I have never been much of a whisky(uisge) drinker. Until a month or two ago, I had no particular interest in whisky, and I would have said that all whiskies pretty much tasted the same, and not particularly good.
Then, my wife bought me a bottle of Caol Ila (“COOL-Aye-la”), which tasted distinctly different: It tasted like no substance I could ever remember trying before. I was not sure I liked it, but it seemed so odd I kept trying it to figure it out.
One day I tried comparing it to some other whiskey (Bushmills, I think) that I happened to have on the shelf. Bushmills still tastes like pretty much other whiskies, in my opinion. In the comparison, I discovered to my surprise that I liked Caol Ila.
I shared these thoughts with my wife (who normally doesn’t drink at all), and she tried a small sip: “It’s peat.” She has traveled extensively in Ireland and Scotland; the odd smell & taste that I couldn’t figure out was instantly recognizable to her.
When the bottle ran out (a month later?) I thought about getting another – but at ~$55/bottle this is a vice I do not want to acquire as a habit. Still, I remained curious: were there other whiskies with this same flavor? WhiskyForEveryone.com helpfully provided a chart with whiskies (all scotch) sorted by “peatiness”, measured as phenol parts per million (PPM).
(Aside: There is apparently one Irish whiskey that is also peated: Connemarra.)
Long-story-short: I went out to buy more peated whiskies “for science“. The first liquor store I tried didn’t have Caol Ila (30-35 PPM) and so I tried Highland Park (20 PPM, $50/bottle). They carried Lagavulin, (35-40 PPM) but at $70/bottle, that was a non-starter for me. Highland Park was similar to Caol Ila, but not as good. Later I tried another store, and they also did not carry Caol Ila, and so I tried Laphroaig. (40-43 PPM, $40/bottle)
Before trying Laphroaig, I didn’t get the connection between “peaty” and “smoky”. Laphroiag, in my opinion, is so smoky, it’s like drinking liquid campfire. It’s got the peat kick of Caol Ila, but too much (in my current opinion).
I will experiment with blending Laphroaig with other non-smoky beverages to mellow it back to tasty, but so far, Caol Ila has a fascinating peat richness without being overpowering. I guess maybe I’m a whisky drinker after all.