My current number one favorite, for now at least, is Ardbeg Corryvreckan. This is made by the Ardbeg distillery on the Isle of Islay. They are known for their peat monsters. To the uninitiated, we can talk a bit about making scotch. Single malt scotch is 100% barley, as opposed to corn, rye, wheat or barley in various combinations in America and Canada. The barley is doused with water and allowed to sprout just a bit. Then it is dried. This is where Islay gets its signature flavor. It’s much too damp to dry the barley without assistance. Given a lack of many tress, they use the most commonly available combustible materail peat.
Peat is a brown soil made up of decayed vegetation. It forms in areas of poor drainage or otherwise unusually wet conditions. The vegetation falls into the standing water and slowly decomposes. More plants grow atop this decaying matter and feed off the carbon dioxide released by the vegetation below. Layer upon layer develops over thousands of years to reach the depths found in peat-lands today. This soil can be cut and laid out to dry and later burned to provide heat and smoke.
The peat found in many parts of Islay allows the whisky distilleries to dry the malted barley and arrest the process of the seed turning to plant. This is enough to develop enzymes in the barley which will be used to convert starches into sugar for the yeasts to feed on. Along with this will be the phenols which come from the smoke of the burned peat used. These phenols, cresols, and other compounds will lend their part in shaping the aroma and taste of the whisky.
What can you expect to smell and taste if you get a glassful of an Islay whisky like Corryvreckan? I get smells of coal tar, band-aids, something akin to Listerine, pears, and depending on the alcohol by volume, smells from ethanol in general. What I taste can often be described as medicinal, or tarry, with a deep flavor of over-brewed espresso, menthol, and dark chocolate, with a nicely balanced sweetness. The finish lingers, with the ashy campfire smoke of Islays, as well as more tar and dark chocolate covered cherries, accompanied by a nice sweetness. Even though the abv is quite high at over 57%, the burn is scarcely noticeable. Adding water can bring even more scents and flavors out, though I mostly stick to drinking my scotch neat without water.
Do not expect to taste all these things, especially on the first time out. My first experience of it was a mess. I couldn’t differentiate a single thing. I couldn’t even tell what I was smelling, good or bad. My second and third experiences were much better. Then the bottle sat for a long time while I tried many other whiskys. Then I got bored and came back. What a difference! It was like I had never tried it before. I could taste so many things. It was wonderful. I had found a new favorite.
You may not smell or taste anything I listed. You may catch on to things I missed. If you smell or taste it, then that is what you smell and taste. But it is interesting that when someone else tells you what they experience, that you can suddenly realize you get that too; and that in turn can unlock more of the puzzle for you. It’s a matter of trial and error, and reading or asking about others’ experiences to see if they help you at all. If not, no worries. Even if you can smell and taste things that sound like they would be great, you may still hate the impression you get. Works very well in reverse too, obviously. Coal tar and disinfectant smells may not seem yummy, but they can be. Just a matter of having a spirit of adventure and seeing if it pleases you. But if you initially hate things like I often do in scotch, do not hesitate to try again another day. Your tastes may suddenly change for the better! Do not be scared scotchless!