Independent bottler Douglas Laing has been weathering the dry years (decades?) of the single-malt boom by making its name on blended malt whiskies such as Timorous Beastie, Rock Island, and Big Peat. The bottler still puts out excellent casks of single malt under its Old Particular label, and I have been very pleasantly surprised by the value offered by some of them. That said, it’s a dry time for independent bottlers because there is so little “extra” scotch lying around in warehouses for them to snap up, resulting in a corresponding drop in quality (or, more commonly, a drastic rise in price) across the whole independent market. Some bottlers, like Gordon and MacPhail, have decided to stop trying to beat them and joined them via the purchase of a distillery (Benromach), while others such as Douglas’s brother Hunter Laing have gone a different route and started building a distillery (Ardnahoe) to stay in the game. In fact, Douglas Laing is also building a distillery in Glasgow called Clutha which should begin distillation this year.
Big Peat has been a cult favorite of sorts, with early batches raising acclaim from younger whisky drinkers that associate the brand with a departure from old, staid scotch norms. The brand’s mascot is a windblown bearded cartoon Ileach (that’s the word for a Scot who lives on Islay) who looks more at home on a cereal box than a whisky bottle and helps to convey this bucking of tradition. The special cask-strength Christmas bottlings that depict Big Peat dressed up as Santa Claus are especially amusing.
The liquid itself is 100% Islay single malt from the distilleries of Caol Ila, Bowmore, Ardbeg, and Port Ellen and is bottled without added color or chill-filtration at 46% ABV. The whisky is so pale as to be almost clear and bears a striking resemblance to Lagavulin 8 year, although the same could be said of most younger peated malts. That Port Ellen component is interesting, as Port Ellen is basically gone from retail markets. Presumably, Douglas Laing’s independent bottling arm has a stock of Port Ellen barrels and has been dipping into them to keep the vatting in Big Peat consistent, although the actual percentages are a secret. It could literally be a teaspoon, although I’ve read that the Christmas bottlings contain a significant percentage of the rare malt. To my taste, the majority of the blend is Caol Ila, and all of it fairly young.
Nose: Initial aroma is puzzling. Dry white wine, blanco tequila, and a distinct lack of peat. A rest in the glass opens up a little peat in the form of classic ocean-influenced brine and distant campfire smoke. Emphasis on “little”.
Palate: Slightly syrupy body. The peat is more evident here, with a lot of earthy/fungal peat and a touch of smolder. Dry, with only a hint of bland simple-syrup for sweetness.
Finish: Medium-long. A swath of menthol and a hint of orange peel. The same peat notes from the palate continue here, but fade without change. A ghost of cherry or tart plum concludes the finish.
With Water: A few drops of water make the aroma more piercing, and the peat more smoke-forward. The palate, now thinner, is only slightly sweeter (vanilla fudge). On the whole, the experience is better. Like 10% better. Go for the water.
Overall: I have tried Big Peat several times in the past, but this is my first formal review. I have thought before – and continue to think today – that this bottle is misnamed. Nothing about this – let alone the peat – is big. 46% ABV is a nice choice, but hardly “big” in the context of available peat monsters. All of the flavors are reticent and nothing stands out. It’s certainly less brash and more drinkable than some cheap peated malts, but it’s not any more interesting to drink. If I’m being uncharitable (why stop now?) this is a peated blended malt for people who are scared of actual peated single malts. And did I mention the cost? Around here it’s about $65 a bottle, and the best price I could find online was $56. That quite a shell-out considering that Ardbeg 10 is still under $50.
Lastly – and this is purely my own aesthetic – the bottle label is silly. I don’t prefer to associate serious whiskies with cartoon characters. Unless they’re marketing this to minors (I hope not!) or comic convention goers, I don’t see the point.
I’m sure there are a lot of Big Peat adherents in the comments, and as usual with the very subjective hobby of whisky tasting, I’d say good on you for knowing what you like! That’s way more important than agreeing with some noob on the Internet. This bottle is just not for me.