Is there a place for peat in Kingsbarns? This is a question that I’ve heard a good number of times over the years, whether by folk visiting the distillery in which the spirit itself is made or out at whisky tastings and festivals. It’s a good question…a lot of people like smoke in their whisky! To be honest with you, I’m one of them. A peated dram certainly has its moments and I can think of nothing better than having a robust Islay beefcake of a whisky after a good meal with friends or later in the evening by the fire. But a full throated, powerfully peaty punch really is the antithesis of what Kingsbarns is as a whisky.
We are a young distillery, yes… But I believe we have so far established our own wee unique style. In other words, there are certain aromas and flavours that I think you can pick up in most of our bottlings so far. That is an important aspect, especially as a distillery that’s only 7 or 8 years old. To make sure there is a “House Style” as they say in the industry. In a nutshell, Kingsbarns is a light, elegant fruity and floral spirit. For that reason, we’ve always been wary of putting any peated malted barley through the actual distillery as when it would come to swapping back to unpeated malt and making the “regular” Kingsbarns spirit again it would take a long time to get that smoky taint out of the production equipment. And when the team has worked so hard to build a spirit quality with some finesse and then keep it consistent, it would seem like madness to risk bringing a peat sledgehammer down on the distillery DNA by sending some smoky malt to the mill.
But there is another way! And that is through cask influence and maturation. We purchased some empty barrels that had previously held heavily peated whisky from Islay and filled Kingsbarns New Make spirit into them. To be absolutely honest it was a bit of an experiment. Would the smoky character come through in the mature whisky at all? Or would the peat from the cask come bounding in like an over excited Labrador and trample our gentle fruity spirit completely? I recall once of the first times we received a load of these empty ex-peated barrels here at the distillery and the moment the doors of the lorry were opened there was a blast of peat fragrance emanating from the trailer, so it was clear to us even back then that the casks were fairly punchy from their previous life! Its just a question of what would happen during the magic of maturation.
Its always fascinating to see how the wood will turn whisky around. You can take good spirit, put it into quality casks and be fairly confident that after a few years the result will be decent whisky, but the interesting thing is that you never know exactly aromas and tastes will come out at the end of the day when spirit and cask interact. For Kingsbarns aged in ex-peated casks, in terms of flavour initially you pick up the sweet, fruit laden distillery character coming through on the nose and taste, but there is a beautiful, soft thread of smoke which has been weaved into the mix too. There is a balance to the liquid between the sweet spirit and the light touch of peat. Slightly menthol and with some salt in the finish. Its whisky with some complexity to it and that’s what makes these casks exciting.
So, is there a place for a bit of smoke in Kingsbarns… For me at least its a resounding yes!
WRITTEN BY PETER HOLROYD