Peat. What a simply marvelous creation. For centuries, it has been the bedrock of country life, fueling fires from Padstow to Portnahaven and keeping the cold out of our wearily wintered bones.
I vaguely remember my father and I travelling to Broughton Astley Garden Centre (way back when I lived in a tiny rural village in the Midlands) and being transfixed by the piles of the stuff, stacked high in rectangular, white plastic sacks. We had no central heating in our ramshackle, rambling homestead, so we used a ton of the stuff to fuel our open fires.
I used to delight in waiting until the coast was clear to clamber up these towering stacks, kneeling precariously at the very top, like an ant on a particularly wobbily Jenga tower.
The owner of the garden centre was a kindly old chap and would applaud my agility, handing me over a few penny sweets as a prize. Lord knows, he'd probably be in trouble with the authorities these days for allowing a minor to attempt such danger... and probably for giving me the sweets too.
Little did I realise that nearly 30 years later, sat sheltering from the cold, I would still be as deeply transfixed by the stuff, but in a hugely different way.
Here at Caskstrength, we've never shied away from our love of the brown stuff. (hmmm. Where is this one going...says Joel)
Any chance to get our mitts on a bottle of something smoky, sweet and medicinal is all we need for a great night in... or indeed out. And that is what is happening right this second.
Tonight I'm out in one of my of my old haunts, The Crobar on Manette St, Soho, London W1. It's been a while.
Last time I was here was probably 5 or 6 years ago when a little known Canadian band called Death From Above 1979 (remember them, kids?) decided to play an impromptu set in the back bar. Now if you've ever been there, you'll know that you can realistically fit 20, maybe 25 people in the whole place. So to have 2, wild-eyed guys resembling crazed mandrills, thrashing hell out of their instruments, whilst onlookers fight for air and service at the bar, is nothing short of spectacular.
It was always pretty tough to get a drink there, so that evening, I was enthused by both the band and a particularly fine hipflask of caskstrength Laphroaig I had managed to secretly smuggle in. Thinking back, they both went down a storm.
I return tonight, not for nostalgic reasons but to sip down a warming quickie before a local gig and casually look at their whisky menu. Some excellent bourbons here, but same thing as last time- a surprising lack of single malts.
Fortunately, 'help is at hip' and I just happen to have with me the very same flask I passed around whilst DFA 1979 smashed their kit up. This time however, the Laphroaig has been replaced with something equally peaty, but perhaps more enigmatic... Smokehead.
This whisky is aimed at bringing something altogether unconventional to the world of single malt, whilst retaining a smooth, silky and unquestionably Islay heart. Despite speculation, only a few folks actually know which distillery's spirit goes into bottling Smokehead and they are totally tight lipped!!
Dodging the eyeline of the burly, musclebound and bearded doorman (who's probably a very sweet man) I draw off a generous dram. At that point, and I kid you not.... the Juke Box slam's into the brutal opening riff of DFA 1979's 'Romantic Rights...' now we've started....
Smokehead - Islay single malt whisky- 43% - 70cl
Nose: Wonderfully intense woodsmoke, but not instantly overpowering. It's subtle and refined, giving way to layers of fudge, cereals, a hint of overripe vine fruit and earthiness. Exactly what it says on the tin! (literally!)
Palate: The peat keeps on coming with an initial peppery, Talisker-like wave, leading into a hint of malty sweetness and then sherbet lemon notes and sharpness. It's simple, honest and just about one of the most drinkable Islay malts i've tried all year.
Finish: More sweetness, with a hint of some very earthy peated notes on the death. I will be tasting this tomorrow morning. Which is undoubtedly a major plus point... ;-)
Overall: Could this be the ultimate Rock n Roll whisky of the future?
MAY THE LORDS OF ROCK PROCLAIM IT SO!!
Whilst others choke on their Jack 'n Cokes- you could have much more fun drinking a
'Smoke On the Water'.... now there's a thought!!
All in all, a superb whisky that, like the complete Led Zeppelin remasters- you absolutely need in your lives.