Peat: Calming and warming when used in a fire; Polarizing and idolizing when used to make whiskey. Long associated with famed Scotch whiskies, peated whiskies are making a comeback in Ireland. This review will focus on three different peated Irish whiskies: Connemara Turf Mor, Teeling BlackPitts, and W.D. O'Connell Bill Phil. While not quite a Peated whiskey For Dummies, this review is not intended for those intending on being buried on the island of Islay. This review is meant to familiarize with the previous and current state of peated whiskey within Ireland and ease Irish whiskey drinkers into this popular style.
Comeback is the correct term. Peat is not exclusive to Scotch. Many are aware of the Connemara brand from Cooley/Kilbeggan distillery which has been around for more than 20 years in different forms. Others like Locke's and Michael Collins provided other brand alternatives out of the same distillery. Why so few offerings? Two major factors were costs and marketing. Peat was a common fuel source in Ireland during the prior golden age of whiskey making, particularly in the north and western parts of the country. Cheaper fuel sources and shifting concentration of whiskey makers around Dublin made peat less attractive. Also, Irish companies made the concious choice to advertise "smoothness" and the anti-Scotch aspects of Irish whiskey. With peated Scotch whiskey gaining in popularity and/or notoriety, it was decided to promote the differences. As time went by perceptions took hold reinforcing Irish whiskey as being triple distilled, non-peated, and smooth to this day.
Peated whiskies faded from the Irish whiskey landscape during the struggles and ultimate consolidation into only a few distilleries. With the industry resurgence over the last decade it is not surprising that many of the in excess of 30 new distilleries are looking to differentiate with unique offerings and an ode to the past. Which brings us back to today. There are now numerous peated Irish whiskey offerings on the market and more being distilled and/or aged. The three chosen as part of this review represent different distilleries. If there is a main takeaway from this review it may be that peated whiskey is very nuanced and complex, requiring experimentation and second chances. Don't write off peated whiskey because of one bad experience with an Islay Scotch (too much) or Connemara (not enough like peated Scotch). The new entries into the marketplace look to offer a wide range of taste profiles worth exploring as part of your Irish whiskey drinking journey.
Before delving into the specific whiskies, let's talk about what Peat is, how it is used in whiskey making, and the characteristics it imparts. Peat is a fossil fuel made up of partially decomposed vegetable and organic matter over time. The "turf" is typically cut into bricks to be used for burning. In whiskey making, the peat bricks are used as the heating source to dry the malted barley during the germination phase. The smoke created embeds the barley with the flavors you associate with peat.
Ash, brine, smoke, iodine, medicinal, charcoal, saline are words often used in reaction to peated whiskies. These are often viewed as terms of endearment or divisiveness depending on your taste. Many factors during the whiskey making process impact which and how much of these flavor notes is revealed: 1) How long was the barley exposed to smoke?; 2) Was all the barley used exposed to smoke?; 3) What type of peat is used?; 4) Where is it from?; and 5) How old is the peat?
Despite the many things that can differentiate how a peated whiskey tastes, there is primarily only one descriptive method commonly used: PPM (Parts per million) which measures the phenol content of the barley before distilling and aging. This can be a very unreliable indicator of the ultimate nose and taste of the whiskey. Whether the whiskey is double or triple distilled, cask strength or cut to a low abv, and for how long it is aged are the ultimate determinants despite the original ppm. A whiskey with a listed 75 ppm could actually seem less "peaty" than one with a 25 ppm. Two whiskies with identical ppm could taste very different due to the previously mentioned factors. Much like the IPA craft beer craze which has led brewers to try to "out hop" each other with ever increasing hop levels, distillers have experimented with higher and higher PPM (>250 like the Octomore brand).
One final distinction worth mentioning is smoky vs. peaty. There is a difference. You may like smoke but not peat. Non-peated whiskies can smell/taste smoky if the barrel used was heavily charred or toasted. Also, other fuel sources could be used to heat and generate smoke other than peat. In other words, all peated whiskies are probably smoky but not all smoky whiskies are peated.
The three Irish peated whiskies reviewed here offer something different for aficionados and newbies alike. None of the three overwhelm, instead offering a nice balance of oak, sweetness, and spice with peat complimenting. They are all non-aged statement (NAS) offerings that skew younger. Don't let that fool you. There is complexity with each that belies there youthfulness. Let's explore what makes them different.
Turf Mor means more peat and is one of several within the Connemara range of peated Irish whiskies from Kilbeggan and the Cooley Distillery. The Connemara region is located in the western part of Ireland and known as traditionally Irish and gaelic speaking. The Connemara brand can be identified by its green bottles which are an ode to the famous marble found in the region. The range consists of the standard NAS single malt, a NAS cask strength single malt, a 12 year single malt, a 22 year old single malt, and Turf Mor.
Turf Mor has a ppm ~50 reportedly making it relatively high. Coming from Kilbeggan/Cooley, it is double distilled which means more of the peat notes remain vs. a triple distilled whiskey. Despite its name, Turf Mor is nicely balanced with a medium to long finish. The nose is subtle. Fruit and nutty aromas co-exist with mild peat. (My opinion is also biased by having drank super heavily peated Islay whiskies) The peated barley is sourced from Scotland. It should be noted that this is the current iteration of the Turf Mor brand. Originally, this was a cask strength, 3yr old single malt offered as a travel exclusive before the current version which is likely harder to find than the other offerings within the range.
BlackPitts is the latest release from the Teeling Distillery. It is named after the area within the Liberties section of Dublin near the distillery. Released in late 2020, the peated malt used is sourced from Speyside in Scotland. Originally at 55 ppm, the triple distillation reduced the final liquid to only an estimated 15 ppm demonstrating how reported phenol levels are not always indicative of final peat influence. I do not find this to be a "peat forward" whiskey. Only subtle hints maybe on the nose of peat with the sweet, fruity character from the Sauternes cask aging ever present. This is a light peat profile. Peat definitely plays a suporting role more in the taste than nose. Teeling had previously won best Single Malt with their 24 year old aged in Sauternes casks so this was a good way to introduce a peated expression and show how it can add to an already desired flavor profiile. This is recommended particularly for those who have never tried a peated whiskey. The subtleness and lighter character can allow you to warm up to the peat character before maybe moving on to bigger, bolder expressions. This became available in the USA starting in early 2021.
The third peated whiskey of the trio is the Bill Phil offering from independent bottler W.D. O'Connell Whiskey Merchants. The whiskey name is in reference to the nickname derived from William Philip O'Connell to avoid confusion from the numerous O'Connell families of the time. This initial release in early 2020 was limited to only 600 bottles at 47.5% abv. This was a big hit at Whiskey Live Dublin in November 2019 and one of my favorites from the event. The whiskey is sourced from Great Northern Distillery, the operation started by John Teeling a few years ago after he sold the Cooley Distillery to Beam Inc.
There is nothing faint about the Bill Phil. Peat is definitely present on the nose, more so than the other two brands. The taste backs up the nose with again peat prominently playing a role but not overpowering. There is a creamy, oilyness with fruit flavors balanced with the smokiness throughout this three and half year old single malt. (As an aside, I have tried several new, young offerings from Great Northern that I would have thought were much older based on their quality.) The plan is to continue with limited releases of the Bill Phil with each one representing a little older offering from existing stock being aged.
These three Irish whiskies come from different distilleries and all represent the peated single malt category well. With Great Northern supplying peated whiskey stock to many of the new distilleries, there will be continue to be new releases of peated expressions and not limited to single malts. However, Teeling and others will also be releasing their own distilled peated whiskey which will offer variety. Current brands Dark Silkie, Three Stacks, and Dunvilles Three Crowns are all blended Irish whiskies with varying peat components. In the case of Killowen, one of their recent releases utilized liquid from their core expression but finished in a former Islay peated cask. This shows the range of how peat can be used to influence whiskey as it does not have to come from the original barley. What else can we expect? Maybe a future release made from Irish peat?
I encourage Irish whiskey drinkers to give these and other newer peated offerings a try whether you are already a huge fan of the style or not. Who knows? You just might become a convert and find yourself re-PEATING the recommendation to friends.