Distilled Sunshine

Thoughts on peated whisky


Loki’s thoughts on peated whiskys.

Consider this review of Ardbeg 10-Year-Old by Joshua St. John on The Whiskey Wash

Peat smoke and bandages… more peat, more smoke, and more bandages. Menthol and eucalyptus lozenges. A hint of white grapes with more bold notes of peanuts, brine, grass clippings clogging a mower after cutting a wet lawn that had grown a little too long, a bit of sweat, and butter… Salted whipped honey, dried mango and papaya, fresh chopped parsley… persistent smokiness.

Or this review of the same whiskey by The Scotch Noob

sweetness greets the tongue, of pure malted grains and oaky vanilla. This is quickly obliterated by smoking hay, dry seagrass, slightly bitter charcoal, and dense, woodsy peat… strong spike of anise and black pepper… leaving a fugue of grassy, boggy peat and smoke.

Show these to someone not brought on on Scotch but don’t tell them what it’s for. Ask them to guess. They’d wonder, is he talking about spoiled food in a refrigerator?  Perhaps an emergency room?  Or a trash can containing debris after a grass fire?

No, they’re about a whisky! How have spirits drinker come to the point where many pay large sums of money for drinks that – in their own words – taste like band-aids, peat, sweat, etc.?

If one wasn’t brought up with peated whisky, few would buy this. Most of my friends won’t finish an ounce of it. Recently a peated whisky fan told me that a taste for peat is like Stockholm syndrome for your taste buds. That may have more than an ounce of truth.

Perhaps this is like how people get used to foods their ancestors once ate out of necessity due to poverty or famine. Later these foods became a tradition. Ashkenazi Jews enjoy gefilte fish. Would anyone really prefer that to a well cooked tuna steak? Norwegians enjoy Lutefisk, a foul, gelatinous, aged stockfish chemically treated with lye. The chemicals used in preparing it are deadly. Or consider Surströmming, fermented Baltic Sea herring, eaten in some Swedish towns. Generally considered repulsive, except by those brought up on it.

Peated whisky may be like this. The industry in centuries past just did things as frugally as possible. Distilleries were built in out of the way places because land was cheap. The cheapest barley was used, instead of other grains. And instead of using burning wood to dry grains, they burned local peat, despite the aroma, because it was cheap. Over generations people got used to this as being “what whisky should be”, rather than as an phenol-contaminated outlier.

Of course if you enjoy it, that’s great. Don’t let someone dissuade you from what you enjoy. Hey, I enjoy gefilte fish. Just don’t “try” to become a peated Scotch drinker if you don’t like it. I’ve seen people spend years and $$$ acquiring a taste – but why? Don’t force yourself to “get to the point” where you like it. There’s so much out there to enjoy without effort or great expense. American, Irish and Canadian whiskey, non-peated Scotch whiskys, not to mention rum – the cane and molasses equivalent to whiskey.

But of course, you know, that’s just like my opinion, man.