Reviewed by Dee
The Peat Freaks whisky tasting event took place at the Wellington pub on Bennett’s Hill in Birmingham city centre on the evening of Friday 20th November 2015. The name left no room for guesswork as to the profile of the whiskies being offered for tasting.
For the uninitiated, peated whiskies are created when the barley is exposed to peat smoke as it is dried out during the malting process. The length of time that the grains are exposed to the peat smoke determine whether the whisky is lightly peated or heavily peated. Peat smoke imparts a highly distinctive aroma and taste to the finished product.
Peated whiskies are made all over the world, from Ireland to Japan, but are particularly prevalent on the Isle of Islay off the West Coast of Scotland, which is home to the ‘holy trinity’ of peated whiskies; Laphroaig, Ardbeg and Lagavulin.
The presence of peat has a polarising effect on whisky drinkers the world over. Jay can’t abide peated whisky whereas I love it. In fact, we’re so divided on this issue that Jay waited for me in another part of the pub (and enjoyed a pint or 2 of Titanic Plum Porter) while I attended the session.
The Wellington is a good old traditional pub, with bar and drinking areas on two of its floors and a room without a bar on the third. With this being both Jay’s and my first visit to the Wellington, I wasn’t entirely sure where the event was taking place, but when I spotted a map of Islay adorning the wall of the room on the third floor, I was instantly reassured that I had found the right place.
The weather outside was cold and wet, making the whisky sampling that lay ahead feel that little bit more warming and comforting.
The event was organised by Birmingham Whisky Club, the same organisers as for the Whisky Birmingham event that we attended back in March (click here for details), and was presented by local expert and Whisky Shop Manager Craig Mills.
The Peat Freaks events were described as being among the most popular in the club’s 4 year history, so much so this time as an extra event had been arranged with a completely different set of whiskies to try.
Places were set and water provided, and after a brief introduction, the evening’s tasting got underway;
Whisky No1: Glendronach Peated
This was a Highland Single Malt Whisky was a new release from a distillery normally known for its unpeated whiskies.
It had a light pale gold colour and an earthy smoky aroma. It was hot but light on the tongue, with a sweeter taste than I was expecting, and had a rich, almost fudge-like quality. These flavours were enhanced when a small amount of water was added. It was an upfront experience without a lasting finish.
Whisky No2: Kilchoman 100% Islay
A relatively new whisky which has been produced since 2010 at a distillery founded only five years earlier. Kilchoman was the first new distillery to be established on Islay in 125 years. The whisky is named in reference to the fact that its entire production process takes place on Islay.
I was rather fond of this whisky. It had a straw-like, pale yellow colour, with a grassy and leafy rather than smoky aroma. Other attendees at the event spoke of vanilla, grapefruit and buttered toast but I have to say I didn’t get these from it. The taste profile was quite distinct from the aroma, with a pronounced toffee flavour. It had a rich, fruity aftertaste and lingering finish but didn’t go well with the water.
Whisky No3: Caol Ila 2001 Private Collection Wood Finish
Distillery: Distilled by Caol Ila for Gordon and Macphail
Made by Caol Ila, the largest distillery on Islay, but aged on the Scottish mainland, this is independently bottled by Gordon and Macphail and sold as part of their Private Collection range.
This whisky had a very rich, almost bronze colour, with a complex aroma which included cinnamon bark, nutmeg and chilli flakes. The initial taste was rich and woody, becoming sweeter as it lingered until a flavour reminiscent of fruit cake emerged. My experience turned out to be awry again though, as suggestions offered from around the room included Frazzles/smokey bacon crisps, and red berries. Oh well… Anyway, I found it to be another up-front whisky, and unfortunately I’d drunk it all before I got chance to try it with water, but to be honest I enjoyed it neat and don’t think I’d bother experimenting by adding water to it.
Whisky No4: Peat’s Beast Cask Strength PX Finish Whisky of the Evening
Distillery: (secret distiller)
This monster of a whisky is created by a secret distiller and finished in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks.
First, the colour of the whisky when it was in the glass was a much lighter gold than the darker colour shown in the photo. Unsurprisingly, it had a heady and elemental aroma of earth, smoke and driftwood. It was rich and thick to taste, with a hint of sweetness from the aforementioned sherry casks. It was far easier to drink than its 54.1% ABV threatened; so much so that I forgot to try it with water again. At the end of the event, votes were taken to determine the most popular whisky and this one came out on top. This time I was in agreement, as it was my favourite too.
Whisky No5: Laphroaig 15 Year Old, 200th Anniversary Edition
We were lucky to be able to sample this Laphroaig 15 year old whisky, which was one of a limited run of 236 bottles, released as part of Laphroaig’s bicentenary. The whisky was bottled by Douglas of Drumlanrig.
A fruity aroma of set this whisky apart from the others. It reminded me of grapefruit, gooseberries and green grapes, and complimented the naturally flaxen hue of the drink in the glass. The taste was reminiscent of leafy greens, with only the faintest hint of the medicinal properties more usually associated with Laphroaig. A big smoky finish saw out this great whisky.
Whisky No6: Bruicladdich Octomore 06.1
Promoted as the world’s most heavily peated whisky, and thus highly sought-after, this was the sixth edition of Bruicladdich’s Octomore range, named after an old whisky distillery on a farm near Port Charlotte on Islay.
At 57%, this was the strongest whisky of the evening. It was light golden in colour and full of rich intense and fruity aromas including plums, apricots and prunes. Taste wise it was fiery, as expected for a whisky of such strength, but I wasn’t able to identify any other flavours from it. Some dark, treacley, syrupy notes emerged when I added water to it, but it seemed to be all about the aroma rather than the taste. Going by first impressions alone this didn’t live up to the hype, but I am happy to seek it out again and give it another go just to make sure.
This was a great event, offering the chance to try out new whiskies that I would otherwise have passed by. The prices of the featured whiskies ranged from just over £40 to in excess of £100 for one bottle, so it was also an ideal opportunity to try before you buy, especially with regard to the more expensive whiskies.
I think all of the attendees at the event were already familiar with peated whiskies, so I would probably recommend trying one or two before booking a place on a Peat Freaks event. Something featuring both peated and unpeated whiskies would be best, to allow comparisons to be made and preferences determined.
I’m sure that there will be more Peat Freaks events in the future, and I am certainly interested in attending.
Birmingham Whisky Club have their own web site and are active on line and through the usual social media channels.