Turns out, there’s more than one way to achieve a smoky single malt Scotch whisky. As Coaltown Makes its debut, Kristiane Sherry explores how casks can influence perception of peat.

Hands up if you love smoky whisky? Whether it’s smouldering bonfire, medicinal iodine, heady kerosene, roadwork tar, or a more organic, almost muddy earthiness, there’s a surprisingly broad flavour spectrum to be found on the grubbier side of the tasting wheel. It’s a cohort of notes often met with fervent love or repulsion among whisky drinkers. And they’re notes that we typically associate with peated whisky.

Peated whiskies are produced right across Scotland, although historically the links have been strongest with Islay. All single malt starts life as barley – a grain that must be processed to make sure it’s in optimum condition for its starch and enzymes to be extracted for whisky making. This is what’s known as the malting process. Towards the end of it, those now half-sprouted kernels must be heated and dried. For unpeated whisky, a clean fuel is used. If the intention is to add in those smoke notes, those evocative phenols, then it’s peat that’s loaded into the kiln.

 Phenols are that group of flavour compounds that give off those distinctive aroma and taste notes. We in no way need to know them to enjoy peated whisky, but it is fun to appreciate where those smoky styles come from. Phenol gives that TCP, medicinal note, while the earthier character is down to Cresol. Guaiacol imparts a burnt sensation on the palate. There are loads more. A Google deep-dive is your friend if you want to get especially geeky in this area.

 Phenols are so powerful that they cling on the whole way through the whisky-making process, from mashing and fermentation to distilling and maturation. Smoky spirit is filled into casks just like its unpeated sibling. When it’s ready it’ll go off to be bottled. But what happens to those casks? Are those pervasive phenols still enduring there?



Cask maturation 101

The short answer is yes. The longer answer involves a toe-dip into the fundamentals of cask maturation to understand why.

Every time any liquid spends time in a cask an array of reactions happen. It seems magical, but there is solid science behind it all. And it’s all because casks ‘breathe’. One would hope they are watertight (occasional disasters attest that this isn’t always the case!), but, crucially, they are not airtight. This allows the liquid inside – in this case, our peated spirit – to seep in and out of the oak staves. The cask imparts colour and aroma directly from the wood. At the same time, aroma and flavour characteristics of the spirit are contained within the wood.

Think about the last time you sipped an ex-sherry cask-matured whisky. Or a dram from an ex-wine cask. Perhaps even an ex-Tequila barrel! The aroma and flavour of the previous contents have been drawn out by the whisky, and they have an undeniable influence on the character. Now imagine an unpeated whisky has been filled into ex-peated casks. That’s exactly the story behind Kingsbarns Coaltown.

Lowland distillery Kingsbarns is known for its light, fruity yet complex character. Think orchard and hedgerow fruits: sip the spirit and you’re met with a basket-load of berries, apples and pears, plus fresh malty notes. It’s a signature profile that’s all wrapped up in a mouth-coating creaminess. There’s no peat here at all. Until you put this fresh, intricate spirit into an ex-peated cask.


The art of the blender

 The results in Coaltown are a delight. It very much remains a fruit-laden whisky – that defining character isn’t going anywhere. But what you do get, especially on the palate, is a gentle earthiness along with an almost aromatic woodsmoke. It doesn’t dominate. The peat influence – entirely from the casks – is intricately woven through the spirit, like it was always there. Coaltown is a distinctly different Kingsbarns expression, but the family resemblance is unmistakable.

How has this been achieved? This is where the art of the blender comes in. No two casks are the same. Some are incredibly active – imparting and extracting all manner of aroma and flavour characteristics over a comparatively short amount of time. Others take a more relaxed approach. It could be years before they quietly add their own unique narrative. The Kingsbarns team monitored these peated casks for years, tracking which ones were offering profound smoke notes, and which sat back.

Then there’s the question of aroma and flavour. Remember all those different phenols? Each cask will offer their own singular character. Some lean earthy, others more tarry. The task at hand? To not only meticulously monitor and select the casks that would harmoniously layer together for the Coaltown profile, but to get the ratios of flavour and intensity consistently right over time, too.

Even single malts require the sensory expertise of a blender. It’s not a coincidence that Coaltown has been exactingly crafted by William and Isabella Wemyss, whose Wemyss Malts have released celebrated blended malts since 2005.

Peat comes in many forms. It can be wildly expressive and powerful, or subtle and sophisticated. It can tell a maritime story, an urban one, an earthy one, all through aroma and flavour. And it can come from the kiln or the cask. Kingsbarns Coaltown offers a fascinating insight into how maturation can impart an elegant smoky influence. It’s an exciting take on flavour creation from the Fife distillery.


Tasting Notes

Tasting notes: Coaltown Lowland Single Malt Scotch Whisky

N: The nose opens sweetly with icing sugar-dusted orchard fruits, lemon meringue pie and vanilla custard notes. Sweet spices emerge over time, along with dense shortbread and a very subtle distant bonfire smoke. With water there’s a summery fresh air, grassy note that envelops soft coconut and delicate florals.

P: The woodsmoke is much more pronounced on the palate but there’s a real elegance to it. It grounds the apple pie, pear cheesecake notes, rather than become overwhelming. It’s all underpinned by a very subtle earthiness. A splash of water brings out a refreshing green maltiness alongside the smoke.

F: Longer than perhaps expected as the smoke turns ashy and sweet liquorice notes linger on.

July 01, 2024 — Leigh Purves

Leave a comment

Please note: comments must be approved before they are published.