The poor man’s coal makes for smoky Scotch


I’m enjoying a lovely chilled glass of the Terra Di Seta, Meshi Toscana Rosato 2014 (Tuscany, Italy; $15). “Meshi” is Hebrew for “silk,” and sure enough this wonderful, dry, crisp, 100 percent sangiovese grape rosé is silky smooth, and also fresh and very easy to drink, with lots of strawberry, cherry, mixed melon and pink grapefruit notes, tantalizing, zippy acidity, a lovely mineral quality and an intriguing subtle bitter note on the finish that fades rather pleasantly back to fruit; yummy and refreshing.

However, my focus this week is rather dramatically different, though no less enjoyable, albeit in a decidedly different, darker and more brooding way. The folks at Moet Hennessy USA, the American wing of parent company LVMH or Moet Hennessy-Louis Vuitton S.A., have released the newest Scotch whisky in the “limited edition” range from the Ardbeg Distillery, on the Scottish Island of Islay (pronounced “eye-luh,” Gaelic for island), the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides.

The most popular characteristic feature of Islay malt whiskies like Ardbeg is the pronounced presence of peat smoke. Peat is compact, decayed vegetation, decomposed over thousands of years by water and partially carbonized by chemical change. Found in the cool, wet uplands and bogs that cover vast amounts of Scotland and Ireland, the vegetation becomes a super thick, rich mud, that can be usefully harvested. When dried, peat is a pungent fuel source, the traditional fuel for the kilns in which malt and barley will later be fermented and distilled into whisky. Think of peat as an earthy, smelly, poor  man’s coal.

The smoke generated by peat is robustly aromatic and tarry, transferring and imbuing these compounds (phenols) to the whisky itself, as determined by how heavily peat is used in the kilning of the malt. It is this peat smoke, or peat reek as it is commonly termed, which helps divide whisky drinkers into those who hate and those who love smoky whisky — there seems no middle ground among enthusiasts.

I’m a huge fan of Ardbeg, especially the standard lineup up of 10-year-old, Uigeadail and Corryvreckan. I also tend to enjoy these limited edition releases.

The last few of these limited editions have, however, been less than stellar. The last limited release Ardbeg I bothered to add to my own collection was the Ardbeg “Ardbog” release of 2013 — which I greatly enjoyed, but which received mixed reviews from my fellow whisky cognoscenti. The latest limited release is, thankfully, a real winner.

Ardbeg Dark Cove Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky (46.5 percent ABV; $125): this non-age statement whisky is a vatting of ex-bourbon and a lot of ex-sherry cask-matured whiskies resulting in a markedly sweet yet smoky nose of sweet and tart redcurrant, baked rhubarb, red apple, pear, raisin, cinnamon and sugar, and malted barley with a lovely inlay of campfire and peat, with flavors of malt, milk chocolate, a dash of powdered cayenne pepper, luscious sweet yet tart fruits, a touch of citrus, a light touch of caramel, and a distinct yet soft backdrop of smoldering oak wood smoke at the outset, that deepens markedly and wonderfully on the slightly peppery, faintly acrid, vaguely cocoa tinged finish. With time in the glass, the complexity grows as does the peat reek quotient — a splash of water helps release this as well. After 3-4 minutes in the glass, the smoke, peat and spice on the palate really sings like a proper Islay whisky, even if wrapped in a sweet fruit blanket. Not a typical Ardbeg nose or palate, but a recognizable and respectable relative. Overall, lovely, warming and hugely enjoyable. Give it time.  L’chaim! 

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