I was on a tiny island off the Scottish west coast when I first truly understood the allure of smoky spirits. The island was Islay - you've probably heard of it. It's where all the world's whisky geeks go to chant and take selfies of themselves while rolling around in peat bogs.
It was the dead of winter, and I was lucky to be staying with some Aussie friends visiting the island at the same time.
One night, after we'd explored distilleries all day, somehow surviving the brutal wind and rain that that kept crashing into us from the Atlantic, we sat down and drank some whisky to warm up, peat fire smouldering in the corner.
This wasn't just any whisky. This was Bruichladdich's Octomore – probably the smokiest, most heavily peated whisky in the world. We bottled it fresh out of the cask that day while visiting the distillery, and sipping it in our small flat next to a raging ocean, with the medicinal sweetness of Islay peat wafting through the room – that was about as close to something religious I've ever experienced.
Every winter I try to return to that whisky (it works wonders on a cold; or, at least, makes you think it's working wonders). And every time I do, I start pondering why smoky spirits are so revitalising through the colder months.
Where there's fire
Obviously we associate smoky flavours with fire, and it's pretty damn obvious that fire is a comforting companion in winter. But while whiskies of varying peatiness and smokiness are produced right across Scotland, distilleries around the world also create an array of spirits with base ingredients that have been peated or smoked.
You can now try amazing smoky whiskies made in Ireland, Japan, India, Sweden and Australia, where the grain used for the whisky (often barley) is kilned with peat (the Belgrove Distillery in Tassie is even creating a sheep manure smoked whisky!).
In North America, where barbecuing is a culinary institution – an institution that's now influencing some of Australia's most trendy eateries – grain often gets smoked with a range of different fuels and techniques.
An American whiskey that's only just hit Australian shelves, the Colkegan Single Malt, dries its malted barley with mesquite fire, giving it a spicy, creamy, charcoal flavour.
Another is the Corsair Triple Smoke which uses cherry wood, peat and Beechwood to smoke its damp malt. Balcones Brimstone Corn Whiskey steps it up a notch with a secret liquid-smoking process to create a whiskey that tastes a bit like rubber and beef brisket.
But whisky isn't the only smoky spirit worth your time this winter. The recent resurgence of mezcal in the US and the UK has filtered its way to Australia in recent years.
For those not familiar, mezcal is the smoky, more traditionally-produced, rustic cousin of tequila, predominantly hailing from the Oaxaca (wa-ha-ka) region of Mexico. Both are agave spirits, distilled from fermented juice that's extracted from agave plants. But whereas tequila must be made from the blue agave plant, mezcal can be made from a variety of different agave species.
This, along with the unique roasting process mezcal producers use when preparing the 'piñas' (heart of the agave plant), lends the spirit a peppery, smoky pungency that's said to rival the single malts of Islay for complexity and variety.
In Australia, Los Vida and Tio's Cerveceria in Sydney and Mamasita and Touche Hombre in Melbourne are top spots to get acquainted with mezcal.
Merlin Jerebine, an agave spirits expert and the highly-respected bar manager at Touche Hombre, says mezcal is perfect for those accustomed to sipping big, flavourful peated whiskies.
"It's incredible that an unaged mezcal can show the characteristics of an aged, peated whisky from Islay," Jerebine says, after pouring me a rare 100% Tobala Single Village Mezcal from Del Maguey – probably the best brand around for discovering mezcal's intricacies. It tastes as leathery as Lagavulin, but with a fruity, medicinal, oily acidity that's utterly unique.
"One of the great things about mezcal versus the other smoky spirits out there, is that the base product can change: each different agave genus can give you a unique expression of terroir and flavour," Jerebine says.
Turn up the heat
Either taken neat or mixed in cocktails, by the campfire or at home, these smoky spirits are the perfect antidote to winter. And if the cold gets the better of you, here's a simple, smoky toddy to get you through the worst of it.
60 ml whisky (peated single malt like Ardbeg, a smoky blend like Johnnie Walker Double Black, or for something different, try a mezcal like the Del Maguey Vida Single Village)
1 tsp honey
15 ml freshly squeezed lemon juice
Warm a glass or mug and then place the honey in the glass. Add the smoky spirit, lemon, enough hot water, and stir until the honey is dissolved. Garnish with lemon wedge (insert the cloves into it) and cinnamon stick.
What's your favourite winter warmer? Let us know in the Comments section.
A professional barman in one of Australia's most revered whisky establishments, Luke McCarthy has also travelled the world to learn more about the spirits he serves. The result is two parts drinks culture and one part global trends, served with a dash of critical assessment.
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