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Why Peated Whiskies Get Higher Scores

by Oliver Klimek on January 4, 2013

I admit that the headline is a rather blunt generalization destined to grab your attention. But when we look at scores of younger bottlings in the Whisky Monitor, let’s say below 18 years, we see a hodge-podge of ratings for unpeated whisky, usually from the 70s up to the 90s, but sometimes we also see a score in the 60s.

Looking at scores for peated whisky, and especially for the classic Islay distilleries, we can notice that not many bottlings stay below 80, 80+ scores are the norm for peated malts. This becomes even more obvious when looking at entry level official bottlings. Drams like Laphroaig 10, Caol Ila 12, Ardbeg 10, Lagavulin 16 or Talisker 10 set the bar very high, while unpeated classics like Glenfiddich 12, Macallan 10, Glenfarclas 10, Glenlivet 12 or Glenmorangie 10 can not match their scores, not to mention less common malts like Glenturret, Scapa or Tomintoul.

Is it because they ‘peat distilleries’ are simply better? Certainly not. Many belong to conglomerates that also own ‘unpeated distilleries’. Why should they take less care here than there?

The answer is simple. It’s the peat itself. Using peated malted barley gives you an extra punch of flavour that adds to the other aromas in the spirit without any need to do something for it. The stronger the phenol level, the stronger the peat punch. And it is only logical that other flavours have to ‘fight’ against the peat to be noticed.

A simple consequence of this is that the cask influence is less important, the peatier the whisky is. A relatively inactive cask that does not give many additional flavours to the spirit will give you a rather bland unpeated whisky. But if the spirit is peated, the phenols will still add another dimension to the whisky, making it richer than the unpeated one. A very good example I just tasted is the Wemyss “Driftwood”. It is a combination of rather pronounced albeit not massive peat and quite subtle fruity and spicy aromas that works very well. But I cannot imagine this as an unpeated malt tasting remotely as good, it would just be a rather generic – and probably weakish – (second?) refill bourbon cask whisky.

The same of course is also true for shorter maturation time. Octomore or Supernova sell for crazy prices and earn very high scores. The massive peat blast creates a flavour explosion on your palate that would not be there if it was unpeated whisky.

We can conclude that cask management is much more important for unpeated whisky. Yes, also sherry casks can do a lot for creating a flavourful whisky. But here you have the issue of sulphur, and cask selection still is crucial; let alone the high costs for sherry casks.

This does not mean cask management should be neglected for peated malts. But peat will always give distillers a head start in creating great whisky.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Florin January 5, 2013 at 12:11 am

I just saved a bland, spirity bottle of a 18yo unidentified speysider by mixing in 1/4 of Laphroaig 10. It just goes to show your point.

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Josh Feldman January 5, 2013 at 12:21 am

It’s perhaps self evident that the peat flavor “saves” a young dram. It also cuts the other way – additional time in the barrel “tames” the peat. So if you want a fierce peaty dram you’ll usually end up choosing the younger one to get the peat reek hit you desire. You see this explicitly in such peat monsters as Bruichladdich Octomore and Ardbeg Supernova which are bottled very young (i.e. 5 years) in order to maximize the peat hit. So, to the extent that certain people love the taste of peat, youth is a “feature” – an almost necessary attribute.

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Steffen Bräuner January 5, 2013 at 12:26 am

Peat masks bad flavours

Steffen

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Erik Burgess January 5, 2013 at 10:10 pm

Peat imo gives those distillers the ability to bottle whisky earlier than those who use unpeated malt as Steffen says it does mask bad flavours.

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Frank Murphy October 20, 2013 at 11:59 pm

In much the same way as a highly hopped beer can mask a less than perfect fermentation.

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