Friday, July 1, 2011

Peat mania

This week (yesterday) Bruichladdich had this press release

With a bachelor in chemistry and being a whiskygeek I always find info releases like this very interesting. The fact that the phenol components is specified is something I would like to see and compare from a range of malts actually, but that's not the point of this blog post

I am pretty sure that the thing that everybody will remember and pay most attention to in Bruichladdich's press release, is the number 309ppm. Phenol content is measured im ppm. Parts per million. This is a scale used to describe very low content of a given substance

Peaty whiskies always had it's own cult followers, often named peatophiles or peatjunkies. The more peaty a whisky is  - the better. Traditionally the level of peatyness in a whisky was/is said to be highest in Ardbeg.

If you look around the internet or in whiskybooks, the peat levels of the traditional islay's might vary slightly, but as a general rule it was Ardbeg at no. 1 spot, with Laphroaig second at 40-45ppm and Caol Ila and Lagavulin third with 35ppm

The fact that peating barley isn't an accurate proces influences these numbers. Getting malt from Port Ellen maltings should give the distilleries a consistent product. Part of the malt Laphroaig uses are from their own fllor maltings and kilns, which is a harder component to control

Around 9-10 years ago Bruichladdich started the peat race introducing a batch of Octomore at 80ppm, later values in high 100's and this week the above mentioned 309ppm!!

An amateur digging peat on Islay

Ardbeg has (slightly thou) joined this race with their Supernova whiskies peated at 100ppm.

Now all this ppm mania has caused some discussion amongst whisky entusiasts over the years and a few points has to be noted. 

Different measurement methods will give different ppm values. This has caused some arguments about values being comparable. This set aside, another fact that's quite important is that the ppm value is given for the phenol content of the barley. 

Mr. Tattie Head, a regular whisky forum contributor pointed out :
And I will say once again that ppm's for malt are irrelevant. I'm not going to eat the malt.
As soon as the barley is milled, brewed and distilled things have changed. It's a fact that most of the phenols are in the husks of the barley and that the distilling proces do affect the final phenol content

In the new destillates, Laphroaig actually have the highest phenol content at 25ppm closely followed by  Ardbeg at 23-24ppm, Lagavulin at 16-18ppm and Caol Ila at 13-14ppm - according to Jefford's Peat, Smoke and Spirit

It doesnt stop here. When a malt whisky is maturing the phenol's are somehow broken down. Older whisky has a lower ppm content than younger whisky given the same start point

So the ppm value of a whisky really doesnt describe the "peatyness" of a whisky. The taste expereince might not correspond to the numbers given.

Another fact that has to be concerned is that different types of phenols has different flavours. So two malts with same ppm will taste different. The source of the peat itself is important and the kilning proces as well. In the world of whisky this is mainly noted in the fact that Islay peat flavours the whisky different than Speyside peat or Orkney peat will do. Even peat from different parts of Islay affects the barley with different flavours.

So how "peaty" a whisky tastes is something, and the ppm value given on the label is something different. There's a lot of additional factors as I just described. Age, cask, distillation and origin of peat namely.

So tassting the end product is the only way to tell how peaty a whisky really is!

But why this fascination with ppm values ?.

I am sure everybody remember's the first time they tasted a heavily peated malt whisky. With horror, fascination or total subjugation!

This first-time peat shock surprise is something that's hard to repeat. With time and experience you get used to  the taste of peated whisky. I even sometimes have the feeling I am immune to peat. I yearn for the peat shock experiences of my early whisky years. It just doesn't happen like that anymore.. (and I haven't even mentioned that some products have changed to a more light version over the years, thats another story)

I have to admit that neither the Octomores I have tasted nor the Ardbeg Supernovas has given me the same peat shock expereince as the first time I tasted a Laphroaig 10yo 15-20 years ago

The only thing that has come close was when I had a dram of Edradour Ballechin Burgundy finished a couple of years ago. This is described as 55ppm, so number-wise it can't compete with the Octomores or the Supernovas.

I do find that peat needs something to work against. Tasting contrasts do work for me. Peat in a heavily sherried whisky might be disguised, but if you catch the contrast, the same whisky can give you quite a decent peat shock expereince

So it's also a lot about what happens in your head as well as what's in the glass..


  1. Great post, Steffen. Agree 100%. TBH, though, if this is roughly 3 times 'peatier' than Supernova (all the disclaimers & mitigating factors above notwithstanding), I don't think I'll be buying one. Bearing in mind how young Octomore is generally released, I just can't see how that level of phenols could be balanced to make a pleasant drinking experience (although presumably it'll be matured in some uber sweet wine cask...)

  2. Now you mentioned uber sweet wine casks. I reckon both wine casks and peat can be used to disguise inferior (often too young) whisky. When both is used I can't help think thoughts :-)

  3. If I remember correct, not all phenols consists of flavors that humans that sense.
    This means that you can add 1000ppm and not smell or taste it.

    Numbers are irrelevant.

  4. Thats right, the amount of different phenols are unlimited. Looking at Bruichladdichs 309ppm Octomore specifications, the amount of different phenols is very limited thou. They are all more or less of a very basic kind I can assure you