Saturday, September 8, 2007

How Peaty is Ben's Scotch?

Ben, you may recall, likes The Smokey Peaty One, one of the vatted malts from the Edrington Group-backed Easy Drinking Whisky Company. You may also recall that the blend for The Smokey Peaty One is as follows (quoted from an e-mail that Dave Robertson, at the time one of the principals in The Easy Drinking Whisky Company, sent to Kevin Erskine, proprietor of The Scotch Blog):
  • Caol Ila 5% refill casks - ex American oak bourbon barrels
  • Laphroaig 12% refill casks - ex American oak bourbon barrels
  • Bunnahabhain 17% American oak sherry
  • Bunnahabhain 9% refill casks - ex American oak bourbon barrels
  • Highland Park 26% Spanish Oak Sherry butts
  • Highland Park 14% American oak hogsheads
  • Ledaig 9% refill casks - ex American oak bourbon barrels
  • Bowmore 8% refill casks - ex American oak bourbon barrels
As an intellectual exercise, let's calculate the approximate parts per million phenols (the measure of a whisky's peatiness) that The Smokey Peaty One should have based on its constituent parts and then consider why that number may not tell the whole story.

Caol Ila, I believe, it typically peated to around 35 ppm phenols. Laphroaig is around 40 ppm phenols. Unless the Bunnahabhain was from one of that distillery's very rare peated runs, it should be around 2 ppm phenols. Highland Park, as I calculated last month, should be around 9 ppm phenols. Bowmore is around 25 ppm phenols. I have no idea what Ledaig is, but let's assume that it's around 30 ppm phenols. Sooo, the peat level of the finished blend is an easy calculation, given the assumptions that I've made:

ppm phenols (Smokey Peaty One) = 35*0.05 + 40*0.12 + 2*(0.17+0.09) + 9*(0.26+0.14) + 30*0.09 + 25*0.08

This works out to 15.37 ppm phenols. And yet, if I recall correctly, Ben's impression is that it's peatier than some other peaty Scotches that he's tried, in particular, Bowmore Legend, which clocks in at 25 ppm phenols. How can this be? Well, the first possibility is that my assumptions about the phenol content of the constituents of The Smokey Peaty One blend are incorrect. We know, for example, that Bunnahabhain has done runs of an uncharacteristic peaty whisky, and it's possible that some of that whisky is what EDWC used for this blend. Highland Park uses both peated and unpeated malt, and it's possible that they have distillation runs for those two malt varieties and that EDWC got the peaty one (or more of the peaty one than goes into the distillery bottlings of Highland Park). My guess about the peat levels of Ledaig could be off (although it would surprise me if it were higher than I guessed, and it's unlikely that it would make much difference in the final calculation, anyway).

The second possibility relates to the age and treatment of the constituent malts in the blend. The phenol levels that I quote are in the malt prior to mashing, fermentation, and distillation. The phenol levels in the new-make spirit will be significantly lower, and they will decrease with every day that the spirit remains in barrels. The taster's perception of peatiness will also be decreased if newer wood or sherry casks are used to age the spirit since those will introduce flavors and aromas that compete with the peat. There is a good percentage of sherry wood used for The Smokey Peaty One blend, but in all likelihood, the whisky is pretty young. Thus, it might be the case that it is significantly more peaty in character than the pre-distillation phenol levels of its constituent parts might indicate.

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