The considerable differences in peat smoke type and intensity relative to their origins are fairly well documented. Islay peat is richer in phenolic compounds such as guaiacol, vanillins and nitrogens. Highland peat has a greater concentration of carbohydrates. These chemical variances are reflective of the landscapes where the peat has been extracted from – Islay: iodine packed sphagnum moss, washed by sea water and coastal air. The Highlands: larger numbers of wood-based deciduous plants offering syringol compounds from the lignins contained in plant matter. Complex stuff – well beyond my pay grade - and that’s without any consideration of Orkney, Campbeltown (or even further afield).
Peat intensity is far from a constant. It offers an additional variable into the already multifaceted business of maturation. Inside a cask – the particulars of wood compounds, oxygen ingress, filling strengths and precursor liquids. Outside of the cask – ambient temperature, seasonal temperature fluctuation and relative humidity (and this is far from an exhaustive list). Peat ups the ante of complexity – phenols levels vary greatly during distillation (more on this very shortly) and then drop off considerably with extractive processes once in a cask. Even here, nothing is necessarily constant or consistent – all the things which you know influence maturation also influence the eventual peat intensity of a whisky.
The PPM numbers you’ll see listed on bottles are usually (some slightly older AnCnocs being an exception) those of the barley and they’re calculated by using high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). The resultant PPMs often sound impressive – folks tending to believe that bigger always equals more smoky – but, the actual PPM of the new make spirit can vary tremendously from those of the barley that was used to produce it. Distillation destroys to create – and it’s during this part of the process that a distiller can have a huge influence on the overall smoky strength and character of a whisky. The intricacies lie in the spirit cuts.
Foreshots contain little smoky flavour. The middle cut is where the action is for whisky production, but the peat influence in the hearts can be quite subtle and understated. Distillers looking to produce particularly heavily peated whiskies need to look to the feints for the more intense phenols. This presents a challenge – how far to you push your middle cut to capture the maximum smoky flavours, before going too far into the tails and starting to bring in undesirable influences?
Cuts vary by distillery, some operating on time, some on ABV – the better ones to my mind look at both of these variables, but bring in some additional human nuance (as in nosing and tasting) to decide exactly where cuts are made. Nevertheless, the variances in middle cut lengths has an influence on the overall phenolic content of the resultant new make spirit. If you look at Islay whiskies with particularly high spirit PPMs, there’s a commonality between them in that all operate longer middle runs. Then it’s into the cask and phenols start to decrease over time. Rather quickly – estimates suggest that an entry PPM of 25 diminishes down to 10 after a decade of maturation. This is one of the factors which leads to the most heavily peated of whiskies usually being younger – you want bonkers smoke and big age? You’re fighting chemistry.
Today’s peated expression comes from Bunnahabhain via Speciality Drinks Elements of Islay series. Ma2 (Margadale – the NE area where the distillery lies) is composed of four 1st fill bourbon barrels that were filled in 2004 and vatted together in 2017 to create a ‘full proof’ (high strength, but not cask strength – some water manipulation by Oliver Chilton has taken place) expression at 55.2%. The bottle has sold out at many of the bigger retailers, but those of you in Europe might still find a bottle or two – as far as I can tell, for roughly the same price as it was released at £60.
Nose: Sweet and sour industrial and medicinal peat. Diesel, axle grease and antiseptic cream are joined by bananas, tinned stone fruits, burnt hay and caramel. In the background some green vegetal notes of pine needles, kelp, sea purslane and leaf mulch. Reduction introduces some waxiness as well as interestingly composed plastic sheeting, rubber tyres and camphor.
Taste: The arrival is very nice indeed – straddling boldness and softness wonderfully. Things quickly move up a gear with a perceptible oily mouthfeel and plenty of mineral/medicinal peat tinges – rockpools, hewn granite, engine fumes, coal dust and hospital floor cleaner. Everything is underpinned by sugar-dusted orange and lemon zestiness alongside a hearty twist of salt and pepper seasoning. Dilution doesn’t radically change the composition, but does add nuances – copper coins, flints, lime juice and rocky mineral smoke.
Finish: Rather long – all on citrus and brine.
Elements of Islay Ma2 has some particularly interesting chameleon like smoke going on. Despite Bunnahabhain’s peated output (often termed ‘moine’) clocking in somewhere between 35 and 40 ppm (I.E. fairly high), there are aspects of this expression that feel wonderfully restrained and precisely judged. And then just when you think that you’re dealing with a bit of a softie, boom – here comes the drums. I always enjoy the semi-industrial edge to peated Bunna. This is no exception.
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