Where next for peat?

Where next for peat?

Peaty whisky has been enjoying a long spell in the limelight.But are there new territories to explore? Ian Wisniewski reports

Production | 14 Apr 2006 | Issue 55 | By Ian Wisniewski

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Being called names doesn’t bother me, and I’m sure the rest of the gang are fine about it too. After all, ‘peat freak’ or ‘peat head’ only indicates a passion for peated malts, and there’s nothing derogatory about that.As an ultimate style, peated malts have an integral sense of challenge (can you handle it?), but then they also offer a distinctive, and bountiful reward.Having acquired cult status, peated malts have also created a significant new dynamic within the category. Traditionally, reaching malt-hood meant drinking blended Scotch first, before experimenting with elegant, fruity malts, and possibly graduating to peaty, smoky styles.However, a growing crowd is now bypassing blends and reaching straight for malts, which are seen as ‘the real deal.’ Moreover, even some straight-to-malt drinkers are making their debut with peaty, smoky malts.“People went from blends to ‘Glen Safe,’ which I think was more to do with availability. Now some consumers are going straight into peated malts,” confirms Highland Park’s Jason Craig.In fact, there’s so much traffic in this direction that peated malts represent around 50 per cent of the premium malt sector.“As peated malts were to an extent discovered by consumers, they’ve proved that producers who thought peated malts wouldn’t sell were shortsighted. Sometimes peated malts are all consumers want to know about,” says Nick Morgan of Classic Malts.A growing fan club has also gone way beyond the original circle of peat fanatics, with a comprehensive group of younger/more mature, male/female, urban/cosmopolitan drinkers also appreciating the peat effect.“Younger consumers are leap froggers, jumping straight into Islay malts, and we now have 35,000 members of the Ardbeg Committee, a substantial number of whom are late 20s-35.The appeal is the complexity, fullness in the mouth, smokiness and a long finish,” says Ardbeg’s Hamish Torrie.“With Ardbeg it’s not just about peat, it’s a balance of smoke and sweetness which gives more complexity and balance.” Ardbeg launched The Peat Pack at the end of last year, “to underline Ardbeg’s peaty credentials to as wide an audience as possible,” says Hamish Torrie. Available at Oddbins and specialist retailers, The Peat Pack contains four miniatures and a booklet explaining the history, the use of peat, and how it influences Islay malts.The miniatures include Ardbeg Ten and 17 Years Old, Uigeadail, and Kildalton 1981, “which is virtually unpeated at one-two ppm. What you taste is what’s beneath the peat, and you see the underlying structure of Ardbeg,” adds Hamish Torrie.Although there’s a wide range of peating levels to choose from, there’s a clear focus among the fan club.“Generally the higher the peating level the better. It’s a cult thing, people want to go to the limit,” says Sukhinder Singh of The Whisky Exchange. “For connoisseurs it’s more the whisky itself, you like it or you don’t like it regardless of being lightly or heavily peated, so the peating level doesn’t matter.” Moreover, even the same peating level can be variously manifested and offer significant individuality, reflecting distillery character.“Caol Ila and Lagavulin have the same peating level, but a totally different kind of smoke. Some peat fans are simply driven by phenolic kick, for others it’s about the complexity that the smoke weaves in and out of,” says Nick Morgan.Meanwhile, the range of peated malts has continually diversified, whether it’s based on cask selection, for example, with Laphroaig’s Quarter Cask an entirely individual expression of the house style.The length of maturation provides another opportunity, with younger specimens such as a heavily peated Isle of Jura 5 year old, and the 6 year old Very Young Ardbeg offering distinctive phenolics.A growing number of longer-aged bottlings are also being released, though this can be an entirely different proposition.“Interest in longer-aged malts is good, people usually expect them to be more intense whereas the peat mellows out and some customers complain that the peat is not as powerful as the 10 year old version,” says Sukhinder Singh.With peat lovers inevitably focusing on Islay and island malts, the current choice of peated Speysiders includes Benromach (Speyside generally went ‘smokeless’ in the late 1960s-70s, partly as a result of distilleries closing floor maltings and sourcing malt from commercial maltsters).“Benromach has certainly benefited from going back to a more traditional Speyside style, and we’ve set the peating at a level that goes back to the floor malting days,” says Ewen Mackintosh of Gordon & Macphail.Moreover, the mainland could be on the verge of a significant new era. “A lot of mainland distilleries which have not produced peated malts are experimenting, as the demand for peated malts is there,” says Sukhinder Singh.Demand may also accelerate due to other, entirely pragmatic factors. While the packaging of some peated malts includes tasting notes, or an indication of what to expect from the contents, various bottlings don’t. This means that they could be inadvertently overlooked, particularly by recent recruits who are still navigating their way around peat-shire.However, some recent launches make everything perfectly clear, by utilising brand names that also act as a stylistic definition, such as Peat Monster released by Compass Box in 2004.“It does what it says on the bottle, and we didn’t realise how helpful this was going to be until it got into the market place,” says John Glaser. “Peat lovers responded very positively to this.” With the choice of peated malts all set to expand, continued growth for this style seems inevitable.“Everything we’re seeing is that there’s huge room for growth, and no suggestion of saturation,” says Nick Morgan. But growth predictions are also accompanied by a proviso.“You can’t just make a whisky with a high peating level and expect it to be successful, it’s got to have balance and complexity,” says Ewen Mackintosh. John Glaser adds, “There’ll be a saturation of smoky, peaty styles over the next few years, with a fall out of weaker offerings which are peaty and smoky but have no balance.” Another factor is the extent to which peated malts remain an acquired taste.“While we’re all trying to recruit people to peated malts, this style is not to everyone’s taste and will never become mass market,” says Hamish Torrie.Nevertheless, as more markets get into peated styles, demand is bound to grow, which raises the question of stock levels.“There’s a production capacity issue for some peated malts, as production capacity and the existing volume of stock may not be able to follow demand, though fortunately that doesn’t apply to Highland Park,” says Jason Craig. “You don’t want to create demand you can’t supply.” But then again, if that does happen to any distillery, it will only intensify demand and the inherent cult status.
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