Distillery: The Balvenie
Age: 14 years old
We all know the Balvenie as the quintessential Speyside malt. The typical flavours of honey, toffee and ripe fruit are as welcoming as a cherished friend. But now this gentle friend has developed an unexpected mean streak, with the introduction of Balvenie Peat Week.
Sure enough, Balvenie has dabbled in peat before, so what’s different this time around? Well, bottlings such as the 17 year old Peated Cask or the somewhat younger Peated Triple Cask rely on maturation to obtain its smoky flavours. Stored in casks that previously held Islay whisky, the spirit takes on some of the peaty characteristics, much like port or sherry casks impart sweet flavours to a whisky. Balvenie Peat Week doesn’t deal in second-hand peat though… quite the contrary! Using one of the last operating floor malting kilns in Scotland, Balvenie dries its barley over a mixture of peat and anthracite, achieving a heavily peated malt. For those who care about it: Peat Week weighs in at 30 ppm, so we’re talking Caol Ila levels of peat here!
But there’s a twist… with peat essentially being semi-decomposed plant matter, the vegetation type has a big impact. With coastal areas being much richer in seaweed, peated Island whiskies tend to have a medicinal, maritime character. Speyside peat on the other hand is rich in heather and moss, resulting in a much sweeter, more gentle type of peat. As minor as these differences may seem, they show up in a big way in Peat Week’s flavour profile.
A small note on packaging. I noticed that Balvenie just released their Stories range, which includes a bottling called The Week of Peat. With the same tasting notes and alcohol percentage, we can rest assured that the same whisky was used, and the change was only made for marketing purposes. We’ll see how Peat Week will be branded going forward, but with over 13 years worth of Peat Weeks now resting in Balvenie’s warehouses, it seems a sure thing that peated Balvenie will be around for some time yet. I’m mighty glad about it!
Colour: Sparkling nectar
Nose: Undeniably smoky, but with a profound sweetness. Balvenie’s heather honey is still there, except now it’s been set ablaze. Barbecued meat gives way to earthier aromas of pine smoke, much like a Lapsang Souchong. Underneath, there’s some zesty orange peel, fused with vanilla custard.
Palate: There are some incredibly long legs on the glass, betraying this Balvenie’s oily character. An almost cloying sweetness is replaced by an immediate warm, smoky rush, like being tossed headlong into a bonfire. Intense wood smoke is accompanied by a dash of white pepper and chillies, further turning up the heat. With grilled meat instead of smoked fish and hemp rope rather than kelp, it’s astonishing what a difference peat composition can make. Brilliant, refreshing stuff from Balvenie!
Finish: Long and satisfying, with a tarry aftertaste that lingers on an on. Peat Week is like someone dripped honey over a heather shrub, set it on fire and then bottled it. Fantastic!
Verdict: There’s no denying this Balvenie is a peat monster, but it’s very different to the Islay heavy hitters that usually bear this label. Since Peat Week is a Speyside whisky, I was expecting the usual, somewhat half-hearted application of peat, but that’s certainly not the case here! The decision to bottle at an elevated alcohol percentage also adds to the intensity. Even so, this Balvenie is gentler, more accessible than some of its Island cousins. Extremely peaty but not medicinal, I’m not really sure what to compare Peat Week with. It’s a unique whisky that I just can’t get enough of, a masterstroke by Balvenie’s David Stewart!
To drive down the price, it would be great if Balvenie introduced a Peat Month. And going by the quality of this whisky, would it be crazy to consider a more permanent peated range, in addition to Balvenie’s gentler expressions..?