When whisky drinkers think of peated single malt whisky, they immediately think of the Isle of Islay. Although the most iconic peated single malt brands call that island their home, there is a whole world of peated whisky out there to explore. And not just in Scotland. Almost every whisky producing nation has it’s take on peat, it seems.
For those who are newer to the world of whisky, the basic difference between peated and un-peated malt is the burning of peat bricks (literally chunks of dried peat from bogs) when the malted barley is being dried. The smoke from the burning peat gets introduced into the barley. The phenols infused into the barley from the peat smoke gives peated malt it’s distinct smell and taste. Typical notes introduced as a result of this process include iodine, tar, ash and smoke.
The strength of this peated signature in the malt is directly related to the amount of time the malt is exposed to peat smoke. For example, Laphroaig exposes their malted barley to 15-30 hours of peat smoke. Some go higher. The standard measure of how “peated” the barley has become is its phenol parts per million, or ppm.
Different distilleries have different takes on peated single malt. Some distilleries take a great deal of pride in making the most peated single malt possible such as Bruichladdich and their Octomore series. Many of their releases are 150+ ppm. Most of the major Islay distilleries are in the 30-50 ppm range.
Boulder Spirits has taken a different approach. Rather than creating a heavily peated whisky, they keep their peated level quite low by mixing low ppm peated malt (35 ppm or so) with non-peated malt. The result is a whisky that has an earthy, rather than medicinal flavour. For those who have shied away from peated single malt in the last, this serves as a gentle introduction to what the genre has to offer.
The Boulder Spirits American Single Malt – Peated Malt was matured for at least three years in a #3 char virgin American oak barrel before being bottled at 46%.
Nose: This is a lovely intersection between peat and virgin oak. If I was forced to make a comparison between this and an Islay distillery, I would say it’s closest to Ardbeg. Much less peated of course! A faint whiff of Montreal smoked meat and campfire ash from the previous night. It’s ever so slightly briney. From my recent trip to Salt Spring Island, BC, we took several walks through cedar-rich forests. I’m getting that smell here too. As this sits in the glass for longer, some fresh herbal notes come up. Mostly Italian parsley and a bit of cilantro. There’s enough sweetness and spice to balance things out. A surprising hint of dark cherry lurks in the background. Some sponge toffee and a little bit of vanilla is in there too. For spices, I’m getting cinnamon and a little bit of allspice. Before I take a sip, some orange zest presents itself. The more time you give this in the glass, the more the notes of the virgin oak come to the fore. If you want the peat, drink it sooner! Otherwise, give it time! Speaking of time, it’s time to take a sip!
Pallet: The entry is rich and creamy. Dark toffee, dark chocolate, slices of lemon peel. It’s just a tad ashy. Some grilled cherries and rich vanilla. That cherry note becomes a little more sour as the entry transitions into the development. The volume on the orange and lemon zest gets turned up during the development along with the spices from the oak, but the sweet notes from the entry tame them just enough. Towards the back end of the development, this gets a little drier, but not overly so. After several sips, a peppercorn steak sauce note tingles the tongue along with a little bit of crushed red chilies. I’m getting something different with each sip.
Finish: Quite a long finish. It’s slightly drying and bitter from the oak and near-burnt sponge toffee. Some of the dryness is counterbalanced by the citrus which is fading from the development. Some old leather, a bit of ash and that cedar forest note come on at the end.
With water added…
I’m not so fond of the nose with a few drops of water. It’s a little too oak forward and swamps all of those other notes that make this whisky so unique. This sentiment carries forward through to the entry and, particularly, the development. It’s just too heavily oaked for my taste. For the first time, the youthfulness of this whisky is starting to rear it head. The finish is much the same.
This is definitely a better whisky without water added. Sipped neat and given some time, this is another reminder for the “age is everything” cohort that that adage simply does not ring true. For lovers of scotch, the addition of exclusive virgin oak barrel maturation introduces notes that come both from the single malt and bourbon worlds, creating a hybrid that can be found nowhere else at the moment.
If you have always been shy of peat, this is the perfect whisky to finally take that plunge. It’s not going to slap you across the face and even has some notes commonly associated with bourbons, if that’s the realm you’re coming from.