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2019 saw Glasgow based bottler Douglas Laing & Co celebrate ten years of their popular Big Peat blended malt brand. It seems somewhat appropriate therefore that one of my last reviews of the year should focus on their latest ‘Christmas Edition’. Developed in 2009 by company chairman Fred Laing, Big Peat combines various single malts from Islay to create a new take on the island’s famously smoky whisky.
This distinctive character, so associated with Islay’s whisky comes from vast peat bogs that have been accumulating for more than 7,000 years. Much of the island’s landscape is blanketed by a particularly absorbent moss known as Sphagnum capillifolium. As the moss grows, lower layers become increasingly water logged. They get denser, more compact and are starved of oxygen until all that remains is a black, stringy mass known as peat. This can then be harvested (or cut), dried and used as a fuel source, with the top layers in particular releasing a particularly acrid smoke when burned. It is this smoke that infuses barley with its scent and flavour during the malting process.
Peat was used in the production of malt whisky on Islay not necessarily out of choice but out of convenience. It was the most readily available fuel on the island, and had long been used to light stoves and heat homes. Today of course alternative methods are available but would change the character of the spirit beyond all recognition so things continue to be done the old fashioned way.
Peat is a finite resource however that grows at just over a millimetre a year. With the Port Ellen maltings alone using some 2,000 tonnes per annum, it seems entirely likely that the black stuff will be in short supply at some point in the future. There are masses of peat elsewhere though – Canada and Siberia for example have some of the largest untapped reserves in the world but the peat there is composed of entirely different plant life and would therefore, produce a different aroma and taste.
Fortunately, it is estimated that there is around 5,000 years worth of peat currently on Islay, so there isn’t likely to be a shortfall any time soon and whisky connoisseurs across the world can rest assured that they will be able to enjoy their favourite smoky drams for a long time to come.
I first became aware of Big Peat in the early days of my whisky hobby but I confess to being a little dismissive of it at the time, put off by the cartoonish label that depicted a rugged, windswept Islay fisherman pulling the kind of face only a peated dram can provoke. At the time I was rather traditional in my views and my small experience had me accustomed to brands like Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Glenfiddich and I saw any modern design features as somehow inappropriate. Of course curiosity eventually got the better of me. I tasted a dram and was instantly converted. Suddenly I got where they were coming from. Even the label made sense. Big Peat was a new way of doing whisky and I loved it.
Ten years after its launch, the brand continues to enjoy huge success. The cask strength Christmas release has become an annual tradition with each version featuring Peat himself on the label, occupied with his trademark grumpiness in some kind of festive setting.
The 2019 Big Peat Christmas Edition comes bottled at 53.7% abv and retails for around £50 – £55.
*Full Disclosure: I was sent a sample of the Big Peat Christmas Edition 2019 by the fine folks at Douglas Laing so that I might share my thoughts with you. As always, I will strive to give an honest and impartial opinion on the inherent quality of the dram.
Smell: Trademark Big Peat smoke and brine on the nose. Liquorice. Charcoal. Lemon and white grapes. Smoky bacon. Caramelised sugar. Cracked black pepper. Some light cereal notes.
Taste: Big salty arrival quickly followed by the unmistakable tang of peat. Liquorice. Pepper and oak. Surprisingly palatable at 53.7% though a little one dimensional until water brings some fresh green fruits and a grassy note into play. Nice woody finish. There’s a definite youth to the spirit but it isn’t unpleasant and if anything, adds to the phenolic character.
Thoughts: Cask strength Islay for £50? Now there’s a Christmas cracker for you.
While this latest festive release from Islay’s favourite fictitious fisherman may not offer anything particularly new or unique, it is nevertheless a solid dram that supplies everything you could possibly want from a bottle of Big Peat. The higher strength successfully dials the flavour up a notch without blistering the palate with heat and the asking price remains within the realms of reason – something which can’t be said for many Islay whiskies these days.
I’ll be back on the 26th with another review before I end the year, as always, with my New Year Dram on the 30th. Until then allow me to say a very Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it and to everyone else, may your drams be exceptional regardless of the occasion.
For more on Big Peat or Douglas Laing visit here.