* This column was originally published in the Knoxville News Sentinel.
If you’ve ever taken a long train ride into the Scottish Highlands, you know that you’re likely to see more sheep, inexplicably dotting steep mountainsides, than you are to see trees. These areas are often barren and limited in vegetation. Because of this, the long history of whisky making in Scotland has been singularly dictated by the source of fuel needed to toast the barley grains, which in turn created great malt whiskies.
Not to be denied the pleasurable warmth of a nice whisky, the great Scots relied on the burning of dried peat moss as a natural and cheap source of fuel in their whisky making process. The peat, in turn, produced toasted malts with smoky, earthy and musky notes that, out of necessity, became the trademark characteristic of Scottish whisky.
Eventually though, all of that began to change with the industrial revolution as alternative sources of fuel became accessible deep into the remote areas of northern Scotland and indeed many of the isles. With transportation facilitating the access to these sources, it also established a supply line for malts that weren’t as smoky or for that matter pre-disposed to peat at all.
Fast-forward to modern trends in making Scotch whisky and any purveyor can tell you that the new Scotches, hitting the store shelves, mostly seem to be avoiding that old-school peaty style. In fact, today’s new malt whiskies place more emphasis on what they’re aging their product in, namely unique and diverse barrels that once were homes to sherry, port, sauterne, madeira and just about anything else just shy of root beer.
Naturally, this new trend is designed to introduce more consumers to Scotch as these different casks greatly alter the final whisky into something less austere and more likely to be enjoyed en masse. If you want to get a sense of this newer, less peaty style, then the following four whiskies offer differing insight into today’s new Scotch.
Glenmorangie Nectar D’Or 12 year (glen-MORE-an-jee)
Aged in French Sauterne casks, Glenmorangie’s “Golden Nectar” creates a substantially sweater aroma, reminiscent of a traditional Irish whisky. A bouquet of orange peel and ginger ale compliments a honeyed finish and a Sauterne-inspired nuance of honeysuckle.
Balvenie DoubleWood 12 year (Bol-VAINNY)
As far as experimenting with new interpretations of Scotch whisky, the Balvenie Distillery is perhaps one of the original pioneers in this modern whisky movement. Its DoubleWood 12 year whisky sees aging time in both a whisky oak barrel as well as a sherry oak one. The result is a Speyside whisky with minimal peat influence that shows off caramelized brown sugar notes, warm vanilla aromas and a fluid, mellow mid-palate.
Bruichladdich Rocks (broo-kladdie)
The western Isle of Islay is known for making some of the peatiest, smokiest whiskies in all of Scotland. So, it’s a bit ironic that the Islay based Bruichladdich Distillery decided to produce this completely unpeated whisky. Bruichladdich Rocks has scents of warm cake and vanilla with just the faintest of medicinal finishes.
Glengoyne 10 year (glen-goin)
Since a very good Scottish-born friend recently recommended the Glengoyne 10 year, it’s the next whisky on my list to sample. Located halfway between the Eden-like Loch Lomond and the workingman’s capital of Glasgow, the Glengoyne Distillery produces an unpeated, 10-year whisky. And I can’t wait to try a not-so-wee dram of this insider information.