‘That tastes like they made it from an ashtray’. A good friend passed the glass back towards me and shook his head, disgusted. A ten year old glass of Ardbeg, costs roughly €70 a bottle and he almost spat it back at me. I could only laugh because as much as I liked it, I could totally see his point of view.
I was once told that the peat taste from an Islay malt is very much a love/hate affair and to those who dislike the taste it can seem like licking an ashtray. Indeed, one of the seven distilleries on the tiny Scottish island of Islay, Laphroaig, has released a marketing video to convey just that message. The ‘opinions welcome’ campaign was designed to show how a wide range of people could either love or hate that signature peaty taste particularly prevalent in Islay whiskey. This signature smoky flavour is imparted to the whiskey early in the process, directly into the barley, the Scots use peat to dry out the barley during the malting process to halt the germination of the grain. Irish distilleries on the other hand have traditionally used a closed kiln method which means Irish whiskeys have a non-smoky flavour, leading to those more biscuit and cereal type flavours present in many Irish whiskies.
Scottish whiskey is very much a product of its environment; the abundance of peat which existed in rural Scotland meant that it was this peat that was used, out of necessity, to dry the barley. In Ireland distilling was a more urban undertaking and as such there was not the abundance of peat readily available. Dublin’s so called ‘golden triangle’ of distilleries , which existed around the Liberties area of the city contained no less than 37 distilleries at the peak of the Irish whiskey industry right back at the turn of the century. It’s fitting then that Teelings, the rising star of whiskey, have established their new operation in the same area.
Irish whiskey is portrayed as smooth and accessible. Our infamous triple distillation (if you listen to the marketing) or the reaction with copper pot stills (if you listen to the science) removes many of the mustier aromas from the whiskey and leaves us with a lighter, slightly more alcoholic spirit. With each extra distillation we are approaching a more neutral spirit. If we were to continue we would eventual reach a tasteless and massively alcoholic spirit. In the old days of Irish whiskey, we were famous for producing a spirit that was almost akin to treacle in consistency resulting from the unmalted barley in the recipe (mash bill) and from extracting the alcohol before that third distillation. There are, and always have been, a few exceptions to this rule. ‘Connemara’ whiskey, produced in the Cooley distillery, produces a smoky whiskey using peated malt and is reminiscent of something far more Scottish, but this is certainly not the standard practice.
Where there’s smoke, there’s a fire. So the next time you’re in the off-license and you see a bottle of Islay malt, give it a try and see which side of the smoke you find yourself on. You might find a fire you never knew you had.