My Ascent from the fires of Peaty Hell to Smoky Nirvana

I13638884 - peat briquettes burning in a red hot fire now realise that my early whisky drinking was clouded in a mist of ignorance. A personal reflections on my ignorance which perhaps suggests a route map which many have travelled before to an appreciation of the finer points of whisky tasting.   

The mist was especially thick around my enjoyment of peated smoky malts.   I did drink and ‘enjoy’ many but never realised what I was missing because of how I drank these.

I loved Bowmore enjoyed the first release Octamore and drank for years several hundred Lagavulin 16 year olds which was my whisky of choice.

Only when whisky shame Ralfy Mitchell showed the way through the mist did i realise I was drinking these wonders in a wave of sunami proportioned water to make them palatable to me.  I also loudly disliked the strongest of iodine, engine oil and creosote loaded malts, never being one to drink from the sump of my old Mini.

I confess that much of my Islay based drinking exploits lent more to a sort of chilli eating contest machismo – the hotter the more manly.

My Islay friend drank Laphroig ‘the great outlier’ and he seemed to revel in its wonderful taste. Was enjoying peat and smoke genetic?

A friend described these types of malt as retsina whiskies.  in other words great in the right surroundings and company but rubbish after you took them home.

Leading whisky experts and writers demonstrate a strong preference for peat and smoke.  Was it just a bias or was there indeed a hidden magic only revealed to certain palettes.

i refuse to be defined by sherry or peat.  I would be an eclectic whisky drinker enjoying the pleasures of all types , countries, finishes and expressions.  To do this I would need to train my palate – fair enough I would put in the work no matter how hard or painful.

My start point was to buy bottle of prize winning  Kilchomon Machir Bay – yeuch (Gaelic for nah this aint gonna work)…. it tasted like  ashtray swilled out with raw spirit. Again my Islay friend loved it – it was  definitely genetic.  [Adedndumb! and apology: Its now April and I feel somewhat stupid, not for the first time or the last no doubt.  I just had two doubles of the Machir with just a drop of water and realised it is an awesome whisky.  Subtle, fresh, complex and oh so tasty.  My apologies to Kilchomon for my previous stupidity.  I think I drowned it which meant the flavour was lost.  Give me more please of this fabulous dram which in every way deserves its accolades.  It may have no age statement but I just cant wait for the first 10, 12 or 15 to emerge.  These will instantly become classic malts.]

My next approach was to be more gradual.   I would learn to taste properly.

In Glenfarclas which is a dram I love I could detect the toasted effect of the direct fired stills.  I at least had a nose and tongue for slight toasting if not the infernos of Peat, yet.

My next epiphany was by drinking and tasting Black Label – suddenly I could taste how the smoke, twisted round the softer sweeter notes to combine with light peat and deliver its wonderful taste. 

My next step was to try a more Northern peated malt.  Highland Park 12 year old with its hints of heather and lignin from the heather rich peat of Orkney.  This is a whisky I love but I was suddenly tasting its separate elements and loving them and their combination with sweet sherry notes.  Moving west and south, the next stop on my exploration was Skye.  Talisker 10 year old I instantly loved. No really I loved it, my palate was changing without doubt.  One key thing I had learnt was that these peaty smoky malts could be ruined with too much water.   

A revisit to my Lagavulin 16 year old standard was my next step.  I was stunned.  It was simply awesome.  How I had wasted this nectar for years was beyond me.  I had thought that the seaside tastes would be magnified if drunk neat but what actually had happened was that neat or with no more than a teaspoon of water they revealed sweetness, complexity and balance with smoke and peat.  This complexity was totally masked with water.

I was now in the final straight and gaining momentum.  Ardbeg 10 year old which I confess I had discarded as truly awful in my youth, now revealed the extraordinary quality it had hidden from me before.  It seemed with every new malt I was discovering my new favourite dram.

Yesterday March 26th was the big day – Laphroig 10 year old many drinkers favourite including allegedly Prince Charles.  The day I have been developing my palate for, with to be honest little initial anticipation of success. Amongst Scotch whiskies it is in many’s opinion an outlier in terms of smokiness, peat reek and iodine, cresote, engine oil and seashore.   My calibration was that when I could drink and enjoy this my palate would be conditioned to taste, savour and enjoy any malt.

At the end of the mothers day meal with my family I had a Singleton of Glen Ord, a 15 year old Highland masterpiece which I love.  The family came home, well lubricated and sat in the March sun.   It was chilly but bright and I went for it  a quarter-gill of the waiting Laphroig adding a half a teaspoon of water and faced my old adversary, who had been sulking unopened at the rear of my whisky collection for two or three years, frightened of drowning I suspect.

An hour later I was on my second and completely immersed in the experience.  Mission accomplished and now undoubtedly one of my favourite drams.  I loved every sip so this was no hold my nose and throw it back experience.  I could distinguish from the odour and taste of Islay the spices and sweetness of the spirit and the cask notes.How could I have been so wrong?   

With hindsight, I think it was a lack of familiarity with the taste and more than anything my habit of over watering my whisky.  I am glad I reached it with a progression of malts to improve my palate and be able to distinguish different peat smoke and intensity of flavour. 

My view has always been neither sherry or peat but to enjoy the subtleties of both to the full always searching for new whisky experiences without prejudice favour or fault, purely looking for quality reflecting the terroir and provenance, whether malt, blend, islay, highland or Speyside. Indeed whether NAS or any fancy finish just good honest whisky.   

I now enter a world of further exploration with awe and have already enjoyed an awesome single cask Ardbeg.

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