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Ardbeg Ardbog Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky (700ml)
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- ABV 52.1%
If you love peaty whiskies but don't quite understand why they taste like they do, it's because of peat, or more precisely, peat smoke, which when burnt releases chemicals called phenols. These phenols are absorbed by the malted barley during the drying process in a kiln. The level of phenols is measured in ''PPM' (parts per million) and controlled by the length of time that the barley is exposed to the smoke, the amount of smoke produced and the type of peat used.
Even if 'bogs' are not your thing, peat is actually far more fascinating than first impressions might suggest. It is a relic of the Carboniferous period some 300 million years ago when much of what is now Britain was swampland. As trees, roots, ferns, grasses, animals and even people died or fell into the swamps they were subsumed into the stagnant water and partially decomposed, but did not rot away entirely. Instead an organic fuel formed by their decomposition. Peat is black because of its rich carbon content (the CO2 is not released into the atmosphere as normally takes place in decomposition around oxygen). Yet compared to wood, peat is relatively inefficient to burn. Without a proper furnace, it tends to smoke rather than create much heat.
For a long time a lack of alternative fuel forced 'Highlanders' to burn peat. Coal was simply too expensive for most and there were few trees. The situation began to change around the turn of the 1960's, with the help of technological progress in large industrial scale maltings. It then became possible to produce vast quantities of malted barley without peat. Speyside and Lowland distilleries were amongst the first to change to coke (a high carbon form of coal) as a combustible, as new railway networks to transport the fuel encouraged the transition. Remoter regions like Islay persisted with peat.
Today, there's no question that peat-smoke derived flavours in whiskies are increasingly desirable. Consequently, peat is now used not only on Islay by the likes of Ardbeg, but also on Orkney, in the Highlands, Campbeltown, as well as in Speyside. Peat is usually extracted close to the distillers or maltsters. Distilleries prefer the top part of the bog, because the upper crust of peat found there tends to be 'richer', more rooty and generate more smoke and impart more flavour.
At some stage of his or her drinking career, every hairy chested peat freak has probably wondered "Why don't peaty whiskies all have the same kind of 'peatiness'." Instead, we find that peat comes in a remarkable array of sensory guises, and also contributes an almost oily mouth feel, as well as added depth, richness and sweetness. Its flavours are expressed differently in whiskies from different distilleries and range from notes reminiscent of lanolin, wet wool, iodine, seaweed, bacon, tobacco smoke, engine oil, tar, manure and wet earth.
As much of Scotland is (in parts) covered by a meter-thick layer of peat, it's been supposed that different types of organic matter in the different regions, have created different types of peat which impart, in turn, different flavours to the finished whisky. For example, historically there have been few trees on the Orkney islands so there are no tree roots in the peat, making it lighter and quicker to burn. Whiskies from this area, like Highland Park, tend to have a more lightly smoked flavour than Islay malts. Is this an argument for 'peat' and 'terroir'?
Patrick Brossard of http://www.whisky-news.com recently reported on a study that approaches this question. In 2009, B.M. Harrison and F.G. Priest published an article on the composition of peat in the production of Scotch Whisky and the influence of its geographical source, extraction depth and burning temperature: "Peat samples from four locations (Islay, Orkney, St. Fergus (Aberdenshire), and Tomintoul (Speyside) were analyzed using Curie point pyrolysis in combination with gas chromatography-mass spectrometry".
[As in the simpler process of distillation where small molecules fly out first, followed by the big ones (so alcohol is separated from water), with gas chromatography a sample is heated to evaporation in order to release volatile compounds. Since all the molecules of a given structure will behave more or less identically, they exit the machine collectively and at the same time. As each 'puff' of molecules is released, a computer generated graph peaks corresponding to the most abundant chemical compounds. The higher the peak, the greater the number of molecules of acertain type are present].
"In total, out of the 106 products identified, 92 compounds were having a significant effect on the separation of the four geographical locations. The compounds were broadly split into the following classes: phenolic compounds, carbohydrate derivatives (“sugars”), aromatic compounds, and nitrogen-containing compounds".
"The ratio of phenol derivatives (carbohydrate derivatives to guaiacols, syringols, and phenols) was the major discriminator between the samples of the different geographical regions, explaining more than 60% of the variance. St. Fergus and Islay samples were characterized by high percentages of guaiacols (aromas described as aromatic, phenolic, burnt, woody, bacon, savoury, smoky, and medicinal), syringols (aromas described as aromatic, phenolic, spicy, smoky, baconlike, sweet, medicinal, creamy, meaty, and vanilla), and phenols (aromas described as aromatic, phenolic, burnt, woody, bacon, savoury, smoky, and medicinal) in the pyrolysate [i.e. burnt peat]. Relatively high proportions of carbohydrate derivatives in the [burnt peat] characterized Tomintoul and Orkney samples."
"In the distillate (new make), the origin of the peat could be clearly identified by analytical methods. By sensory analysis (by “human nose”), the spirits using Tomintoul (Speyside) peat were more medicinal than the spirit using Hobbister (Orkney) peat. The level of peat aroma was low in the St-Fergus spirit (Aberdeenshire) despite a high abundance of aromatic peaty aromas, but the spirit was sweet, spicy and medicinal."
The upshot of the study indicates that the source of peat will have an impact on the flavour of the whisky. It's a conclusion which may reignite the debate over Scotch whisky 'terroir' beyond the simplistic Highlands / Islands / Lowlands trichotomy. If for you, that's just all too involved, simply pour yourself a glass of Ardbog and revel in the remarkable synergy that whisky and ancient earth can offer.
Tasting note: This limited edition Ardbeg was matured for ten years in American oak ex-bourbon barrels and Spanish oak manzanilla sherry seasoned butts and bottled without chill filtration. Flawless bright gold appearance. Opening aroma offers up choc fudge and brandy cream, yet with a lovely freshness that accentuates on the second inspection, which, minutes later sees the bouquet lighten slightly and turn more salty, with citrus peel and hints of balsamic. A light entry develops into a concentrated mid palate, superbly balanced for the strength, dry to medium dry, creamy, vanilla laced peat flavours building towards the salty, tangy, gently warming finish. Concludes with dried herb / lavender-like notes and the vanilla / choc fudge returning into the lengthy aftertaste. 52.1% Alc