People love a good chat about casks in the whisky world and we’ve noticed there’s more peated whisky casks about at the moment, so let’s find out why that is with the help of The Cotswolds and The M&H Distillery.
Cotswolds Peated Cask Single Malt Whisky. That’s a very tasty whisky, isn’t it? So is Milk & Honey Elements Series – Peated Cask. Yummy and smoky and fruity and spicy and smoky and… wait. Smoky? But the barley used to make these whiskies wasn’t dried with peat?! No, but using my clever editor brain, I have ascertained that both used casks that previously held peated whisky. If you look closely, you’ll see it’s in the names. That editing course I took was definitely worth the money.
Anyway, the point is both distilleries have attained that signature smoky flavour without having to change the supply or process by which they dry barley to make it all peaty. It’s no surprise really that these two ‘new world’ distilleries would be so open to cask experimentation because that’s very much a feature of the new whisky world. Typically that means embracing new techniques like shaving, toasting, and re-charring of red wine casks (more on STRs later) or securing a supply of barrels from an interesting fortified wine producer. Peated casks are an outlier, however. Outside of the industry standard of using bourbon casks, barrels that previously held whisky aren’t reused often.
Why would you, in all honesty? If they’ve been used for whisky that means a lot of good in the wood has already been extracted at least once, assuming the distillery you’re buying from didn’t age their peated whisky in a virgin oak cask. Which is pretty rare. Bourbon casks are different because they have to be virgin oak before America’s classic spirit is filled into them and it doesn’t tend to spend long in there, so there’s enough character in the wood to add some pleasant elements to what’s ageing inside, while striking a balance to not overwhelm the new make profile. They also can’t be reused in bourbon production, so they’re plentiful in supply. Peat casks are potentially a trickier beast. They’re usually from Islay distilleries who bought them as bourbon casks so they’re on their third fill by the time you get your hands on them and, as any blender would tell you, peat is a big flavour to be used with caution. You don’t want to extract so much smoke you burn out your spirit.
So, if you wanted your whisky to taste smoky, why not just used peated barley?
Another way around
Well, because it’s not terribly convenient for every distillery. For one, if you’re peating your own barley then that big distinctive smell isn’t exactly easy to remove. Any barley dried afterwards without peat will still pick up enough residual essence of the smoky scent to spoil the batch, like baking a cake in a tin you didn’t wash after making shepherd’s pie. There’s a rumour that the lack of peated barley in Ireland is because Guinness requires an enormous supply and will not buy from any maltster who uses peat. One bad batch for them is probably about £20m worth of stock down the drain, in fairness. On the other hand, I want smoky Guinness, and I want it now.
What this means is that to be a distillery that makes peated and unpeated whisky, you’ll need to either not care (not an option), have staff on-hand to do some pretty rigorous and regular cleaning (good luck), or you need to invest in more malting infrastructure. As Tomer Goren, head distiller at M&H, explains, you need equipment for peating. “We can deal with low quantities, but for a good, consistent peating for high quantities, we’ll need good equipment”.
That’s assuming you malt your own grain. Cotswolds Distillery founder Dan Szor says there’s no great inconvenience in calling a maltster that does peated barley and ordering some. If your maltster has it, of course. The primary maltster that provides local barley to the Cotswolds, for example, does not do peated malt. So that would mean establishing a new supplier or trying to do it themselves. That’s a very time and labour-intensive process to take on for a distillery at the beginning of its operations doing all it could to keep up with the demands of producing whisky, gin, liqueur and more on very small equipment. There also isn’t any peat in that region to harvest, and it’s not exactly a raw material that sprouts up with wild abandon in all corners of the earth, or one you can engineer to grow. Indian distilleries like Paul John and Amrut have embraced peated casks, for example, because that’s the simplest and most reasonable means of introducing that flavour.
The pleasure of peat
Of course, you could ask why a distillery that wants to create whisky with a peaty flavour wouldn’t just ensure it had the supply or equipment when it was founded, but interestingly I learned speaking to both distilleries that a willingness to try the unexpected was what led them to peated casks, not the desire to create peaty whisky. Goren says that “wood management is a main issue at M&H, and from the beginning, we experienced every cask that we could ever find. That includes ex-Islay casks that aren’t in use in lots of distilleries”.
Szor, meanwhile, recalls a fortuitous coincidence, when he and master distiller Nick Franchino visited fellow Jim Swan-assisted distillery Penderyn in Wales. “They’d been nice enough to lend us some yeast so we wanted to bring them back a bag in person. They offered us a terrific welcome, complete with tour and tasting, and near the end they let us taste a whisky they’d made using peated quarter casks,” he explains.
Enjoying the taste, on the drive back the two wondered how the similarly fruity Cotswolds spirit would react. They bought just one quarter cask from Speyside Cooperage as a test and were satisfied enough with the results to scale up. “We called Speyside back and ordered two more casks,” Szor says. “And so it went for the next year or two, with us falling successively more for these great casks and increasing our orders”. It eventually became one of the four main cask types the distillery uses and Cotswolds Peated Cask was bottled to showcase this.
Procuring peaty casks
It might be a priority cask for them, but using peated whisky casks is not a practice with much precedence. Search ‘peat cask’ on our site and you’ll see the examples in our stock of whisky aged in peated casks are almost all recent creations from newer producers and that the market isn’t exactly full of options. Larger producers tend to do small, limited-edition runs, occasionally, if they dabble at all. It’s one of the main flavours in whisky, but the cask market is young. Compare your search today to what you would have found ten years ago, however, and you’ll also notice it’s thriving compared to then. The fact that there’s a market at all is a sign of progression. We’re at the beginning of something.
Despite being a recent trend, the good thing about the peated whisky cask supply is that it’s supported by a network of several huge distilleries that make peated whisky (usually on Islay), who are only too happy to sell casks that served their purpose. Goren says that peated casks are easy to find and that their suppliers have not informed M&H of any stock issues so far. He goes on to explain that diversity is huge as well. “Not only can you source casks from many peated-style distilleries, but also the casks inside every distillery have diversity and quality differences”.
Similarly, the Cotswolds has had no problem to date getting the amount it requires. “We typically use them only once and then resell them. I’ve no idea as to the number of different casks of this type on offer, as we’ve always used the same type which comes to us from a famous distillery on Islay whose name starts with an ‘L’ and does not belong to Diageo…” Szor says, presumably winking at the same time.
Is it cheating?
There are some who would dismiss the use of such casks, however, comparing it to cheating, reasoning that an ‘honest’ whisky flavoured with peat can only be one in which the barley was burnt with the magic mud. This just seems needlessly fussy and limiting to me and, as you can imagine, it’s not a position the distilleries we spoke to have much time for.
“I’d say the same thing I would say to those who similarly say that the use of STR casks is ‘cheating’ – which is ‘I just don’t get it’. Whose rules are we playing by here? Should it not be up to every whisky maker to make a product they think delivers great taste?” Szor says. “That is really all I care about, personally – if I don’t like a whisky I won’t put my name to it. I happen to adore this one – I think the peat plays a wonderful role in enhancing, and not overwhelming, our delicate malt. It provides the two things I treasure most in a whisky – depth of flavour and balance”.
For Goren, he doesn’t see a difference between using good bourbon or sherry casks to peated casks. “Every cask gives its unique flavours and I believe that if you use every cask in the proper way, you’ll get the result you want. At M&H we try not to let the casks overpower and cover all the notes and flavours from the base new-make, but to keep the distillery character in the whisky, with a nice addition of the casks flavours. At the bottom line, we want to sell M&H whisky, not an Islay whisky”.
Interacting with casks
What’s interesting about it being a fresh trend is that we’re discovering in real-time how this cask type interacts with various styles of whisky (and rum in some cases!). Kingsbarns Distillery is another that has experimented with the style (bottles to come soon hopefully, I’ve tasted samples and they’re great) and in a blog on its site, distillery manager Peter Holyrood explains that “You can take good spirit, put it into quality casks and be fairly confident that after a few years, the result will be decent whisky, but the interesting thing is that you never know exactly which aromas and tastes will come out at the end of the day when spirit and cask interact”.
At the Cotswolds Distillery, the distillers there have observed that peated casks impart flavour in a far more gentle way than peated barley, one that Szor describes as “a seasoning” rather than a primary flavour. He says they allow the character of the underlying distillate to shine through, driven mainly by the American oak refill bourbon staves from which the cask is made, and the peat playing a supporting role rather than starring one. As quarter casks are used there, there’s super-fast extraction and oxidation due to the higher surface-to-volume ratio which creates a whisky that Szor says is “extremely drinkable at near full strength – 59%, creamy and not hot”. He also notes that, interestingly, there is nearly no peat on the nose, so when you taste it you get a big surprise from a lovely smokiness that slowly spreads over the palate. “Like smoked vanilla ice cream, as one of our distillers once said. Absolutely lovely”.
For M&H, being in Tel Aviv, Israel means contending with drastic climate conditions which accelerate maturation. Combined with peat’s distinguished flavour, Goren says he can monitor huge differences even after a few days. He also explains that at M&H it acts differently, due to the different peat that has been in use at the Islay distilleries the casks are sourced from. He attains consistency and balance in Elements Peated by using both Islay casks filled with unpeated whisky, and bourbon casks filled with peated whisky. “The mix of two peat styles adds complexity and is very interesting”.
Tasting the whisky
All of this work would be nothing, however, if the whisky just didn’t taste very good. Happily, they do. I couldn’t say which is better because they’re two different beasts. Neither, despite using casks from Islay, have much of the iodine or coastal elements of those whiskies but instead, take a graceful layer of smoke. The Cotswolds whisky has a more pronounced peaty influence, with lots of that gorgeous fruit character being preserved. I got notes of smoked pear drops, toffee, chocolate, vanilla, and an earthy, mossy quality. M&H, meanwhile, soars with that lovely round and creamy and sweet texture its whisky has typically, with a measured sprinkle of smoky goodness joined by white fruit, vanilla-y oak, caramel and aromatic notes of citrus and spice. In both, the potential of the peated whisky cask is clear. This is a smoke signal the industry should not ignore. If you’ve got characterful spirit, and you’ll need it to work, then your options for maturation are increasing.
Goren thinks of Elements Peated as being a gateway for peated whiskies, describing it as “a good lightly peated whisky to start drinking peat, and it is peated just to the point I think a balanced peated whisky should be”. Szor also used the word ‘gateway’, saying his whisky is one that can guide non-peat lovers into the world of smoky whisky. Here we see further potential of this cask profile, and if peated casks are the first step on the road to enjoying the flavour peat brings, we can dig it.
He goes on to say that Cotswolds Peated Cask Single Malt Whisky is “a fantastic whisky, on a number of levels,” and that “it’s not overwhelming but rather gentle and pleasing”. He notes how popular it is with customers in France; where he spent much of his life and fell in love with whisky, and values their response. “They have very sophisticated palates and tend to appreciate things which are balanced and not overly caricatural. The number of people who came up to me at Whisky Live in Paris last September to tell me this was one of their favourite whiskies was truly phenomenal. I’m really glad we made that road trip to Penderyn!”