The peated premium
Posted 13 July 2020 by Matt / In Blend
Bottle Name: Green Isle Deluxe Blended Scotch Whisky
Bottler: The Character of Islay Whisky Company
Throughout the wider, less educated (I.E. ‘normal people’) world, peat smoke and Scotch whisky is synonymous. Whilst only a mere faction of the overall whisky output of the country *is* actually peated, perceptions can be both a boon or a buggerance. You don’t have to travel all that far to find this inaccuracy being spouted first-hand – often as a means to artificially define a sector which is already quite well-defined thank you very much. Nevertheless this false opinion persists – and brings with it all manner of expectations not only on flavour profiles, but on pricing.
It's a common acceptance that whiskies produced on Islay - the spiritual home of peat – are simply more expensive. But the reasons for this peated premium are not solely down to a relative dearth of supply vs. the burgeoning demand for smoky malts. Nor the costs that are accrued in either obtaining or producing peated barley. History and status have their parts to play too.
It is fair to observe that the output of most of Islay’s distilleries are dwarfed by their mainland cousins:
Litres pure alcohol per year
Caol Ila 6,450,000
With an average across the entirety of Scotland’s distilleries of around 2.5m LPA – only the workhorse Caol Ila pushes its production into the upper echelons of volumes. However, when you look at the total output of Islay you’ll see that it is comparable to that of Scotland’s largest malt distillery - Glenlivet - which has a capacity of 21m LPA all by itself. Supply is certainly limited as a total LPA when compared to Speyside behemoths. But at the same time, not all Islay whiskies command a premium purely because of the size of their producing distilleries, reputation, or inclusion of peated malt within the final composition (unpeated Laddie's and Bunnas often command high prices too).
Distilleries require mainstays – perennial expressions which allow them to penetrate the wider drinking market - available in supermarket, pubs and bars. The Laphroaig 10s and the Bowmore 12s of this world. And it’s the dearth of the supply outside of the creation of these expressions which truly puts the limitations of capacities into sharp focus.
Core range expressions from many of the Islay distilleries are sold the world over – and their creation consumes a *lot* of casks. Whilst the overall LPA figures might look relatively healthy when looked at in isolation, when the production of these high volume, lower price bottlings is factored in, the remaining inventory is not looking anywhere near as abundant.
So, given that core range Islay bottlings currently clock in at around £40 (give or take) – why do expressions outside of these often costs considerably more?
It’s certainly not the additional costs of kilning – that’s either part of the spec (usually received from Port Ellen Maltings) – or a variable distillery cost for producing X amount of peated malt using the onsite maltings and kiln (ala Laphroaig) - though only as a % of the total requirement. It’s already built into the price. Likewise, it’s not raw output alone – Islay distilleries inventories are still growing – I.E. more casks are being laid down than are being disgorged.
The peated premium is often derived from a combination of distilleries long-standing reputations and an increasing clamour for peated whiskies which are outside of core-range offerings. As such, they’re priced according to what the market will bear – not just bottlings – but bulk liquid. and the market seems to want to bear more and more.
It's not simply an issue of price equilibrium – peated malt is relatively inelastic. And as the last decade has shown (to be fair across all whisky), large changes in price have only caused small changes in demand. To a point where some whiskies – limited editions in particular - can be seen as Veblen goods – where consumer demand is actually greater, the higher the asking price. No one ever said that consumers were sensible. Part worldwide excitement in whisky – part flippers paradise. All an increase in perceived price.
But to third parties – I.E. indy bottlers – the price of Islay whisky is simply higher. It costs more per LPA to purchase than that other mainland liquids. Limited supply – remember – outside of the core range production – and an ever-growing demand for smoke.
Nevertheless, not all new or independently bottled Islay or Islay-based whiskies are expensive as a rule. Similarly to the rest of Scotland, removing the name of the distillery from the bottle substantially decreases the asking price. Reputation and history, as above, is a real thing. As such, there are still plenty of bottlings available where the peated premium is either a little more hidden (casks utilised to create a variety of different products) or just more absorbed by the producer. A lower margin than might be possible, but an opportunity to craft something with a peaty Islay heart that doesn’t as a necessity cost the earth.
Whilst the older expressions (Grace Ile and Fiona Macleod) from Atom Brand’s Character of Islay Whisky Company are the ones to have made the headlines it’s the cheapest of the range which has already walked away with a handful of industry awards. Don’t be confusing your hues - as opposed to Emerald - Green Isle Deluxe Blended Scotch Whisky is named after early descriptions of Islay as well as Scottish novelist Neil Miller Gunn’s 1944 dystopian allegory for totalitarianism – ‘The green isle of the great deep’. An alternative, verdant Highlands packed full of abundant but poisonous fruit trees. Cheerful stuff.
Released in March just before social lives went bye-bye, the blended Scotch is a three-way regional composition – Islay and Speyside malt combined with a parcel of Lowland grain whiskies. Though as the tasting notes will attest, the Islay malt constituent is very much the beating heart. The bottling is delivered at 40% ABV and, depending on where you shop will cost you between £30-£35 – though it's currently on a Master of Malt sale for £24.95.
Nose: A bowl of milky breakfast cereal is served with sliced green apples and a cup of infused fruit tea - all presented under a smoked-filled cloche. In the background – grassiness – cut stems and peppermint leaves alongside a pile of scorched twigs.
Taste: Soft on the arrival, but far from overtly thin – there’s plenty of natural oiliness. Tarry peat smoke is tempered by a lick of coastal salinity and a building cask-driven pepperiness. Orchard fruits are at the core – bright and fresh and joined by liquorice and chocolate shavings together with moist cellars and earthy mushrooms.
Finish: Medium in length with pear juice, persisting smoke and oven-baked buns.
Green Isle Deluxe Blended Scotch Whisky was sadly released at a time when the acquisition of toilet paper was higher up most folks’ agendas. Similarly, (and in my opinion oddly) it receives little billing on the official Character of Islay website save for a widget at the bottom of the page suggesting that it is a “Dad’s new favourite”. It deserves better than that.
I suspect that in the quest for expensive exclusivity and the worshipped pedestal of single malts above all else, that many will overlook this old-fashioned styled blend. However, Green Isle stands as a testament that not only can smoky whisky be affordable (and at the current Master of Malt price, this is a steal), but that it can also be accessible and begging to be liberally shared. In a tumbler, over ice, mixed with ginger – your call. There’s still joy to be found in the simpler of things.
Review sample provided by Atom Brands
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