Whisky and Words: Island Malts

The blog has covered a number of blends, and also eleven unpeated, mostly sherry-finished single-malts (see sidebar for the list and links). They all share similar influences in their flavoring.

It’s the water, and a lot more

Jameson still, Cork (Photo: Stephan Schulz)

Some of those malts, Bunnahabhain* and Glenfarclas, for example, are notable for the taste of what the French would call terroir. Peat bogs, soil and rocks through which their water sources run flavor that water. In addition to the water, the spirit’s flavor is heavily influenced by the ingredients (mostly barley malt) and how they are treated at each step. In the preparation of what will become new make spirit, there is much attention to manipulating temperatures at each stage. The temperature of the wort is chosen to enhance the activities of enzymes converting sugars and later, to encourage fermentation. Variation in stages and their temperatures can affect flavor. One also reads of claims that the shape and composition of tuns, stills and washbacks will influence the flavor of the new-make spirit. Once distilled, the spirit meets the cask, where interaction with the oak (and its preparation, be it lightly toasted or charred) will have the second largest effect on flavor.

To peat or not to peat

Gathering peat, last century. Not very neat stuff. (Image is public domain)
Gathering peat, last century. Not very neat stuff. (Image is public domain)

The term ‘unpeated’ whisky is a bit of a misnomer, as noted above, often peat has had a hand in shaping the flavor profile of the water. But the term has come to mean that the chief ingredient, the barley malt, has been toasted without being exposed to peat smoke. Our mild sherry-finished drams discussed above are all unpeated. The barley malt was toasted using ‘clean’ heat from modern sources. No smoke, no foul.

Now it’s time we got in the boat and traveled out to the Scottish islands, the realm of peaty, bold expressions known for strong flavors like smoke, diesel fuel and tar — phenolics, as their called. Those flavors are imparted by malt that is dried and toasted by billows of peat smoke. This you might say is old-time whisky-making and there is a good reason such whiskies are associated with the islands — there are very few trees on the Scottish islands. It comes down to this: if you haven’t got anything less stinky to burn, and you’ve got lots of peat bogs (and they do), you burn peat to dry your malt. Peat, being the compressed, very old mineralized matting of many-centuries old peat bogs does burn, but it’s a bit damp and it has a smoky burn. When exposed to this smoke, the drying malt absorbs a variety of interesting (and stinky) chemicals.

This writer has always been a fan of over-the-top flavors. Perhaps it is due to my upbringing on bland, Northeastern-American food in an era when Wonder Bread, Kraft Cheese and macaroni from cans were considered delicacies. Then, as a lad, we were wrenched from our comfortably myopic existence to California when my mom remarried. One of the first meals we had in the New World (for it was such to us) was at a Mexican restaurant, and they served pickled cherry peppers as an appetizer. They looked good. My stepdad encouraged me to eat one and like a fool, I popped the whole thing in my mouth.

Needless to say, that was a painful experience, but with the pain came exhilaration at having survived the experience. From there I continued to seek out ever more challenging spiced foods. By the time I reached my 40s, the smokier expressions were tolerable by my then-traumatized taste buds.

The lineup

In the coming weeks the blog will be taking on this imposing lineup of peaty, smoky whiskies. As always, these are sourced by yours truly or gifted from friends. No undue influences at work.

Ardbeg 10
Bowmore 12
Caol Ila 12
Highland Park 12
Lagavulin 16
Laphroaig 10
Laphroaig Quarter Cask
Springbank 10
Talisker 10

A handful of great Island whiskies
A handful of great Island whiskies

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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