If I may share a story from my book, The GreatDrams of Scotland; “myself and several other whisky writers were invited to a blind tasting of six single cask whiskies by The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) a couple of years back. We all went through the evening at the same pace and drinking them in the same order, no variables whatsoever. Two whiskies were in their 30s, two were in their 20s, two were sub-ten years old, but we did not know that at the time. At the end of the evening we all had to submit our favourites and a single cask whisky aged nine years won the bulk of the votes. Humbling and a welcome reminder for all involved that age is but a number, it is how you enjoy the whisky that matters”.
This is especially true of peated whiskies in my experience.
As peated whisky matures, the peat influence diminishes gradually as the oak influence increases gradually, so the irony in that sub-category of whisky is that the younger peated whiskies will give you a more flavoursome, and powerful peat influence.
So why is this the case?
Because of the above, I personally like to drink younger peated whiskies as it allows me to experience the nuances the distiller has managed to create in their spirit during their honed, or experimental, fermentation and distillation process and the balance of the peat before the wood starts to grow in influence.
Take Octomore for example, the meaty, peaty power is retained as the spirit the brand bottles is younger than most other peated whiskies in the market (or at least younger than those with declared ages, but that’s an article for another time).
This younger spirit is still holding onto those peat phenols and more of the ingredients’ flavour whilst simultaneously fighting the oaky takeover that comes with age, meaning the whiskies bottled in the Octomore range are monsters, especially as they are bottled at relatively high ABVs and packaged in heavy black or frosted glass bottles that themselves look quite menacing at first glance.
And it works.
For peated whiskies to work at this age the distillers producing it must invest in the highest quality of ingredients – especially the wood as this will be the part in the whisky creation process that has the most impact on flavour, and has all the impact on colour as when fresh spirit goes into the cask it is crystal clear.
Originally created to see if something like this would be possible, the Octomore super-heavily peated single malt whisky range – described by the brand as an “iron fist in the velvet glove” – is a tough one for some whisky folk to get into, a flag to wave for some and a natural ’next step’ for others. It really is a whisky to spend time with and to persevere with in order to fully understand it, as once you do you will see and experience the softer side to it too.
Is there an ideal age for a single malt?
I don’t think so, but I think the exploration of younger ages as well as older ages is going to grow in popularity when you get to experience the uniqueness of drams such as Octomore.
This is especially true as lower ages becomes the norm and we as a collective stop raising an eyebrow when seeing a single malt Scotch whisky with an age statement in single digits as new distilleries releasing their first mature spirit the second it hits 3 Years Old.
So go forth; rise to the challenge, experience the power and proudly master the Octomore, the untameable beast from the peaceful and serene island of Islay.