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.