Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Whiskey Wednesday: I am Curiositas (Smoky)

If you are interested in Scotch, and you do some reading or web browsing, one of the first things you will see people do is to describe the various regions of Scotland and their styles of whiskey. Typically it goes something like this:

Lowlands - light
Speyside - smooth and classic, lots of sherry
Highlands - rugged, woody, salty
Islay - super smoky peat monsters
Islands - also smoky

The problem is these rules are full of exceptions. First, it's important to note that the regions originated as taxation divisions; they had nothing to do with the style of whiskey being produced.

Second, there is substantial debate about whether location means anything in the production of whiskey. Many distilleries don't use local barley or even Scottish barley and some don't age their whiskey on site.

These geographic labels and the corresponding flavor profiles, at best, represent traditional styles that are predominant in the region. At worst, they are a lazy shorthand which allows us to escape really delving into what the whiskey tastes like.

To wit, Glenmorangie and Dalmore have quite different flavor profiles but are fairly close neighbors in the Highlands.

Similarly, not all Islays are smoky. Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain make predominantly unpeated whiskies and Caol Ila also makes an unpeated version. Peating, of course, is just a matter of how you cook the grains...anyone can do it.

And that brings us to BenRiach's Curiositas, a peated Speysider. For years, BenRiach was a go-along, get-along Speysider, making smooth, floral malts. In 2002, however, owner Pernod Ricard shut it down. Luckily, two years later, a South African group bought BenRiach and reopened it as an independent distillery.

After that, strange things started happening. The distillery began churning out new releases, including new age expressions, "finished" whiskies (those put in different types of barrels for final maturation) and a peated whiskey appropriately named Curiositas. All of this innovation won it much praise from whiskey lovers along with some suspicion from the Speyside establishment. BenRiach joined Bruichladdich, Compass Box and Buffalo Trace in the exclusive club of independent, innovative whiskey producers.


The BenRiach, Curiositas, 10 years old, 46% alcohol

BenRiach makes no bones about its peat-soaked malt. The peat comes right at you in the nose, close to the smell of Bruichladdich's PC5, but with some fruity scents underneath...I smell pears. The taste that hits you first is some sweetness, an almost sugary sweetness, followed by smoke. The finish returns to fruit and a bit of the smoke.

I don't think I've had a smoky Scotch that was this sweet and fruity before. The ten year old Ardbeg of a few years ago had some sweetness, but not this fruity sweetness. It's really a new kind of smoky whiskey. The combination of sweet and smoke is reminiscent of kalbi, the Korean barbecued short ribs that are marinated in a sweet but salty sauce and grilled over smoky coals at Korean BBQs (see if you find that in anyone else's tasting notes -- eat your heart out Jim Murray)!

Curiositas certainly defies regional traditions, but in a way, it's the type of smoky malt you might expect if you were to guess what a Speysider with smoke would taste like...smoke but sweetness and fruit as well.

It is aptly named.

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