For Peat's Sake: A Study of Smoke

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What makes a spirit smoky, and how does that affect a spirit’s character? Those were the two main questions posed by moderators Dave Broom and Ryan Chetiyawardana at “For Peat’s Sake: A Study of Smoke,” a seminar held at New Orleans’ Hotel Monteleone during the annual Tales of the Cocktail in July. Broom, an author and writer, and Chetiyawardana, a bartender and writer, took guests to the peat bogs of Scotland via Power Point and a lively discussion coupled with ample opportunities to sample peated whisky.

Smoke, Broom said, has always been used as a preservative, including in Nordic countries, who have routinely smoked trout, herring and other fish. Modern refrigeration means we don’t need to smoke food anymore, but we have developed a predisposition to it, craving it not only in foods like brisket, salmon and sausage, but in our drinks as well.

Peat is partially decomposed marine matter that develops over millions of years (at the staggeringly slow rate of one millimeter per year.) It is used in Scotland (and other areas) to dry malted barley before it’s fermented and distilled. Yes, peat lends smoky notes and often a medicinal, iodine-like tone. Not all Scotch is peated, but those produced on the island of Islay and Campbeltown tend to be the most overtly so.

Broom pointed out that in Scotland many words exist for peat (much the same way Eskimos have fifty words to describe the various type of snow), as peat dug out of various areas gives different aromas. Even depth plays a role, as the older parts harvested from the bottom of the bog has different notes than the younger peat taken from the top.

The eight samples in front of each seminar attendee gave the opportunity to witness the character that peat lends to a whisky. Bowmore New Make Single Malt Scotch (located on Islay) has a very spirited character, but the Bowmore 12 Years Old Scotch shows integrated smoke all the way through, with a signature top fruit note and a dry cereal character.

Laphroaig (also on Islay) is known for making unapologetically smoky and iodine-tinged Scotch, and the seminar examples did not disappoint. Laphroaig New Make comes across extremely smoky and malty, while the Laphroaig 10 Years Old displays notes of seaweed, iodine and creosote. The recently released 2015 Laphroaig Cairdeas, produced in small stills, shows intense herbal and eucalyptus aromas.

The sweet and smooth Ardmore Legacy, the only example tasted from the distillery, will be released as a single malt. Japanese whisky, originally created to emulate Scotch, was represented by the terroir-driven Hakushu 12 Years Old Single Malt Whisky, with its sweet, herbal notes of basil, mint and pine and just a hint of char. Finally, peated Connemara Irish Whiskey, which created the category, shows green mossy and vegetal notes to balance the smoke.

Of course, it wouldn’t have been Tales of the Cocktail without some libations. Ardmore Scotch was stirred both into a Manhattan-like potable and one that contained peated coconut and Fino Sherry; the latter’s salty notes foiled the whisky’s smoke and medicinal ones. Both drinks demonstrated that peated whisky can easily mix and mingle with other ingredients.

Ardmore-ish

40 ml Ardmore Scotch

20 ml Fino Sherry

20 ml peated coconut juice

Banana slice and parsley leaf, for garnish

Add all ingredients except garnish to a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake it until chilled. Strain it into a cocktail glass and garnish it with the banana slice and parsley leaf. 

You don’t have to wait another year before being able to attend another educational session like this one.  The 2016 Nightclub & Bar Show will offer bartending and mixology classes that cover the hottest trends in beverage March 7-9, 2016 in Las Vegas.