5 Irish Whiskeys To Help You Fall In Love With Peat
by Gary Quinn
Once a common part of the Irish whiskey landscape, with the consolidation of the Irish whiskey industry in the middle of the twentieth century, peated whiskey all but disappeared from production. We’re in a different time today and peat is making a comeback in a big way.
Historically, peat was one of the most common sources of fuel in the country, with most people outside large cities having ready access to their own source of peat. The distillers in the northern counties of Donegal and Antrim, in particular, had a great fondness for the smoky flavours their peat injected into the barley they were drying.
The peat element happens early in the production process. These days it’s mostly mechanised but originally barley was laid out on the distillery floor and water was used to wet the grains of barley and a flow of warm air tricked them into thinking it was spring. This would kickstart the germination process to produce those essential sugars in the barley that would later be turned into alcohol.
But the barley at this stage is still wet. Before it can be milled and used in the mash it needs to be dried. Traditionally, peat was the easiest source of fuel to do this, letting the smoke from the fire filter through the barley, drying it, but also imparting the flavour of smoke into the grain itself. The more peat used and the longer it’s left to smoke the barley, the stronger the flavour.
How is peated whiskey measured?
Peated whiskey is measured in what is known as PPM (Phenols per million). Heavily peated Scotch whiskey might be peated at 40ppm while a mild to medium level of peat would be around 14PPM. PPM sets out to measure the compounds which are left in the barley by the peat process. They are measured in what are known as phenols. It’s a crude but useful way to identify how peated a whiskey is. However, the PPM is only one way of measuring complexity and doesn’t necessarily capture the effect of the wood, the production process, the yeasts and maturation times. But it’s a good ready reckoner.
The Irish whiskies here are grouped in three bunches: The opening move (peat charred cask finishes); The Halfway house (peated blends) and the full smokehouse (fully peated whiskey). As the first two are charred rather than peated malt they don’t have a PPM level.
The opening move
DUNVILLE’S THREE CROWNS PEATED
This is a wonderful introduction to peat for anyone who hasn’t tried peated whiskey before. It’s not a fully peated whiskey but one that is finished in an ex-peated cask. That is, they finished this blend in a cask that had previously matured a fully peated whiskey. The cask maintained lots of smoke characteristics and components from its previous occupant which was transferred to the Dunville’s blend during the finish.
And what a blend it is. They combined a four-year-old single grain, a 10-year-old single malt and a 15-year-old single malt before finishing it in the ex-peated cask. This created a smooth, rich and complex whiskey that has a brief undercurrent of peat – for the uninitiated it’s just enough to give them a gentle introduction to this branch of the family. Bottled at 43.5% it’s distinctly Dunville’s, but with a layer of smoke that is unmistakably present.
WEST CORK GLENGARRIFF PEAT CHARRED
The team at West Cork Distillers are an innovative bunch, constantly experimenting and pushing the boundaries of what could and should be done in Irish whiskey. This bottling is part of their Glengarriff series which puts cask charing at the centre of production. They took a single malt and finished it in a cask which was specially charred using peat from the bogs in Glengarriff.
This distillery charring held onto and then released the smoke elements of this release. So the malt itself wasn’t peated – they derived their smoke from the charring of the barrel.
They also released a bog oak version where a single malt that had been matured in ex-sherry casks was then finished for 4-6 months in a cask which had been charred using bog oak from Glengarriff. Bog Oak is an ancient remnant of oak trees which have been preserved in a blackened state by the chemicals and damp of the peat in a bog.
Both releases are non-age statements and bottled at 43%.
The halfway house
THE LEGENDARY DARK SILKIE
Dark Silkie is a companion to the award-winning Silkie whiskey from Sliabh League distillery in Donegal. A sourced whiskey, it is a blend of two malts and a grain whiskey. The first malt is the peated element and this is a triple-distilled single malt matured in sherry. This was then married with a double-distilled single malt finished in bourbon and a lighter grain whiskey that matured in virgin oak. It’s a very smooth result with a gentle but distinct peat undercurrent that sets it apart from the original Silkie bottling.
Released at 46%, the PPM is listed at 22 parts per million but due to the blending with non-peated malt and grain whiskey, the peat doesn’t force itself to the forefront the way you might expect in comparison to the Connemara or the Blackpitts. A wonderful whiskey with a singular personality.
The full smokehouse
Versions: NAS, 12 and Cask Strength
This is probably the most famous of Irish peated whiskies. Created by the Cooley distillery around 2012, the core bottle is a no-age-statement single malt with whiskies of varying ages blended together. The oldest whiskey in the bottle is believed to be around eight years old.
By Irish standards it’s a very peaty whiskey with a PPM of around 14. This is a medium peat level compared to many Scottish whiskies. It’s bottled at 40% ABV (80 proof).
If you want to take a step up in peat then the 12-year-old version is for you. It comes in at a higher 20ppm while the cask strength also hits this same ppm level. Matured in bourbon, each of these three bottles are double distilled, unlike some of their competitors on the Irish market who favour triple distilled production. Consequently you don’t have any of the extra smoothness from the triple distillation to balance the peat. Connemara 12 is said to be released in limited numbers each year in favour of the non age statement bottling.
This Dublin peated whiskey can’t help but be compared to others. Either to Connemara, with which it shares a PPM of around 14, or of course the louder Scottish tradition. Fans consider it to be closer to a Highland whiskey level of peat rather than a meatier punch of smoke from Islay but Teeling hope you’ll come to recognise it on its own merits. Bottled at 46%, it’s named after the Blackpitts area of Dublin, behind the distillery, which would have been the location of many malting houses in the past. It’s a triple-distilled whiskey and the first to come entirely from Teeling’s Newmarket Square distillery in the Liberties and aged around five years.
The third distillation brings a real smoothness to this release, layering lots of fruit on top of a dominant smoky personality. It was matured in ex-bourbon and sauterne wine casks which also softened the edges of what might have been a much brasher affair. Splashes of citrus and chunks of toffee float among the smoke here and lots of wood anchor it to the barrel. For additional tasting notes, click here.