BEER CLINIC :: For Peat’s Sake – Single Malt Scotch

by Dr. Carol Westbrook on October 8, 2013

Most craft beer lovers enjoy single malt Scotch, which is another form of fermented malted barley. Like craft beer, Scotch has great snob appeal, because you can analyze it, compare tasting notes, and show off your expertise. And single malt Scotch is the epitome of delightfully snobby drinks, because developing a refined palate takes time, commitment, money–and (if you’re lucky) travel.

You don’t have to visit Scotland to appreciate fine Scotch, but it certainly helps.

Because among the spirits of the world, nothing is more evocative of a place than single malt Scotch whisky, it truly tastes like Scotland. And of the single malts, none can top the Islay malts, which are the peatiest, and most reminiscent of Scotland.

1FigureScotchI have been to Scotland at least four times and all involved Scotch tasting (snob appeal) but the most remarkable visit was to Islay (pronounced Eye-la). Islay is an island in the southern Hebrides, on the west coast of Scotland.  It is made entirely of peat, formed from the mud and vegetation of ancient moors, resting on a pile of limestone rock in the Atlantic. It is a starkly beautiful place, with its rocky shores and wind-swept fields, where few trees can survive the harsh weather. Along the coast are the towns of Port Charlotte, Bowmore, Port Askaig, and Bridgend, and in the interior are farms where they grow barley and wheat, and raise sheep and the distinctive-looking highland cattle with their long red hair. 2FigureScotchThe farms are dotted with white stone cottages with their peat smoke rising from chimneys. Peat smoke is everywhere, and after a week on the island it permeates your very clothes. You will never forget the scent. Peat is used for heating, for cheerful fireplaces in the pubs, and to smoke the malted barley used to make Scotch.

Rick and I spent a week in this remote place at a quaint B&B, situated on a working farm on the ocean. We relaxed, visited the few local sights, and drank as much single malt as possible.  This small island (only 600 sq. miles) houses 8 working distilleries; we managed to visit 6 of them, and tasted Scotch from all of them. Here in Islay, Scotch is made from malted barley, smoked over Islay peat, mashed with pure water from Islay streams, then distilled.  The distillate is aged in expended oak barrels imported from bourbon distilleries in the US. mail.google.comBecause the spirits remain in oak from 8 to over 20 years, there are large storage warehouses throughout the Island where the pre-tax spirit is carefully guided under lock and key. Some warehouses hold barrels from distilleries that have long since closed, which carry a premium price tag (since they aren’t making any more!).

The increased demand for Islay Scotch has been accommodated by importing some of their barley from the mainland, and by establishing a malting works in Port Ellen to handle the overflow; however, to maintain the distinctive taste and high quality of the Scoth, only Islay peat is used, and the distilleries source water from their own site.  Each water source is unique, usually an open stream containing variable amounts of limestone, rust-tinged stone, and peat. And Islay peat is unique among peats of the world, strong and smoky, almost piney, with some taste of the ocean as well.

mail.google.comThe reason to go to Islay, of course, is to learn about malt Scotch, taste it, and visit the distilleries. All are in beautiful settings, most of them overlooking the ocean, with a comfortable tasting room.  That’s me at the Laphroaig distillery. All peaty Scotches are similar, but there are subtle distinctions among them, which you will soon appreciate after spending a week tasting all of them. As a cask continues to age, the peatiness declines, while other flavors mature and add character.  Each of the 8 distilleries has its own, recognizable flavor, from the extreme malts of the south shore (Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Ardbeg) to the gentlest extremes of the north (Bunnabahain, Caol Ila).

mail.google.comIf you have time for only one distillery tour when visiting Islay, make sure to get to Lagavulin.  With luck, you can attend a scotch tasting hosted by Iain McArthur, an Islay native who has been a warehouseman at the distillery for over 40 years.  He will teach you about tasting fine Scotch, and allow you to sample some of Lagavulin’s more exclusive, old barrels. If you can’t get to Scotland, watch his tour on YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ro3HKp_pOwM, and listen to his delightful Islay brogue. It is an unforgettable experience.

mail.google.comLaphroaig also has an excellent tour. If you want to understand peat, you have to make a visit to this one. This distillery makes the peatiest Scotch in the world. They do their own floor malting and peat smoke it, on site. You can add a chunk of peat to the smoker, as Rick is doing here. The Laphroaig tour has a fine tasting experience, and as an added bonus you can become a “Friend of Laphroaig,” which entitles you to a lifetime lease on a square foot of the Laphroaig lands, through which runs their all-important water source, the Kilbride stream.  You don’t have to visit Laphroig to become a “Friend” and claim your plot of land; you can do it online if you have purchased a bottle of their malt.  Just visit www.laphroaig.com/friends. However, you will need to visit the distillery to collect your “rent,” which is a small, TSA-friendly sized bottle of Laphroaig to take home.

Like many Islay distilleries, Ardbeg was established in the 1700s. However, it  couldn’t make a go of it, and closed in the 1980s. It has re-opened and recently released a delightful 10 year, very peaty, malt.  The distillery is also bottling whisky that it purchased along with the distillery, some of which is over 40 years old and has the highest ratings (and the highest prices — some over $1,000).

Similarly, Bruichladdich went fallow but was subsequently purchased by a group of private investors in 2000. They are also releasing the bottlings of their “Legacy” Scotches, from 30 – 40 year old casks, to high reviews and even higher prices. Their new production releases are not as highly rated, but few casks have had enough time to mature yet.

loch_indaal_lighthouse_1280x859Bowmore is situated in the town of the same name, on the shore of Loch Indaal.  It is one of the bigger distilleries.  It was established in 1779, and is now owned by Suntory, and that is probably why it has a corporate feel to it. Bowmore produce a great deal of Scotch, most of which is consistently good, and described as “smoky” rather than “peaty.”

Kilchoman is the first distillery to be built on the island in 124 years and is reviving the tradition of farm distilling, having all parts of the process – growing barley, malting, distilling, maturing and bottling – carried out on Islay.  It began production in July 2005, and released its first 100% Islay whisky in 2011, which explains why we didn’t taste it during our 2010 trip.  The releases have gotten fairly good reviews, considering how short they have been aged; I haven’t tasted any yet.

Finally, the Northern distilleries, Caol Ila and Bunnabahain.  Sadly, we ran out of time on our trip.  We will leave those for you to taste.  You, too, can become a Scotch snob.

 

imagesDr. Westbrook’s invaluable book, Ask an Oncologist is available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: