EWB Experiments: Peat

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Ladies and Gentlemen… let me set the scene for you.

It was a dark and putrid night and a top-secret emergency meeting had been called at Edinburgh Whisky Blog Towers. Lucas, Chris and Tiger each raced from their respective corners of the city to the main amphitheater where they met Graeme via video link from his hidden bunker in central London. I, inevitably, rocked up late and not dressed for the occasion.

We had just learned that we would be hosting a whole week with a focus on peat in association with the lovely people from anCnoc.

After what seemed like several hours we all had a specific topic to cover and a date to deliver it on. We said farewell to Graeme and started to make our way out.

As I slid down the giant custom made fire pole (which is made from the melted down copper of the stolen Rosebank stills) to the ground floor I kind of regretted being distracted by Tiger’s shiny new lapel pin and found that instead of knowing where I was going with my peat week article I had more questions than I had arrived with.

But in one of those questions I found my inspiration.

I burst out of the mahogany front doors and cried to the heavens-

“What would happen if I took an unpeated whisky and tried to make it peaty?”

As this was happening the other guys were leaving and simply pretended not to know me.

Undeterred, I put my mind to thinking how to achieve peating an unpeated whisky. Slowly the realisation that I had neither the steady hand nor the skill to pull it off I brought in an expert – friend of the blog and legend among men Martin Duffy.

Martin doing his thing

Martin, one of the Directors of Solid Liquids, has covered events for us here on the blog and we’ve mentioned his amazing skills of crafting delicious cocktails many times in the past. It was this cocktalian (new word! Woop!) knowledge that I needed to exploit use for the mutually beneficial conclusion of this experiment.

You might have seen this on twitter earlier this week

After a day of pondering, Martin got back to me with the best list of things I have ever been asked for. It included-

1. A blow torch (fairly obvious I thought)

2. A camera (ditto)

3. An empty 2L plastic bottle (This confused me)

4. Some unsalted butter (This one really confused me. I started to think he might just need butter and hadn’t had a chance to get to the shops.)

If you don’t believe this was actually the list I was sent here is a picture of the conversation-

The rest of the conversation had to be edited out for legal reasons

After a frantic few hours gathering these objects from all over the city, I packed my backpack and headed over to 56 North to begin the experiments.

When I asked Martin what whisky I should bring along he specifically asked for a chill filtered bottle that was relatively light. Luckily with peat week being held in conjunction with anCnoc their 12-year-old offering sprung straight to my mind.

After a brief discussion where, we decided on what we might want to achieve the real fun started.

Below I’ve listed all the experiments that we carried out – the ones that worked and the ones that didn’t. In true EWB style we didn’t have all the proper equipment for the experiments but thanks to Martin’s ingenuity we managed to get hold of some interesting results. I’ve included as many relevant photos as I could.


FOR THOSE WHO BELIEVE THAT SINGLE MALT WHISKY SHOULD NOT BE TAMPERED WITH LOOK AWAY NOW!

 

Experiment 1
Peat and a plastic bottle

The plastic bottle wasn’t there simply as a tool to distract little old me, oh no! Martin had ideas for it. Earlier this year I had seen him have some fun using a tiny bit of whisky in the bottom of the plastic bottle and, by causing a dramatic change in the pressure, vaporizing the whisky.

It turned out that Martin’s first idea was a twist on this and he wanted to increase the pressure in the bottle to try and break the molecules and bonds of the whisky- not to the extent to vaporize it – but to try and get the smoke from the peat to cling to it.

We took the blowtorch to some peat that Martin brought along and coaxed some into the bottle.

The results surprised me I must say. Even with the small amount of smoke we channeled into the bottle the whisky had taken on a very astringent smoke. The peat smoke was fresh and reminded me of food I have eaten that has been peated just before being served. It was a lot harsher than the smoke you would find in a whisky that has a smoky flavour and gone through malting, mashing, fermenting, distillation and maturation. The peat in these bottles feels smooth and refined in comparison, like a stone at the bottom of a riverbed, whereas what we have made was jagged and rough round the edges.

We moved on. This is where the butter comes in…

 

Experiment 2
Peat smoke with butter

The reason Martin had asked me to bring along some unsalted butter was connected to the fact that he had asked me to bring a chill filtered whisky. It was another variable to try. What we tried to do here is recreate some of the fatty acids that would have been in the whisky before chill filtration. Now before anyone gets carried away, this, of course, is not a perfect substitute but was done with the intentions of getting some interesting results. I’m not saying that distilleries should start adding butter or that it didn’t affect the flavour- it did. We just wanted to see if the heavy fatty molecules held onto/ took to the smoke better.

This time we captured the peat smoke under a pint glass and then added a very small amount of melted butter to the whisky before leaving it to be exposed to the smoke of 5-10 seconds.

The fat really did grab onto the smoke. It was much more potent but perhaps not as spikey as our first run. Interestingly when I went back to nose them all at the end of the experiment the ones with added fat had retained the smoky flavour a lot better than the ones without.

Obviously this is rough data and proves nothing on its own but it did open up some intriguing questions that I’d like to look into more in the future. Do peated whiskies in particular benefit from being non-chill filtered? Does chill filtration of a peaty whisky strip a lot of smoke out of the spirit? When we got to trying to name peaty whiskies that were chill filtered we found that there weren’t all that many so there might be something to this.

Strangely elated by finding ourselves posed with even more intriguing questions we ventured on with variable number three.

 

Experiment 3
Peat, butter and sherry

Now, as I’ve mentioned, these experiments were just a rough layout to see what could happen. So again this one isn’t quite perfect but gave some interesting information.

It was similar to experiment two, only this time we added a small amount (about 5ml) of 30-year-old Amontillado sherry to the whisky.

The end result was certainly the easiest to drink. At first I thought the sherry sweetness had hidden the smoke but on closer inspection I found that they were working together- not perfectly but they were certainly trying to help each other.

Another question raised after this one- if you have a very peaty, very young whisky does maturation in an ex-sherry barrel mean it will taste better as it complements the smoke more? A sherry influence combined with the smoke may help to mask any flaws the young spirit may have. Again at this stage these are just questions thrown up by the experiments and are not grand statements that I’m declaring on the whisky industry. It’s the sort of things I like to ask around people that adore whisky though. It’s like throwing a loaf of bread into a flock of seagulls- everyone dive bombs on it and it can cause some seriously interesting results.

Talking of results Martin had one more trick up his sleeve…

 

Experiment 4
Rosemary smoked

So we all know what peat does to a whisky but what if we smoked it with something else?

It happens in other parts of the world but not here in Scotland so when Martin took the blowtorch and began to smoke some rosemary I began to imagine the possibilities.

The results were a lovely refined flavour being imparted into the whisky. You can taste and smell the rosemary but it is not overpowering. I suppose it was a bit like if you correctly use rosemary in cooking- it’s there to help support other flavours and not be the dominant flavour itself.

This got me thinking about other things that could be used to impart aroma and flavour into whisky and I’d advise you to keep an eye on our twitter feed as I’ve lots of ideas I’ll be trying out soon.


And that was the end of our experiments for the evening. Martin topped it off by making a lovely Old Fashioned using the whisky, sherry and peat concoction (this could be the way to use this correctly) and I ventured home to try and make sense of my notes.

What was the point in all this? Honestly, I don’t even know.

Whisky is quite honestly part of my everyday life and these are the sorts of questions that not only come up at work but when I’m out with friends or when I’m just reading something on the subject. Maybe it was to show that you it is possible to mix the geeky side of whisky and have a bit of fun at the same time? Maybe I was just curious to see if it could be done? Maybe I just wanted to burn stuff? Who knows?

One thing that is clear is that none of these experiments are going to change the industry itself but I think that doing them has certainly raised a few more questions that I want to investigate further.

A massive thanks to Martin for all his help on this article. Without him it would have just been me burning stuff and nobody wants to read about that.

As for me, I’m going to take my findings back to Edinburgh Whisky Blog towers and go over them in our subterranean laboratory. I’ll have to get in touch with Chris Hoban first though. I’m not allowed down there unsupervised. Not after last time…

Turbo

 

Comments

  1. This is absolutely brilliant, Turbo. Do you think secondary peating is a viable commercial option at all? Like using ex-peaty casks for unpeated spirit for example? Wonder what SWA would say about it… I’m pretty sure they would be dead against adding butter or pouring sherry into whisky but vapour infusion…?

    Also, just as a side note, I don’t think it’s possible to faithfully recreate peaty whisky using any other method than peating malt (I know that wasn’t the goal but just want to be a smart ass and say it before anyone else does). High phenol content turns the whole process upside down. It changes the way malt mills, mashes, ferments, it changes the way the run needs to be cut and it will give you a different maturation profile. So while this is super interesting, I don’t think the ‘right’ way of doing it is in any danger;)

  2. Secondary smoking is more or less what Balcones does with their Brimstone. They smoke the whiskey instead of the corn with that Texas shrub oak thingy.

    Tastes good, and different. I find your experiments interesting. Now I feel like doing something like this myself, but I know I won’t. There’s just too much to do anyway (blending, brewing, infusing, smoking)

  3. I can see immediate applicability to cocktails here, of course, with techniques such as direct smoking, fat washing, and the use of complementary flavors. Such implications should not be minimized. I can also see fertile vistas for palate education. The flavors of peat smoke (and other things smoke) and how they combine with whisky is not a substitute for actually smoking grain and then mashing and distilling that – a very different process – but the flavors combined in an additive way make a useful approximation in much the same way nosing samples, with tinctures of essences such as carnations, roses, lemons, oak, etc.. can educate your nose. Fascinating and original work. Extremely stimulating. Bravo!

  4. Lucas- I don’t think anything like this would help Scotch whisky. It wasn’t balanced like you find in a good smoky dram but it led on o some interesting idea.

    Sjoerd- Take it one experiment at a time. You’re right to say that there is loads that can be done. Hopefully see a few more soon.

    Josh- Thanks for the kind words. I went to Martin for help because of his cocktail experience. I thought it would help us along and it really did.

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