Serious maltheads can skip this article, but I felt compelled to take on this topic because there are not just anoraks out there but also casual whisky drinkers who don’t want to dive too deeply into the nitty-gritty of whisky wisdom.
In many magazine articles and blog postings about whisky you can find statements like “The difference between Scotch an bourbon is that Scotch tastes smoky because it is made from peated malt.”
This is a generalization that is simply not correct. Of course there are lots of peated Scotch whiskies that can give you a peaty smack into your face. Ardbeg, Laphroaig or Lagavulin are prime examples for peaty single malts.
But if you look closer at the Scottish distilleries, you will find that this is only part of the picture. Of the roughly one hundred distilleries in Scotland only about fifteen use peated malt. Island distilleries, especially on Islay, have traditionally been using peat. But on the Scottish mainland most whisky is produced with unpeated malt. The number is rising, though, because more and more mainland distilleries are experimenting with different whisky styles including peated malts.
Why then this misconception? I guess there are two reasons for it. At first, many decades ago, almost all distillieries used peat to dry their malted barley because it simply was the cheapest fuel and available in abundance. This is still reflected today in the typical pagoda-shaped kiln roofs that are visible in most distilleries even though almost all of them are only of a decorative nature now.
But the smoky Scotch myth still persists today because most Scotch whisky consumed today is blended from whiskies of many distilleries. Smoky whisky is very often used to add another dimension to the flavour profile. If you just order “Scotch” in a bar, you will most probably be served one of those blends that leave a little bit of lingering smoke on the palate.
So it is quite important to note that Scotch does not equal Scotch in terms of smokiness. In fact it is on of the strong points of Scotch whisky that it encompasses such a vast variety of styles that makes it almost impossible not to like one of them.