I was chatting to a chap last week who was near the start of his malt journey. It was rather the familiar conversation. Having discovered a taste for peated whisky through the common Islay stalwarts (Laphroaig 10, Ardbeg 10 and Lagavulin 16), he’d noted two things – firstly that his palate seemed to be yearning to explore ever increasing levels of peatiness, and secondly that he was struggling to obtain many of the more interesting (read older or limited ed) bottlings from the Islay distilleries. Unfortunately, so it was….so shall it always be.
If I cast my mind back a couple of decades I was in the exact same position – though without the likes of Octomore to sate my peat lust. Discovering peat intensity seems to be a something of a rite of passage for most enthusiasts….an innate desire to push the boundaries of ever more phenolic expressions. MOAR PEAT!
That said, I think most people’s journeys tend to arrive at the same destination once they’ve pushed that envelope – back into a more ‘normal’ equilibrium with a wider palate and wider appreciation of the breadth of whisky. Simply put, most folks tend to grow out the desire for being repeatedly punched in the face with a peated chainmail fist. That’s not to say we don’t still enjoy it – but there’s a time and a place. A nightly flight of 183PPM whiskies just doesn’t feel like normal behaviour to me nowadays – I’ve been there and returned back. And I expect that most (but not all!) enthusiasts will experience the same sort of re-emergence – content with their exploration of the peatiest boundaries that whisky has to offer, but always happy to return there when the time is right.
Once you’ve explored the verticality of PPMs (and understood some of the fallacies of PPM numbers), there is to my mind another journey to be taken – moving your palate away from Islay. The Isle’s whiskies are in high demand - and high demand equals high price. Similarly there’s a broad variety of peat styles (not just in Scotland, but worldwide) – who’s character is defined by topography, weather and distinctive vegetation. Phenolic compounds come in a variety of distinctive flavours – and some of mainland Scotland’s examples are well worth exploring. Today, a lesser known modern Highland peated whisky, that to my mind can often be rather divisive – Ballechin.
Like many distilleries who produce both peated and unpeated whiskies – Edradour’s peated output receives its own brand name to differentiate it. ‘Ballechin’ was derived from a nearby Perthshire farm which closed in 1927, but had been a location where legendary distillery cataloguer Alfred Barnard had noted tasting a peated whisky in the 1880’s. Production was commenced in 2003 - a year after Andrew Symington (owner of independent bottler Signatory) purchased the distillery.
Three years later, the first Ballechin was released – as part of an ongoing ‘Discovery Series’ – eight annual releases covering a particularly diverse range of precursor casks:
Discovery 1 - Burgundy wine casks
Discovery 2 - Madeira casks
Discovery 3 - Port casks
Discovery 4 - Oloroso sherry casks
Discovery 5 - Marsala hogsheads
Discovery 6 - Ex-bourbon barrels
Discovery 7 - Bordeaux hogsheads
Discovery 8 - Sauternes hogsheads
Each release was a mere 6,000 bottles, and paved the way for the introduction in 2014 of the first (and currently only) core Ballechin release – the 10 year old. Created from a composition of ex-bourbon and ex-oloroso sherry (with the former being the dominant constituent), the barley is heavy peated to 50PPM - which would notionally put it somewhere between the phenolic content of Laphroaig and Ardbeg. Though you would do well to remember that phenols are lost during both distillation and maturation – so they’re more of a guideline and less of a code.
Since its introduction, a wider range of Ballechin’s have been produced for Edradour’s Straight from the Cask (SFTC) series. Here you will once again note the wider range of casks utilised with the heavily peated spirit, and likewise find plenty of European exclusive bottlings created for various whisky retailers.
The 10 year old is bottled un-chillfiltered, naturally coloured and at 46% ABV. It’s available for £45.95 from both Master of Malt and Whisky Exchange.
Nose: The peat influence is immediate and lively – ashiness and earthiness wrapped up in a sweet and sour blanket. Lime peels and marmalade sit with ripe apples and fruit tea providing both a saccharine hit, but also a growing tangy sourness. Running throughout – soils and leaf mulch. Plenty of forest aromas here - wild mushrooms, wood oil, camphor and a somewhat strange pine – more akin to air freshener than an actual tree. In the background, ex-bourbon vanilla and an underlying meatiness – a charcuterie board of cold cut meat. Dilution adds a vague maltiness with barley water, but doesn’t provide enhancement elsewhere – indeed, it simply seems to rapidly reduced the potencies of the aromas – it’s 46% for a reason.
Taste: The arrival delivers an oily mix of sugars and heavy smoke. It’s uncouth, unsubtle, but pleasingly single-minded. Machine grease, coal dust and iron filings sit with salt and briny water whilst lime peels and grapefruit move from highly sugary to a sourness which firms substantially throughout the development – acridity increases steadily. There’s an edge of farminess here – hay loft (possibly on fire) and mild yeastiness together with more usual chocolate and chopped almonds. Once again, adding water is ill-advised. It leads to an incredible muted selection of flavours with poor definition.
Finish: Medium in length with burnt hay and smouldering plant matter sitting with fading sharp citric sugars.
Ballechin 10 year old doesn’t feel like quite the finished article as yet. There’s a green ingenuousness here which is derived partly from the spirit’s maturity and party from the ex-bourbon cask itself - which could have exerted itself more fully to smooth off the rougher (and particularly sourer) edges of this whisky. Nevertheless, I still find a lot to admire – this is far from a sanitised and homogenised Islay peater – there’s genuine character here, which at the same time feels fundamentally different to other ‘malternative’ peaters such as Ardmore and Ledaig.