PPM: three letters known to divide the whisky world. They denote parts per million, and what they’re measuring is phenol, an aromatic organic compound that is absorbed by malted barley during drying. When the raw fuel being used is peat, then the phenol levels climb, and if they hit 20PPM, the ensuing whisky qualifies as peaty or smoky — or tasting like iodine or smelling like old sock. Yep, it’s that divisive.
“They are black and white whiskies,” says Dave Gunns from Wild About Whisky. “You love or hate them: there are no grey areas.” Lovers think the tiny Scottish island of Islay is the centre of the universe. It’s home to eight operating distilleries, and is the epicentre of a relentless wave of innovation that honours tradition as easily as it defies it. There are ballsy statements by Bruichladdich, whose Octomore 06.3 clocks in at an astounding 258PPM, and overpowering expressions by upstarts Kilchoman, the newest addition, but quite likely the most revered.
As Whisky Pig Theo Buchler says: “There’s a homogenisation of character in the other Scottish regions, but not on Islay.” Peat defines the island, but this doesn’t flatten the flavour profile. Whiskies develop most of their character by interacting with a barrel’s wood, and it’s here that a peat’s innate smokiness can be countered by something surprising. Laphroaig PX Cask is a heavily sherried expression that undermines the distillery’s traditionally medicinal taste with a contradictory wine-like sweetness. This experimentation has travelled inland to the highlands, where Glenglassaugh used a fair amount of peated barley to offset the fruity notes in its Torfa expression, and Speyside giant Glenlivet recently took the bold step of adding a Peated Whisky Cask Finish to its acclaimed Nàdurra range.
These are not necessarily trends, but part of whisky’s evolving narrative. As the overall demand increases, distilleries react by becoming more imaginative. However, Neil Paterson from WhiskyBrother notes that proudly peated whiskies tend to be released at a younger age, to stop the barrel from diminishing the power in its punch. And once you’ve succumbed to that punch, it’s quite addictive. Barry Kukkuk and the gents from Jozi Whisky Club all scoff at the suggestion of mixing a peat with anything else. “The only thing you put with an Ardbeg is more Ardbeg,” he declares. But Gunns describes his cocktail of heavily peated whisky and Appletiser as one of the best he’s created. One thing everyone agrees on is that if you want to pair peat, sushi and dark chocolate work wonders.
Stocking up on smoke will no doubt be a personal affair, but it’s worth noting that the Lagavulin 16 holds a special place for most peat-heads. Buchler calls it the gateway. It was for me. But perhaps start with something like Johnnie Walker Double Black’s subtler smokiness and then, once your palate has adjusted and you’re wondering why other whiskies lack that fire, start planning your trip to Islay. Because it won’t be long before you feel a pilgrimage coming on.