Opinion: When whisky has the power to subvert your expectations

Opinion: When whisky has the power to subvert your expectations

Even styles whose nuances are well documented and defined can hide surprises

Editor's Word | 11 Sep 2023 | Issue 193 | By Bethany Brown

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There are some whisky drinkers out there – most likely those who have been around the block a few times – who may seek only the comfort of the familiar in a bottle of whisky. A predictable, clearly mapped sensory experience, like slipping on a pair of worn-in boots or putting on a much-loved record, where you know the nuances and grooves like the back of your hand and can simply power down and enjoy.


For me (and hopefully many others, both new and well travelled on the whisky path), the allure can be in the not knowing. Based on information provided about the style and country or region of origin, you can make an educated guess about what to expect flavour-wise – indeed, most of the bottles we select for our own collections we choose using this knowledge, because we believe they will suit our tastes – but every so often, there’s one that doesn’t fit the mould. It could be much more than you were expecting, or not what you were expecting at all, taking you down the proverbial rabbit hole and revealing something wondrous.


My conversion to peated whisky was a bit like this. For peat and I, it wasn’t love at first sniff, having been burned by an unpalatable first experience. When I was ready to take a chance on peaty love again, it was a Lagavulin that opened my eyes, and my heart: one of the distillery’s limited-edition 12-year-old bottlings, a fixture of Diageo’s annual Special Releases, that I had handed off to my father but which I found myself inexplicably reaching for after dinner at my parents’ one Saturday night. And that was that. (My dad and I recently shared a dram of Ardbeg Grooves, the Ardbeg Day bottling from 2018 – it felt like a graduation in this journey.)


The thing about that Lagavulin, and many of the peated whiskies I’ve tried since then, was its power to subvert my expectations. I don’t know what I had been expecting, but it certainly wasn’t the bursts of juicy tropical fruit and rich toffee-cake notes that came from the glass. While peated malt tends to lend prominent flavours to the whiskies it’s used in (and can overwhelm if used inexpertly), it is the way that underlying flavours from unpeated barley malt, and the congeners developed through fermentation and distillation, are drawn out that can separate the merely drinkable from the magnificent.


Of course, the same is true of other styles of whisky (where would rye be without that distinctive grassy spice, or bourbon without the sweetness, spice and grip of charred new oak?), but given that peated whisky has this extra ingredient in the production process – the extrovert at the party who inserts themselves into any and all conversations – producers that can balance it, yet alone make it subtle, deserve some special commendation.

In this issue, we are giving over some space to producers who play with peat (and other ingredients to smoke their malt), as well as giving an update on the issue of peat sustainability, delving further into the science of smoke, and looking at peated whisky’s history in mixed drinks.


Now, a note for the peat averse among you: I appreciate that this may not sound appealing, but rather than closing the door on this issue, I would ask you to try considering this as a learning experience. Even if you have no desire to hold a glass of peated whisky in your hand, perhaps you could help a peat-loving friend to better understand this facet of whisky making.


And, as alluded to above, not all the talk about smoky whiskies will be about peat. While still common in Scotland, returning to Ireland, and finding a footing in the USA, this regionally specific fuel has been eschewed by distillers from Thy in Denmark to Thomson Whisky in New Zealand – and even within Scotland, with Glenmorangie’s 2022 release A Tale of the Forest – in favour of more local ingredients.


I, for one, hope the whisky world keeps subverting our expectations. And in this vein, I challenge you to step outside your comfort zone the next time you reach for a dram. Whether you just peer over the edge of that rabbit hole or dive in head first, I hope you find a pleasant surprise. 

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