The smoky, peaty whiskies of Scotland invite cigar pairings
Simultaneously warming and austere, toasty but foreboding, heavily peated whiskies are considered by some to be the holy grail of Scotch. Many come from Islay (pronounced eye-lah), a west coast island that is blessed with peat bogs. Thousands of years of vegetal decay create a fuel that has traditionally been used to toast malted barley before it is fermented and distilled. The peat's alluring smoky flavor comes along for the ride. Also associated with Islay are the flavors of seaweed and salt, because so many of its distilleries are built on the shore. Yet heavily peated Scotches are not limited just to that island, nor are all Islays peaty.
Pairing cigar smoke with peat smoke may seem a no-brainer. Nevertheless, like flavors can create a conflict, especially when a cigar tastes of tart, seared wood. Like matchmaking for an old bachelor it's a delicate process, but when it works you strike gold. The best tack is to introduce flavors that contrast and complement the peat. Looking for suitable marriages we paired 11 of Scotland's smokiest malts with two fine, handmade cigars. The My Father No. 3 Crema, which scored 92 points in our Top 25 list of 2014, shows off rich raisin and fruitcake sweetness, along with hickory, butterscotch and almonds. The Romeo y Julieta 1875 Deluxe No. 1 scored 91 points in our last issue while displaying nutty and sweet nougat notes along with a sweet and spicy core.
Ardbeg—along with Lagavulin and Laphroaig—forms a triumvirate of 200-year-old Islay distilleries known for serious peat smoke. Uigeadail (oog-a-dal), named for a neighboring loch, is a no-age-statement melding of ex-Sherry cask malts with whisky matured in Bourbon barrels. Not chill filtered, it is designed to evoke the distillery's past. Smoke fairly pours to the nose, but calms on the palate to show the raisins from its Sherry treatment, as well as floral, honey and bread dough notes. The raisiny elements were a solid match for the My Father, promoting butterscotch and almond on the cigar. It was with the Romeo that Uigeadail had greatest effect. It teased rich woods, herbs, toffee and roasted nuts out of the cigar. The whisky's high proof can tend to overrun a cigar, so consider adding a few drops of water. (108.4 proof, $80)
Not among the smokiest of Islay malts, Bowmore, the island's oldest registered distillery, nevertheless
features much of its noted maritime flavors (especially in the whiskies matured in its sea-level shore-side No. 1 Vaults). Some of its malts aged in the neighborhood of four to five decades are legendary (such as Black Bowmore). The distillery also has created a number of whiskies with different wine-cask finishes in limited editions. Part of its core range is Bowmore 15 Darkest, a vatting with Sherry casks. We chose the 18-year-old for its complex mix of fruits, cocoa, toffee and subtle toast. The My Father became surprisingly mellow with the Scotch, even as peat arose on the cigar along with caramel and fruit. The Romeo, however, mellowed out the whisky's fruit, casting it as molasses, honey and graham cracker, while taking on some chocolate. (86 proof, $130)
After being shuttered for most of the 1990s, Bruichladdich (brook-laddie) reopened under the helm of former Bowmore master distiller Jim McEwan and his sense of innovation. As they sold old stocks he introduced new malts at very young age and even made gin. The distillery was an Islay anomaly in that it traditionally made unpeated Scotch, but McEwan's most ambitious effort was Octomore, a seven-year-old with a peat level three times its nearest rival and a scorching proof. The smoke arrives almost before you uncork it, but the remarkable thing is how balanced the whisky remains, providing ample fruit and candy even while you feel you're in a barbecue joint. Once past the peat, the My Father showed raisins, hickory and butterscotch. The Octomore's smoke proved too much for the Romeo, which made a silent partner. Consider adding water. (122.4 proof, $250)
Caol Ila 12
Because of its importance as a component in revered blends such as Johnnie Walker Black, Caol Ila (kool eela) has been a sleeper among Islay malts. Almost all of its production went to the blends, and it wasn't until the late 1980s that it became generally available as a single malt—to the delight of savvy buyers. It is among the subtler Islays in terms of smoke (and even creates a peatless expression). The first flush of the 12-year-old is fruity with cherries and ripe berries on the palate. The smoke hangs back and reveals itself with seaweed and salt air. Its maritime aspect popped with the My Father, and the cigar got very toasty. The Romeo seemed to turn the whisky's pear notes into roasted nuts, while the malt awakened some dormant sweetness on that cigar. (86 proof, $50)
Compass Box The Peat Monster
The Peat Monster is one of the outliers in our tasting. First, it isn't a traditional blended whiskey, nor a single-malt Scotch. It occupies a third category: a blend of malts (once called a vatted malt). Second it isn't exclusively from Islay. Its creator Compass Box, something of a whisky rebel, procured stocks from distillers both from Islay and the mainland (it's said to include Speyside's Ardmore) and melded a combination of bold and milder peated malts. The result is mercurial as it shifts from alluring toast to pungent smoke. Flavors flit from cinnamon and licorice to salt air, seaweed and iodine. The My Father's sweetness filled out the whisky, while the Monster's marine notes amped up the cigar's hickory. The Romeo pairing brought more spice and a hint of bread dough. (92 proof, $60)
Johnnie Walker Double Black
The volume of blended whiskies by far dominates Scotch production, and most contain some peat. Johnnie Walker is a leader in that category, which is different than a blended malt (see Peat Monster) in that it also contains grain whisky. The Double Black doubles down, combining plenty of peat with smoke. While the parent company—Diageo—owns Islay malts Caol Ila and Lagavulin, some of this 12-year-old's extra smoke also comes from extra charring of its casks. A little moody, the whisky swings from smoky to hard candy, with pears and tangerines and then to bread, maple and vanilla. The bread dough arose when paired with the My Father, which gives back fruit. The whisky took rock candy from the Romeo, which remains neutral. (80 proof, $42)
Not far north from Islay is the Isle of Jura. Also rich with peat bogs, it is home to only 200 people and but one distillery, named for the island itself. The facility was closed for half a century and when it reopened in 1962, what had been the maker of very peaty malts switched to a mellower Highland-style whisky, as that was what the blend market was demanding. Jura has since added peat bombs like this Prophecy, but still makes lighter whiskies appropriate to its tall stills. For all its relentless campfire nose, Prophecy delivers candied, fruity notes of tangerine and grapefruit, as well as eucalyptus. The My Father's raisin notes danced well with the candy of the whisky and the cigar becomes toastier. The Romeo took on a fuller body and imparts licorice and tarragon. (92 proof, $90)
Lagavulin (lag-ah-voo-lin) has just passed the bicentennial of its original license, but distilling has been going on at its seaside location for at least another half century. When it appeared as part of the Classic Malts collection in 1989 the standard 16-year-old was considered an oddity, too peaty to compete with light malts. Soon it was so popular, it went on allocation. The facility still struggles to make enough. Part of the problem is that the second distillation is done at extremely slow speed to strip out sulfur hints. Floral notes, hints of grape, tangy berries, citrus and eucalyptus coexist with a bonfire of maritime notes. The whisky blew open a much fuller body on the Romeo with leather and became spicy itself. It lent the My Father a good bit of smoke, while dampening its fruit. (86 proof, $90)
Laphroaig (la-froyg) Lore was created to celebrate the distillery's 200th birthday, while honoring its past distillers by melding styles attributable to each. This was done chiefly by using a variety of casks, including first-fill Bourbon barrels, the larger first-fill Sherry butts and the diminutive quarter casks. All were aged in Laphroaig's seaside dunnage warehouses. A nod is also given to its practice of floor malting. Laphroaig is one of a handful of distilleries that still sprout barley by spreading it on a floor with rakes before it gets its peat smoke. Peat, salt, seaweed and fusel oil are joined by a spectrum that includes graham cracker, toast, citrus, walnuts and berries. While the fruity charms of the My Father were largely blotted out by the whisky's smoke, the Laphroaig took on fruit and tang. Once again, the Romeo deepened demonstratively, adding leather notes. (96 proof, $125)
Port Ellen 32
Hard to fathom in this whisky boom, but decades ago distilleries were closing because of overproduction. That was the fate of Port Ellen in 1983. However, the Islay facility lives on as a maltster (a provider of smoked, malted barley for other Islay distillers), and because it owner, Diageo, creates much-prized special releases with its extant stores of whisky. This 32-year-old, filled in 1983, is a cask-strength malt aged in European oak butts, a three-decades-old Scotch with the elevated pricetag to go along with it. It belies the notion that long-lived Islays lose their pungency to the staves. While filled with honey, caramel, Christmas cake, cloves and toffee, it retains peat, salt air and seaweed. The latter qualities calmed before the My Father, which gave it a note of honey. The Romeo was more of a neutral partner, although it made a good backdrop for the Port Ellen parade. (107.8 proof, £2,400, or about $2,800)
Another off-Islay entry that is nonetheless peaty is Talisker, made on the Isle of Skye in a far north portion of the Inner Hebrides. On the shore, but flanked by mountains, it has multiple springs that supply the thirsty distillery with water. Once a triple-distilled spirit (more common in Ireland), it maintains three spirits stills for its second distillation. Robert Louis Stevenson declared it "king o' drinks." With its jammy sweetness, licorice, cinnamon, pepper and a hint of Stilton, you might concur. The raisin flavors of the My Father curled right up with the whisky's salty toast notes, while the Talisker drew a boost in its peat content. The mildness of the Romeo turned into a veritable smoke-a-thon, but also showed cherries and spice. (91.6 proof, $50)
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