely enjoy this sort of thing. It certainly drinks well for its high ABV (not requiring dilution to my palate, and not responding all that well to it either). But, there’s a disjointed spluttering along the way – it simply cannot decide whether it wants to be an all on olfactory assault, or something just a little bit calmer. Personally I’d rather it went one way or another instead of trying to tread what is an uneasy middle ground.
Review sample provided by The Whisky Exchange.