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When I first started drinking whisky, peaty whisky was not enjoyable and as recently as two years ago I still didn’t like peat. This changed when I went to Feis Islay in 2018 and I tried so many different peaty whiskies that it finally clicked, like when you start drinking beer and it’s not great and then one day it’s good and it works. Funnily enough, the main reason I’ve found that people turn off from whisky is that when they were young they either had a bad experience with a heavily peated dram or a substandard blend.
The sort of flavours you would expect from peat are medicinal and smokiness. To obtain peat flavour, the malted barley is dried using heat from peat during the killing stage of production.
Even Prince Charles cares about your peaty dram - Prince Charles stocking the peat kiln at Laphroaig. Image is taken from The Distiller Blog
The temperature and length of time the barley is kilned with peat will determine much of the intensity of the flavour; high temperatures reduce smokiness while wetter barley absorbs more of the flavours.
Peaty whisky is an acquired taste for sure but although Islay is famous for peat many other mainland distilleries create peaty releases from Glenturret, Macallan (although they are sold under different brand names) and Ben Nevis amongst others.
In fact, most distilleries that I approach for new spirit will provide quotes for peated new spirit too so we’re going to see much more of it coming from other locations in addition to Islay.
There are 6 main sites for peat in Scotland and it has been identified that each site has a different flavour characteristic. The reason for this is that peat is a decomposition of vegetable matter so if you imagine that each of these 6 peat sites had a different makeup of trees and vegetation then it makes sense that when this vegetation decomposed that the different plants, flowers and trees would have different flavour characteristics.
Peat PPM is generally acknowledged as the following:
Lighted peated malt is 1 – 5 PPM
Medium peated malt is 5-15 PPM
Heavily peated malt is 15-50 PPM
If you would like to learn more about peat and the different flavours from the different bogs then check out this blog about Peat Terroir.
Visiting a distillery can be great fun and viewing the stills is always a highlight because in your mind, or at least in my mind, you recognize this is where that distillery’s unique spirit is created.
Regardless, if folk suggest that it takes place during fermentation or it’s more to do with barley strain or to do with the casks – a great deal of responsibility lies on those elegant copper pots.
So how do they do it and what influences the spirit character?
First and foremost, the still, pipes, condensers and connecting pipework are made of copper. Copper is an incredible reactive metal which removes undesirable flavours such as sulphur while enhancing desirable compounds from the original barley – the amount of time the spirit is in contact with copper enhances these virtuous qualities, so it makes sense to want to have as much copper contact as possible. The relative amount of copper contact used in the process will determine the end spirit
Stills come under three broad shapes – Ball, Lampglass and Plain
Depending on the height and shape of the still will determine the reflux. Reflux is the condensation of liquid into vapour and its return to the boiling liquid; the effect of reflux is to increase the alcohol strength in the distillate, creating a purer distillate with greater separation of volatile components and the richer the spirit will be.
Therefore, longer and narrow necks with upwardly directly lyn arms lead to greater reflux. However, a longer and narrower still does not provide adequate copper contact so a balance needs to be struck.
The size of the still is very important; distilleries in Scotland can have anything from a 2,200 spirit still at Edradour to Glendiffich which has 10 spirit stills each with a capacity of 4,500 litres. The larger a still the less copper to spirit contact and so the meatier and more sulphur the end distillate.
The type of condensers will influence the character of the spirit. The condenser takes the refluxed/vaporized spirit and feeds it back into the boiling liquid. It can be in two forms; traditionally a worm tub has been used which is located on the outside of the distillery and is made up of a spiralling copper coil which the vapour passes through and is cooled by outside water which surrounds the copper pipes cooling it – the worm tub is meant to produce a meaty flavour.￼
The shell and tube heat exchangers are another type of condenser which is located in the still house and which cools the cooper pipers by passing water through vertical tubes. The copper in the still slowly degrades over time and will need to be replaced every 15 or so years; the age of still will have an influence on the quality of spirit.
As an independent bottler, cask management and a good wood policy are essential. It is the only way I can potentially add value because I can’t control the distillate.
It is a very important step in the production of good Scotch and 50-70% of the bottled spirits flavour will come from the cask. Cask maturation provides colour, it removes undesirable flavours and the spirit extracts desirable flavours from the oak. Oak contains many sugars! Each year we lose about 3% to evaporation (the Angel’s share) and each year the alcohol level will reduce and if it falls below 40% alcohol it cannot be called whisky.
In Scotland, around 90% of Scotch is matured in ex-bourbon Hogshead casks. Prior to this Sherry Butts were used but the industry changed to bourbon casks in the late 1930s when the US decided that bourbon casks could only be used for the maturation of bourbon once and so this provided the Scotch whisky industry with lots of cheap used oak casks to mature whisky.
Where bourbon matured whisky typically provides that light golden colour spirit with vanilla and coconut flavours, Sherry matured whisky is darker in colour, with more raisin and cherry flavours.
A cask can be used multiple times until it is exhausted which is usually after 40 years. However, the intensity of flavour reduces with each refill. First fill casks are highly desirable, but in my experience when using first fill Sherry casks, it is better to use them for finishing the first time as the oak contains so much sherry flavours that if left in there for a prolonged period of time the spirit can be overpowered. Wine and Port casks are particularly susceptible to overpowering spirit if not carefully managed.
The provenance of the actual oak used to make up a cask is proving to be an interesting field of research. It has been suggested that the fruity flavours derived from a sherry cask are not necessarily due to the fact that the cask previously contained sherry. The reason is also that European Oak is different from bourbon cask oak which is taken from the United States, using a different type of oak which possesses different flavours.
Last year I visited a bodega in Europe and it is very much like visiting a lumber yard in Scotland, which I did with my Dad as a kid because he was a joiner.
Essentially the bodega will allow the oak to dry outside which has been shown to produce greater colour in the spirit and make for higher quality Whiskies. A company will pay a premium for casks that are constructed from oak that has been left outside to be dried naturally.
Charring is a key process in the construction of a cask. Charring is the process of heating the inside of the cask to burn/char the inside layer, this allows the cask to absorb spirit while degrading a layer within the cask which allows for the release of lignin and thereby vanillin which is a vanilla flavour, the process also adds colour. Typically, a distillery can choose the amount of charring they want and the deeper the charring the more intense the colour. This is why bourbons achieve so much colour so soon as the barrels used are heavily charred as is custom in the US.
The size of a cask will determine the amount of impact the wood will have. The larger the cask the less spirit to wood contact and therefore the less extraction. For example, 50-litre Octaves enjoy a huge amount of wood to spirit contact which results in lots of flavour being transferred to the spirit in only a matter of months. However, the drawback is that too long in this cask and the wood can overpower the whisky. The alcohol strength at filling will impact the extraction of flavour from oak, if too high or low the extract level is very low. For this reason, whisky is usually filled into casks at 63% to 70%.
Generally speaking, the higher the outside temperature, the quicker the oak extraction. Fortunately, Scotland is the ideal temperature to mature whisky so that it is delicately balanced but if the temperature rose significantly then the spirit would retain lots of oak character while retaining the drawbacks associated with an immature spirit such as being strong, pungent and sulphury. In the US and India and other hot climates, the alcohol level will actually increase because the water evaporates quicker than the alcohol.
In February I was fortunate to visit my friend in New Zealand and whilst there I visited one of New Zealand’s newest distillery, Cardrona.
Cardrona has developed a great reputation amongst whisky fans in New Zealand. Two different bars recommended the distillery to me and raved about the spirit it produced; they have just managed to release some whisky, earlier than expected due to positive responses at a whisky festival in New Zealand.
Cardrona can be found in Wanaka, near Queenstown, lying in a valley between two ski resorts and built on top of a gold seam. Planning permission was supposedly very hard.
The distillery also has two sets of rose bushes as they have a desire to produce perfume.
At present, the distillery is producing whisky, gin and a variety of liquors. While I had the opportunity to try the whisky at the bars that stocked it – it was light, fruity and sweet and it had taken a light gold colour from the oak. I was only able to try the new spirit at the distillery but it certainly contained all of the fruity esters desired in a new spirit.
The distillery has a lot of modern kit so it will certainly be producing spirit to a high standard for years to come. The warehouse for cask storage was smaller than I expected it to be.
It will come as no surprise to many that Scotland is not the only country that distils whisky…it’s just where it was perfected. Joking aside, the origins of alcohol of distillation can be traced back to ancient Egypt, although back then it had a medicinal purpose, the name alcohol is derived from the Arabic ‘Alkohol’. Supposedly the skills of distillation were brought to Europe from the Crusades in the 11th and 12th centuries.
There is evidence of distillation taking place in Ireland from the late 12th century during an invasion by Henry II when there were encounters with the drink. Distillation does not appear, officially, in Scotland until 1494; King James IV instructing Friar John Cor to make aquavitae (a term for Whisky) from eight bolls of malt. However, it has been suggested that the clan McDonald on Islay had knowledge of distillation much earlier than 1494. When Àine nì Chathàin (Agnes o Kane from Derry/Armagh) marries Aonghas Òg de Yle, of the clan McDonald on Islay, Àine brings from Ulster the MacBeatha family (known in Scotland as Beaton), who become doctors for some major Scottish families and in their possession was the knowledge of distillation for the use as a surgical spirit.
Regardless of who established distillation first, in the 19th century, Ireland’s whiskey dominated the market with around 50 distilleries in the mid-nineteenth century; now there are 18 Irish distilleries while Scotland has over 120. Prohibition swept through Europe and the USA and the partitioning of Ireland deprived Irish distilleries of the British Empire’s market, resulting in the decimation of Ireland’s whiskey industry.
Irish whiskey is enjoying growth again and last year I had the pleasure of visiting a few distilleries, Teelings and Great Northern (a juggernaut of a distillery producing an incredible range of great spirit). In light of this, it felt worthwhile to note the key differences that exist between Irish whiskey and Scottish whisky.
Irish whiskey is spelt differently, this is because in the 19th century Dublin distillers did not want to be associated with the poorer spirit that was being produced in Ireland, so they started inserting an ‘e’ to differentiate the brand.
Where Scotch whisky produces Malt and Grain whisky, Ireland produces this and Irish Pot Still, which is made from malted and un-malted barley.
Image of three pot stills at Teeling distillery
Ireland is synonymous for Triple distillation, using a wash still, low wine still and spirit still while in Scotland most distilleries use double distillation which means only a wash still and spirit still are utilized. Triple distillation produces a lighter spirit by removing low volatility compounds present in heavier spirits such as Scotch, the spirit can be 30% higher in ABV than that of Scotch and the character can be smoother too. However, Irish pot stills are much larger than Scottish stills leading to limited copper contact resulting in a spirit with more sulphur and meaty flavours – the extra distillation and a purifier will work to reduce these undesirable flavours but in contrast Scotch’s smaller stills enjoy greater ‘reflux’ which provides more desirable flavours associated with copper contact and the removal of undesirable flavours. Ultimately, this can come down to taste preference because by increasing the amount of distillation/rectification and trying to make ABV as high as possible the distillers simultaneously reduce the volatile congeners/flavour compounds and character. The production of a lighter spirit, through Triple distillation, aspires to remove the less volatile flavours from the spirit and so there are sweeter more fragrant notes in the finished new spirit.
Irish whiskey sources its barley only from Ireland and they can use un-malted barley which costs less than malted barley and provides a different flavour profile.
Auchentoshan in Scotland has used Triple distillation and Cooley Distillery in Ireland uses Double Distillation so there are exceptions to the common assumption. Cooley also offers peated malt which is contrary to the Irish typical spirit character of being light and containing no peat.