Barbecue chicken, smoked salmon, smoke cured bacon. Smoking food sounds delectable and approachable to the taste buds. The same when squared up to the world of scotches, or should i say whiskies, almost defines camps within the groups of peat ‘takers’. One of them rise with peat and the others cringe under its influence.
However, this is doing little to the relentless spirit of the distillers, who keep enhancing the phenol levels (the chemical compounds responsible for the smoky, medical, iodine or burnt character of some malts. Its intensity is measured in ppm) of their scotches. Take Octomore for instance, a limited Edition from Bruuichladdich, professing itself to be the peatiest one on Earth. Its peating level is 258ppm (parts per million) – as a reference point, Laphroaig and Ardbeg usually come in between 40-60ppm (with the odd exception, like the 100ppm Ardbeg Supernova).
Peat be it medicinal, iodine-like, smoky or the unmistakable maritime seaweedy, its persona is characteristic of the topographical region where it hails from, a lot acquired from where it belongs.
Decaying vegetation, sphagnum moss, swamp forest, ericaceous shrubs, and sedges are all a beginning towards this affair called peat. Its a condition over millions of years, especially in the windswept land of Islay, which breeds a source of fuel, giving many-a-scotch from this region a formidable character. Each time you burn that fuel, its reminds you of its genesis and takes you back to where it belongs.
My hypothesis is you’re not born to love peat, it is an acquired taste. However if you’re not a die hard fan, food makes a romantic interjection, not in bringing two foes together but to enable you in admiring a combine which may bring out a superlative facet of the whisky.
With this in mind I’d taken up a flavour tasting at the Laphroaig distillery. A tasting with a host, who takes you through their three expressions along with a bite size portion of food to understand how an accompaniment can make a difference to the palate.
The three malts on tasting were Laphroaig 10 Year Old, Laphroaig Quarter Cask & Laphroaig 18 Year Old.
We began with Laphroaig 10 Year Old. This full-bodied variant is the foundation of all Laphroaig expressions and comes with a long finish. The original Laphroaig, distilled the same way today as when Ian Hunter invented it over 75 years ago. On the nose it gives a huge rush of peat, medicinal and characteristically seaweedy, mild hint of sweetness at places.
We tried this malt with an equally intense combination of a blue cheese.
This flavour pairing work reminds you of the two popular characters, the proud Mr. Darcy and the prejudiced Elizabeth Bennet as they play out their spirited courtship in Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, a beautiful love & hate combine.
The sharp & salty blue cheese almost radiates more salt as you roll the whisky over it. It then starts forming an oily coating on your palate and an increased saltiness, and at the end of the palate you get a mild creaminess and sweetness coming through. The fascination of this pairing was the finish, where you start feeling a decline in the medicinal smokiness of the flavour on your palate.
In this case it just changed the texture of the whisky on your palate !
I was particularly enchanted by this pairing, however now I was looking forward to the next one, since it was about Laphroaig Quarter Cask.
A brand created by the old Master Blender Robert Hicks, it was an innovative product born either out of adversity or inspiration. Adversity, of moving to non-aged perhaps, just like others were, or an inspiration drawn from 100 years ago, when either due to limitations of transportation or dodging the famous taxman, smaller size barrels might have been used.
Whatever be the motivation, this has been an illustrious innovation from the house of Laphroaig, measured by the fact that its now the flagship variant for the brand.
Quarter cask is a 125 litre bourbon cask which holds Laphroaig malts, with an approximate age ranging between 5 – 11 years. The younger the malt the more peat is felt in it, however with a quarter cask, since the surface area is lesser, the contact with the cask is higher, which eventually imparts it a more woody character. This influence makes it more honeyed & sweeter and hence quite changes the profile when compared with the 10YO
When you nose the quarter Cask you get a whiff of peat, its on taste that you start getting the honeyed sweetness, a medicinal taste much lesser than 10YO and a hint of citrusy twang, enveloped with smoke.
Coming to our favourite part, the pairing, this malt was paired with a sweet lime wedge. Its the perfect union. The best part of this combination being that it does not dramatically change the taste too much, which is perfect for this nature of a whisky. The mild effect you feel is the smoke becoming a bit sweeter and towards the end of the palate you feel a dry smoke. This whisky is best combined with similar combinations such as, a lemon drizzle cake, lemon souffle, lemon cheesecake, orange creamscicle cake ! All these combinations enable you to appreciate the whisky in its truest form while the burst of citrus flavour combine on both ends lends a sweet flavour leading towards a dry smoke. Perfect !
Next in line was Laphroaig 18 YO, the years in the oak and more influence of the wood made the whisky loose its heavy peatiness and give in to more oakiness, more smoothness. Its a more tamed expression from the house.
A sniff of the dram, reminds you of dunnage warehouse no.1, on site at the distillery. Reminiscent smell of happy angels floating in the air, like you’re putting your nose into an empty oak barrel, honey, fresh cut grass, harvest, extremely elegant & smooth, quite different to the 10YO experience.
So why the chocolate pairing I asked my “mentor”. Chocolate was a classic combination, especially the darker ones, 80% cocoa content, chocolate covered coffee beans, sharp coffee really compliments the whisky. There is a sweet chocolate smoothness in the whisky which gets enhanced with this cocoa and with the hint of peat it leaves lingering layers of sweet caramel chocolatey smoke in your mouth.
The combination – smooth, indulgent, appeals to most people since its easier to drink.
While Laphroig is not marketed as an after dinner drink, however it’s quite seen like an “After Drink” meaning its really not at the beginning of the evening that you would like to be seen carrying it around. Start with an aperitif and walk your way towards Laphroig.
With bold, amicable, happy and desirable combinations, you can now have your go at the heat which follows the peat !
If peat happens to be a religion of sorts, then this is just a beginning ….
As for me I would like to wrap this journey of mine with the following lines I’d read somewhere,
The salt is on my tongue,
The sea’s song is sung,
the sun is going down,
and so my day at sea is done.