The Scotch Review: Benromach Contrasts Peat Smoke, Port Charlotte Heavily Peated & The Octave Bunnahabhain

We have a trifecta of peated single malt Scotch in this review. These three bottles were the subject of the critical gaze of the unofficial Causeway/Inishowen whiskey club. After an overwhelmingly positive response to a Bruichladdich Octomore offering in one of our blind tastings I though further delving into the world of 'heavily peated' drams was in order for everyone.

While it's generally assumed that heavily peated whiskies are the sole preserve of Islay, lashings of peaty goodness are indeed found elsewhere not only in Scotland but also here in Ireland. Hinch Peated, W D O'Connell's Bill Phil and even Teeling's Black Pitts all use heavily peated barley. How that translates in flavour compared to the more commonly thought of Scotch brands such as Laphroaig or Ardbeg comes down to the fact that the aforementioned Irish drams are all triple distilled compared to the double distillation of the Scotches. And quite a difference it makes on the final product.

So how do we classify heavily peated? Well lightly peated malt will have phenols of 10 -15 parts per million (ppm) and would likely transfer phenol levels of 2 - 5 ppm to the final distilled spirit. A medium peat level would be phenols of 20 - 30 ppm with around 8 - 15 ppm being transferred to the spirit. Heavily peated is from 35 ppm upwards. Generally phenol levels imparted to the spirit can run between 25 - 50 ppm.

In a diversion away from Islay the first dram we are looking at is from the Speyside distillery of Benromach. The expression is the Contrasts Peat Smoke. This is a small batch whisky made using barley malted with high levels of peat smoke achieving a phenol level of 55 ppm in the barley. There are two versions of the Contrasts Peat Smoke. The first is exclusively matured in first fill bourbon barrels. The second expression, the one we are looking at today, is the Sherry version which has been fully matured in first fill sherry hogsheads.

It was distilled in 2012 and was bottled in 2021 at a strength of 46% abv. It is natural colour and non-chill filtered. It was priced at £47.

For the next two bottles we return to the 'peat monsters' spiritual home, Islay. 

Dram 2 is the Port Charlotte Heavily Peated 10 year old. Port Charlotte is the heavily peated range from Bruichladdich with all the expressions using barley peated to a phenol level of 40ppm. The 10 year old is the core expression of the range. There are also the Islay Barley expressions that use barley from one of seven local Islay farmers and are distilled, matured and bottled on Islay.

The 10 year old uses 65% first fill American whisky casks, 10% second fill American whisky casks and 25% second fill French wine casks. It's bottled at 50% abv and again is natural colour and non chill filtered. This bottle cost £52.50

Dram 3 is an independently bottled peated Bunnahabhain from The Octave by Duncan Taylor. There is no phenol level mentioned on any of the marketing but as Bunna's are normally unpeated it's always fun to try one that is peated.

This was distilled in 2014 and bottled in 2021 at an age of 7 years. It spent the last 6 months of maturation in a sherry octave to try and impart some sherry flavour a little more forcefully. It's bottled at 54.4% abv and again is natural colour and non-chill filtered. It cost £64.00

All three bottles were purchased from Tyndrum Whisky.

Benromach Contrasts Peat Smoke

Nose: Quite a smoky punch to this with sweet sherry underneath the smoke. Golden syrup, raisins, orange peel and black tea leaves. Woody with a creosote note and some furniture polish. Leather, tobacco leaf and smoked paprika.

Palate: The smoke is a little less prominent on the palate showing a decent amount of integration with the sherry notes. Toffee apples and some milk chocolate. The smoke then builds alongside some ginger and peppery spice. There's a definite hint of barbecued meat, charcoal and a flinty note. Some smoked salt too.

Finish: Short to medium with a lot of ash, smoked citrus and black coffee.

Score: 6 out of 10

Port Charlotte 10 Heavily Peated

Nose: A restrained nose this. There is peat there but surprisingly delicate considering the 'heavily peated' nom de plume. Sweet icing sugar with a mild medicinal note. Salted lemons, wet ropes, vanilla custard and tinned pineapples. Green apples, stem ginger and a faint aroma of charred meat.

Palate: This has good texture to it no doubt aided by the healthy abv. Icing sugar then olive oil and sliced lemons, butter pastries, vanilla and chamomile tea. Salted pretzels now. The ashiness builds with each sip alongside spry ginger and prickly white pepper. A nuttiness is evident too. Some tropical fruit appears towards the end.

Finish: Medium length with grilled pineapples, lemon peel and sweet peat.

Score: 7 out of 10

The Octave Bunnahabhain 2014/2021

Nose: Gentle for the abv. Sweet peat and honey glazed gammon. Toffee apple, cocoa powder, toasted hazelnuts and an oily rag. Some salinity with some polish. Water brough out a playdough note and tobacco.

Palate: Very sweet upfront - loads of vanilla, toffee and dried dark fruit. Citrus peel before a waft of sweet peat smoke. Pepper and anise. Water brought out dark chocolate and ginger but the texture suffered.

Finish: Quite short with the smokiness disappearing rather fast leaving pepper and alcohol heat.

Score: 5 out of 10

Overall: As always a bit of a mixed bag. Starting with the Benromach, this is a solid dram for the money. It's enjoyable enough to sip on but probably not one for a special occasion. While there was an element of the character of the original 10 year old this expression is very much about the peat and sherry. Maybe one day I'll look out for the bourbon cask expression and see how it fares.

The pick of the bunch was definitely the Port Charlotte. Good value, a decent level of complexity and actually very moreish. This is definitely one I'd buy again.

The Bunnahabhain from The Octave was probably the one I was most excited about prior to opening but ultimately was a little bit of a let down. It's very much a one trick pony of sweet sherry and sweet peat with the short finish maybe underlying the fact that a bit more time maturing was needed. Not a bad dram, just average but still drinkable.

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