Peated Scotch whisky can be a bit of a polarizer. Plenty of people love the traditional, smoky flavour imbued with centuries of tradition. Plenty of others think it’s a bit like lapping up essence of tire fire.
It was a division that didn’t draw much attention until recently, when bourbon sales began to soar. Suddenly, the relatively sweeter, more caramel-driven American whiskey was cultishly popular, particularly with younger drinkers just getting started in the world of brown liquors. And that was a market scotch makers didn’t want to miss out on.
Which is why savvy producers are showing their softer side and reaching out to the bourbon crowd by highlighting their more approachable, unpeated scotches.
“We are attracting a more open-minded and younger audience who really aren’t used to drinking scotch but would like to try it,” says Chris Bauder, general manager of whiskeys at Beam Suntory, which has the unpeated single-malt Scotch whiskies Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch in its portfolio, both of which offer a smooth and mellow approach to scotch.
Peat – basically partially decayed vegetation – is burned as a traditional source of heat in Scotland. Peat comes into play in scotch when a peat fire is used to dry the malt (barley grain that has been put in a warm and damp environment to make it germinate). After drying, the malt is ground, fermented and eventually distilled. An unpeated scotch uses hot air for drying.
“They’re so dramatic. There’s a romance to it, so big and smoky and memorable,” Kara Newman, spirits editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine, says of peated Scotch whiskies.
Though peaty scotches tend to dominate, there are plenty of unpeated options. One that sometimes surprises people is The Macallan. There’s plenty of flavour in the whisky, including at times a slight smokiness, but it’s always been made with unpeated malted barley; any smoky notes come from cask aging, says Paul Ross, CEO of Edrington Americas.
Rare Cask by The Macallan is aged 100 per cent in sherry-seasoned oak casks, creating a whisky with hints of spicy cloves and just a whiff of smoke. The Macallan Fine Oak Collection, introduced in 2004, is a lighter style with a profile likely to appeal to bourbon drinkers.
“These are new consumers coming into whisky for the first time, that’s the exciting thing,” says Ross.
Peated Scotch, meanwhile, is still going strong. One of the smokiest is Laphroaig, also part of the Beam portfolio, and producers have been having fun with its unique taste, running an “Opinions Welcome” campaign and posting a video on YouTube of a Scottish choir singing some of the most vivid descriptions. A sample: “akin to licking the wet residue of a chimney sweep’s broom, and liking it.” Yum.