Lucky Number 10: Why Peated Whisky is Young Whisky

Think of the most iconic peated whiskies. Apart from their connection to the islands off the west coast of Scotland, you’ll find that they tend to have something else in common: youth.

Laphroaig 10. Ardbeg 10. Port Charlotte 10. Talisker 10. Further afield we find lightly peated classics like Highland Park 10 and our very own Three Ships 10. That’s a lot of tens.

And when it comes to non-age-stated whiskies – where youth is presumed – we have peated masterpieces from the likes of Kilchoman, Paul John Peated, Laphroaig Quarter Cask, GlenDronach Peated, a slew of Ardbegs (An Oa, Uigeadail, Corryvreckan)  and Taliskers (57 North, Storm, Dark Storm, Skye). Not to mention almost every big-name peaty blend such as The Peat Monster, Big Peat and Rock Oyster.

Finally, even the infamous Octomores – the most heavily peated Scotch whiskies produced in our corner of the Milky Way – rarely carry even 10-year age statements, with standard bottlings instead hovering around the 5-year mark.

Whew.

So why is it that older age-stated, peat-forward whiskies seem so rare in an industry filled to the brim with 12, 15, 18 and 21-year-old expressions as standard? Apart from the two big exceptions – Caol Ila 12 and Lagavulin 16 – it seems the moment you go north of 10 years, you’re going to be paying crazy cash for the privilege.

The answer, as is so often the case, seems to be one of economics – and producing peated malt is not cheap.

The price of peat

Modern malting uses heating elements and hot air, a process that is affordable, quick and can be done at scale. By comparison, traditional peat-fired ovens are slow, require specific expertise and are limited in capacity. Along with having to source and harvest the peat, investing in this method inevitably means slower production, smaller volumes, and higher cost.

Now imagine a distillery has gone to the time and effort to peat their barley, or paid extra to purchase some ready-peated. Naturally, they’d want to ensure that the smoke embedded in the cereal actually finds its way into their resulting malt or blend. They’d take careful steps to ensure the subsequent processes – from mashing to fermentation to distillation and maturation – were done in such a way as to preserve that flavour all the way into the bottle.  Otherwise, what would be the point?

Maturation – great for whisky, risky for peat

Hot off the still, the peated distillate is as peaty as it will ever be. But once it goes into oak casks, the peat slowly dissipates as the effect of the wood starts to take over.

So we have a tricky tradeoff where the maturation process that imbues Scotch with the vast majority of its flavour (and prestige) is the same process that reduces the overall effect of the peat smoke locked in the original malted barley. The longer a malt ages, the more the peat influence is dialled down.

And so it’s far more common to see older whisky be less peated by default. Firstly, if a distillery is specifically making an older whisky, then why bother using heavily peated barley when its effect will be so heavily reduced?

Secondly, casks are regularly tested during maturation. If a cask of peaty whisky was coming dangerously close to having its peat drop to pointless levels, there’s no doubt it would be emptied and either married, blended or bottled. As such, peated whisky often just doesn’t get as much time to mature before it is liberated.

All this adds up to a tough choice for single malt distilleries. Sell a nice, marketable bottle of old, age-stated whisky, and sacrifice some of the peat they paid so dearly for… or release rich, peaty drams with decidedly less sexy numbers on the bottle.

The economics have the final say: We want our peated whisky young, but not so young that we scare away the age-statement obsessed. And the lowest age-statement you can declare and still remain somewhat desirable is 10… so for now, 10 seems to be the magic number!