Saturday, January 10, 2015

Big Peat, Christmas Edition

stats: Blended Malt Scotch Whisky, Islay, 57.8%, $70

I’ve never really been a strong proponent of saving certain bottles of whisky for special occasions. I’m even likely to open a rare or expensive bottle for no reason other than the fact that the mood to do so has struck me. That being said, there are a few nights of the year, my birthday and New Years Eve chief among them, when I like to nip into something special, whether it was previously unopened or a bottle on which I’ve already cracked the seal.

After a long night at the office on the last evening of 2014 I was ready to sip on something a bit aggressive. The bottle of Big Peat that I’d been saving for just over a year was exactly what I was looking for.

Big Peat is a Blended Malt Scotch Whisky; that is a marriage of two or more Single Malt Scotches without the addition of any Scottish grain whisky. That addition would make it a Blended Scotch Whisky. Blended Malt is a category which historically was called Pure Malt or Vatted Malt. The shift in terminology became a legal requirement in 2009 and I discussed the reasons for this in my Johnnie Walker Green post. Additionally, all of the Single Malts in Big Peat were distilled on Islay.

Conceived in May of 2009 and launched the following November, Big Peat is produced by Douglas Laing, a Glasgow based independent bottler of Scotch whisky which was established in 1948. Being a Blended Malt makes it a bit unusual, but not completely unique. Other examples of the style include Sheep Dip and Monkey Shoulder. Of course there is also Walker Green, but a 2012 revamp of the Johnnie Walker lineup saw the Green label go into very limited production with distribution restricted to the Taiwanese market, where Blended Malts are especially popular.

There are two things that set Big Peat apart though. The first is the label. The bold, cartoonish image of the Big Peat character, seemingly taking a slap across the face from the bracing, pungent, peaty flavors of the whisky is quite a departure from the norm of Scotch Whisky labeling. The design of Scotch labels is usually steeped in tradition and best described as conservative and old-school. This break from established practice, clearly meant to appeal to a younger audience, is also exemplified by comic-like labels on the independent bottlings of That Boutique-y Whisky Company, which first came to market late in 2012.

I have mixed emotions about this new trend in labeling. Part of me really likes the traditional style and the respect it pays to centuries of distilling heritage. Another part of me finds the new style of labels to be refreshingly amusing and light hearted.

The other thing that makes Big Peat stand out is that its component distilleries are named on the label. While this is done almost universally for Single Malts, it is the exception rather than the rule for Blended Malts. Walker Green does name four distilleries on its box (rather than its label), but there are 11 others in the mix that go unnamed. The label of Big Peat proudly proclaims that is contains whiskies from Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bowmore and Port Ellen. Since they are not listed in alphabetical order, I’m assuming that they are listed in order of decreasing quantity.

Looking on their website, they do mention that Big Peat contains a few other peated Islay single malts that are not named. While Laphroaig and Lagavulin seem like the obvious answers, it’s entirely possible that there could be some Kilchoman or some peated Bruichladdich in the mix. Kilchoman, Islay’s newest distillery, started production at the end of 2005. It seems logical that they would have been in a position to sell some new make spirit to an independent bottler to generate much needed revenue in their early days. Bruichladdich, which was restarted by new owners in 2001 after an eight year closure, would also have benefited from raising much needed funds by selling un-aged whisky to an independent bottler. Since these distilleries were trying to build and rebuild their respective images, it makes sense that they would sell off some whisky to Douglas Laing on the condition that it be used without being named.

And then there is Port Ellen, the Islay distillery that was shuttered for good in 1983, and whose whisky now has a cult-like following, not to mention skyrocketing prices. At first glance it seems odd that such a valuable commodity would be vatted into Big Peat. But in the years leading up to its closing, all of the whisky made at Port Ellen was destined for blending. Chances are good that much of it ended up in casks of marginal quality. Douglas Laing is said to have substantial stocks of Port Ellen whisky. I’m sure they bottle anything that can stand on it’s own as single malt. The whisky from the questionable casks, if used in small amounts will probably add a bit to the complexity of Big Peat without being noticeably detrimental. But its big contribution is really lending its name to the label.

Let’s look at it from a financial perspective. The Big Peat website states that a typical batch is about 5000 barrels. Let’s say there is one bourbon barrel of Port Ellen in the vatting. A 200 liter barrel would have 111 liters left after aging for 31 years (assuming 3% annual evaporation). With 5000 bottles at 700ml each, it would represent 3.2% of the total composition. I’m really venturing into speculation here, but let’s say having the Port Ellen name on the labels allows them to bump the price 10%. It typically retails for $55, but might otherwise only command $50. A $5 price increase across 5000 bottles comes to $25,000 (I know, those are retail prices and I’m ignoring markups in the distribution chain, but I’m trying to keep it simple). If that one barrel of Port Ellen had been bottled as single malt, 111 liters would yield 158 bottles (at 700ml). To generate $25,000, they would have to be priced at just about $158 per bottle. While that’s a very reasonable price for Port Ellen these days, if the whisky wasn’t good enough to stand on its own then bottling it as single malt would only hurt Douglas Laing in the long run.

The standard Big Peat is bottled at 46% abv, non-chill filtered and with natural color. Each year since 2011 they have bottled one batch at cask strength and released is late in the year as the Christmas Edition. These annual releases have unique labels which are holiday themed variants of the original. Their bottling strengths have been 57.8% (2011), 53.6% (2012), 54.9% (2013) and 55.7% (2014). There was also a very limited run of just 250 bottles (500ml) at 50% abv released in 2013. The bottle I have is actually the original Christmas Edition from 2011.

color – Pale straw. The color makes me assume that it is composed entirely from bourbon barrels, likely with few first-fill barrels in the mix.
nose – Sharp, with a good dose of alcohol, but plenty of peat to balance it out. It has notes of brine and fish nets with uplifting peat aromas that are floral and grassy.
palate – Medium bodied, it is more weighty in the mouth than the light color would lead one to expect. The attack is rapid and aggressive. It’s a little malty with a touch of sea spray right up front but that quality is quickly overwhelmed. Some peat smoke is evident from the start, but it bides its time as the grassy floral notes come to the fore on the mid palate
finish – As it moves into the finish, the peaty character begins to dominate. It builds and evolves with campfire, burning wet leaves, ash and soot. When the smoke and fire finally die down late in the finish, some of the grassy notes reemerge. The smoldering finish takes quite some time to fully abate.
overall – The complexity is nice, but it’s the evolution of flavors that has really impressed me here. Everything is bracingly tied together by a backbone of alcohol as it moves from start to finish, which is perfectly personified by the caricature on the label.

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