Our taste for smoke appears to be rising. Bacon is everywhere. Southern barbecue is hot. Trendy restaurants are dishing up smoked paprika, sea salt, even ice cream. Nowhere is the fashion more apparent, or sensible, to me than the world of Scotch.
Distillers are outdoing each other with smokiness and names that conspicuously emphasize the age-old tradition of drying barley malt over peat-fuelled fires, such as Smokehead Islay Single Malt, Blackadder Peat Reek, Bruichladdich Peat and, for the inevitable Loch Ness allusion, the Peat Monster. Ardbeg, maker of the smokiest widely available single malt, launched a limited edition bottling a couple of years ago called Supernova, delivering twice the smoke of its flagship 10-year-old. It was outdone by Bruichladdich Octomore, a limited-edition brand now asserting the title of peatiest whisky on Earth.
"There was almost an arms race in the peated-whisky world," said David Blackmore, Ardbeg's master brand ambassador, on a recent swing through Toronto.
Those offerings join such increasingly popular classics as Lagavulin and Laphroaig, both from Islay, the whisky region best known for smoky spirits, as well as such big blends as the Black Grouse and Cutty Sark Black.
In a sense, the trend is a return to the past, when peat was commonly used across Scotland. The decomposed vegetation is especially abundant on Islay, a flat, windswept island off the southwest coast. As sphagnum and other mosses decompose in waterlogged bogs, the anaerobic conditions trap carbon rather than releasing it as carbon dioxide, creating a combustible fuel.
Today, many distilleries use fuel coke instead, but some are embracing the past, either buying peated malt (the precursor in barley distillation) or sourcing already-distilled casks from Islay to be used in blends. John Campbell, distillery manager at Laphroaig, credits Johnnie Walker, the bestselling blend, in part with blazing the trail because it's smokier than most mainstream brands. "If the biggest whisky in the world is peated, it certainly helps."
Peat freaks measure their pleasure in parts per million of phenols, the chemical compounds responsible for the smoke. Laphroaig and Lagavulin tend to deliver between 40 and 50 ppm, while Ardbeg's standard 10-year-old ranges between 55 and 65, depending on the batch. Ardbeg's Supernova exceeds 100, while the latest Octomore registers a chart-topping 167.
Peat contributes not only smoke but nuances of iodine (especially in the case of Islay peat), seaweed, salt and damp earth. It's an acquired taste, to be sure, but it's by no means confined to whisky-sipping veterans.
John Maxwell, proprietor of Allen's restaurant in Toronto, who stocks about 300 whiskies, notes that young drinkers are especially drawn to the style, just as they are to boldly oaked red wines and heavily hopped bitter beers. "Across the drinks board you have younger palates being attracted to dominant flavours," he said. "Who drinks hop monsters? Not the 55-year-old beer aficionado."
I guess that mean's I've got a few more years left to sip my peat monsters without shame.
Ardbeg 10-Year-Old The Ultimate
SCORE: 98 PRICE: $99.95
Pull the cork and guests may think you've forgotten to open the fireplace damper. But this is much more than a smoke bomb. You can taste barley as well as traces of butterscotch, lime and vanilla. And the peat's flavour comes through more like smoky bacon than charred embers. Glorious.
Lagavulin Aged 16 Years
SCORE: 96 PRICE: $109.40
As someone from a competing distillery once described the strong iodine flavour to me, it's like a trip to the hospital. If that's the case, admit me to Lagavulin General. This was my first single-malt love back when dance floors swayed to Earth, Wind & Fire, a band whose name seemed to resonate with the spirit. Full flavour and gloriously rich texture underpin the iodine as well as notes of earth, sea breeze and oaky sweetness. An Islay icon.
Laphroaig 10 Years Old
SCORE: 95 PRICE: $79.95
Initially sweet, it soon becomes spicy, then serves up coal dust and smoke, like a potable Dickens novel. A salty tang balances the sweetness on the gently oaky, dry finish. Laphroaig is Prince Charles's favourite. The future king knows his dram – a good sign for the monarchy.
Bruichladdich Port Charlotte
SCORE: 95 PRICE: $81.45
Based on Islay, Bruichladdich makes many deliciously balanced whiskies that tend to keep the peat well-restrained and integrated. This one's unusually high, at a 40 ppm concentration, and it's sublime, notably for the way the peat comes through as earth, hay and horse-stable air more than mere smoke.
Bowmore Aged 12 Years
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $51.55
Briny, moderately peaty and smooth, here's a well-rounded Islay single malt with long-lasting flavours of honey, citrus and damp earth. Just peaty enough. This is a bargain.
Blackadder Peat Reek Islay Single Malt
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $69.95
A single-cask offering sourced from an unnamed Islay distillery and matured by Edinburgh-based producer Blackadder, it's deceptively light in colour because, unlike many whiskies, it contains no caramel colouring. It's also not stabilized with chill-filtering, so the lusciously round oils remain intact. Initially delicate, the flavour mounts with spice, then seaweed and iodine on the long finish.
Smokehead Islay Single Malt
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $59.65
It starts out punchy, with a blast of spice carried on rich, velvety texture, then toffee materializes along with honey, citrus and charred bacon.
Compass Box The Peat Monster
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $60.45
Former U.S. marketing manager for Johnnie Walker John Glaser, an American, started Compass Box 10 years ago from London to create craft-scale blends (as opposed to the Johnnie-style mega-brands). Flattering reviews followed. This one combines medium-peated components from Speyside on the Scottish mainland with malts from the Isle of Mull and Islay. Light sweetness, grain and fruit support the smoke nicely. Don't fear this monster; it's almost tame.
Islay Mist Aged 8 Years
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $29.65
A fine, smoky blend that allows malty sweetness to rise through the peat, salty seaweed and grass. Good value for smokeheads on a budget.