From the sublime to the ridiculous…

Faithful reader Alan recently sent me a link to an article from the online magazine Slate entitled Hoppy beer is awful—or at least, its bitterness is ruining craft beer’s reputation. Like a lot of the opinions in Slate, there is at least a kernel of truth in what is an otherwise contrarian position. In this case, the author of the piece is correct that some craft brewers are going out of their way to make hops the be-all and end-all of their product, to the detriment of balance and sometimes beyond the point of enjoyability. This trend seems to me to be an expression of the flawed belief that more is always better, and it also strikes me as the same sort of macho competition that drives males (maybe not exclusively, but mostly) to vie with each other to see, for instance, who can consume the spiciest peppers.

I bring this up because I found myself facing a similar situation in comparing several whiskies (mostly scotches, but a couple others) at a couple of impromptu tasting sessions last month. Here, however, the factor that was sometimes taken to excess wasn’t hops but peat-derived smokiness, which is all the rage among a certain breed of scotch drinkers.

The reason scotch is supposed to taste like peat comes from what happens before distillation. The distiller takes a grain (barley in this case), soaks it in water and lets the grain begin to germinate (sprout) because during this process starch (a long chain of sugar molecules or polysaccharide) gets broken down into the simple sugar maltose (this is where the term “malt” in malt whisky comes from), which will eventually be turned into alcohol by fermentation. Before going to fermentation, however, the germination process is halted by drying the malted grain and this is where the peat comes in, since if some or all of the drying is done in a kiln that is fed with peat, then the some of the peat smoke gets taken up by the grain and will persist through the fermentation and distillation process.

As a chemist, I find this all to be a little mysterious since I think of distillation as a process for separating and purifying a mixture of substances, and indeed the main outcome of distillation is to increase the alcohol content of the liquid by evaporating and re-condensing more alcohol than water.  This process is necessary if you want a high alcohol content since fermentation will only get the liquid up to about 15% alcohol before the yeast gets killed off.

After distillation, in fact, there’s not really all that much difference between all the distilled spirits except for the amount and type of “impurities” left behind, which derive from what was fermented (which might be any of the common grains, or sugar cane, or even potatoes) and how it was treated before fermentation. With vodka, for instance, the goal is to have as few “impurities” as possible, so it doesn’t really matter what you start with. Gin is pretty much vodka made from grain with various herbs (especially juniper berries) added for flavor. Rum starts with sugar cane, and all the different types of whiskey start with grain: barley for scotch, corn (at least 50%) for bourbon, rye (or course) for rye whiskey, or whatever else you might have on hand, I suppose. (The yeast isn’t picky—it will ferment sugar from whatever plant you start with.)

Anyway, scotch is supposed to have a bit of a smoky taste from drying the malted grain and part of the variation in scotches is how much peat is used in that process. Other factors that contribute to the flavor presumably include where the grain was grown and where the water in the distilling process came from (if this were wine, we would call this terroir), exactly how long the grain was allowed to germinate, the temperature and time for drying the malted grain, not to mention how long and in what container the distilled product was allowed to age. Here in the U.S., bourbon has to age in new, freshly charred oak barrels that can only be used once. For aging scotch, the distillers have discovered they actually prefer to use barrels that have previously held bourbon or a fortified wine like port or sherry, and I can definitely taste the difference between, for example, Glenmorangie that has aged in port casks compared to the same whiskey aged in sherry casks. So just like with beer, it’s fun to try different scotches, to compare regions and styles, and to continue to search for something really special or for a superior ratio of quality to price.

My first unplanned tasting session came during a party with my church choir friends (and other hangers-on) after our service of advent lessons in carols. Our host Ed (who falls in the hanger-on category—his wife Deb is the choir member) dragged out several bottles that I would guess were gifts for us to consider and compare.

In no particular order, then, one of these was a scotch called Monkey Shoulder. My memories were a little imprecise, so I actually went to a website with reviews (masterofmalt.com) to see what I found there. Interestingly, the reviews were very inconsistent with some high praise and some pretty aggrieved complaints (which is more toward the end of the spectrum that I remember leaning). Some of the reviewers suggested the lack of consistency might reflect real variations from batch to batch, which makes this exercise sound even more like wine tasting and trying to find the right vintage, which is not usually an issue with distilled spirits—labels will say things like “twelve years old” but no mention of which twelve years those were or any suggestion that it should matter.

There was a small-batch bourbon that I don’t remember anything more about, but also an interesting American single-malt whiskey (can’t call it scotch since it’s not from Scotland) called McCarthy’s from the Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, OR. Their website states that they import peat-malted barley from Scotland but distill it themselves and age the whiskey for three years in air-dried oak barrels. I figured out a long time ago that I prefer more age on my whiskey, so this very young whiskey came off as pretty harsh (or maybe “angular” is a better word?) to my taste buds.

There were also two more familiar scotches here. One was the original Glenmorangie, a ten-year old from the Highland region which I would describe as a pretty standard single-malt scotch: nothing overpowering and nicely balanced—the kind I would recommend to somebody who doesn’t know much about scotch as a good starting point for comparing to other more exotic labels. The other was from Auchentoshan, from the lowlands near Glasgow. Though I didn’t notice which finish, and even though it’s not from the western island region that tends to use more peat, I found whichever version this was to be way beyond my usual tolerance for smokiness. When all was said and done, the Glenmorangie was my favorite from this evening.

The second tasting session was also choir-related but with a different host and in a different venue. The choir director is a big scotch fan, so for the last several years the choir has taken up a collection and delegated one of the members (who enjoys booze shopping) to pick out a couple of nice bottles as a holiday thank-you gift. Apparently the choir was unusually generous this year (maybe this is another of those leading economic indicators) as the director was presented with a selection of four bottles this year and decided to share some of his bounty (pictured here) with the choir.xmas_scotch

For the non-scotch drinkers, the recommendation from this tasting was Jura Origin, named after (and produced on) a tiny, sparsely populated island in the Hebrides. This is a 10-year old and has some peatiness to it, but I also got a fair amount of grass in the flavor profile. I had sampled this and a couple of other finishes from the same distillery at a store tasting session, and brought a bottle home not too long ago.

Another bottle familiar to me was the Balvenie Doublewood. Hailing from the Speyside region, this is a nice, warm, 12-year old scotch that I have enjoyed on several occasions. The Glengoyne 15-year old was not familiar, and despite being the most aged whisky in this group, it didn’t leave me with a particularly strong impression. Their web site specifically notes that they don’t use peat to dry the malt, so maybe this points out the need for a little bit of that smoky flavor.

But you can clearly take that too far, as was amply demonstrated by Big Peat. This was a blend of several single malts, all from Islay, another island in the Hebrides but one that is specifically known for highly peated whiskys such as Laphroiag and Lagavullin. Even the tasting notes on the website don’t sound appealing to me: does anyone really want to consume something that tastes like beaches, sweet tar, chimney smoke and bonfire ashes, and that is praised for being phenolic? (I’m a chemist, and I don’t want to be drinking phenol, thank you very much!)

But hey, I had the chance to try an assortment of whiskey styles and confirm some of my long-standing preferences, so I know a little bit more about both what to look for and what to avoid for future purchases. Right now I have a small rotation of favorites that it would be nice to expand, especially if I can do it without breaking the bank, so the research continues.

Most likely back to beer with the next post. Cheers!

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One thought on “From the sublime to the ridiculous…

  1. Hey Dr. Dave, thank you for devoting this post to scotch whiskeys, and especially the peat factor. I’m a long-time lover of smoky scotch — give me a nicely aged Ardbeg and some dark chocolate & I’m in heaven. But I recently bought an expensive bottle of a highly touted single malt that’s way too peaty for even my taste.

    It’s Longrow Red, 11 years old, aged in Shiraz casks & I was really looking forward to it. But they went over-the-top peaty, and lost me.

    So, yes, there is a good case for moderation in these things, from hops to peat. Thanks again for another good entry!

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