The word “peat,” a near and dear word to whisky lovers to be sure, is most likely of Celtic origin owing maybe a little bit to the medieval latin word peta, and sharing its ancestry with the Welsh word peth, and the Cornish word peyth, which both mean “bit,” “piece” or “thing.” Interestingly, there’s no relationship between the word peat and what it represents. There’s no connection to decayed vegetable matter, no linking it to any olfactory prowess it might have, it just means a “piece” of turf. That was probably necessary clarification to many men living on the British isles when their wives told them to go get turf for the fire. “How much turf?”, they might ask, “all of it?” That would seem a tall order. Narrowing it down to a piece of turf undoubtably helped and it seems logical to think that eventually these chaps were instructed to just go out and get a peth…or a peyth…or a peat. Of peat.
The word “monster,” possibly a near and dear word to some, is rooted in the latin verb monere, which means to warn, advise, or admonish. From monere we get monstrum, also Latin, for “portent, prodigy, monstrous creature, wicked person, monstrous act, or atrocity”. Monster moved from Latin to Old French around the 13th century: monstre was used to describe a “disfigured person” or “misshapen being.” Ol’ Jeff Chaucer uses the word as early as the end of the 1300’s in his Canterbury tale, “The Monk’s Tale”: “Was neuere wight sith that this world bigan That slow so manye monstres as dide he.” From then until now, with the exception of a little antiphrastical fit in the 1800’s, the word monster has been used to describe all sorts of things from mythical creatures to pagans to large rubbery manifestations of a nation’s sub-conscious to over-size trucks which I’m not going to dignify with a link.
Put these two words together and you have Peat Monster, which directly translated according to my rather cavalier etymological musings might mean, “a piece of misshapen being” or “a bit of an atrocity.” Luckily, (especially for marketers) we’ve broadened our language imaginatively, and slapping these two together now conjures up images of bottles filled with whisky so staggeringly peaty and smoky that entire villages gather up all their pitchforks and torches and chase them out of town. Or drink them, depending on their preference/thirst. Compass Box has undoubtably made a name for itself over the years by being one of the most creative whisky companies out there, they’ve released everything from traditional blends (Great King Street, and Asyla), to a blended grain expressions (Hedonism), to more experimentally matured bottlings (Oak Cross and Orangerie), with special limited edition releases along the way (Flaming Heart). Compass Box’s The Peat Monster holds down the big, smoky, peaty end of the range. A vatted malt made up of several Islay whiskies, peated malt from a Highland distillery (Ardmore), and currently, malt from an Isle of Mull distillery (Tobermory would be a good guess there as it’s the only one on Mull), the Peat Monster is aged in re-fill American oak barrels. The expression has changed slightly from release to release, the Monster reviewed here is from the 2011 batch, which probably featured quite a bit of Caol Ila and Laphroaig, but no malt from Mull. The packaging has changed significantly from this release.
The Nose: The word “monster” seems a bit misappropriated here. There’s certainly a great deal of smoke and peat, but it’s rather elegantly arranged, not misshapen or disfigured by any means. Dry wood smoke and smoldering hay, sea-side tar and briny, wet sand. The peat is herbal and earthy, softly medicinal with just a touch of burnt rubber. Other notes definitely play second fiddle to all that peat and smoke but the sweeter notes balance things nicely; French vanilla ice cream, smoked almonds, baked lemon bars, and soft clove.
The Palate: What is caramel-y sweet, somewhat simple, and lemon-y initially, becomes more complex and waltzes gracefully into the expected large dose of peat and smoke. Burnt toffee, dried fruits, and roasted, salted nuts are quickly subsumed by much more of that medicinal, vegetal peat, which is a touch more savory now, and that complex, dry wood smoke, which is now a touch more ashy. A bit of vanilla bean and a strong dose of clove come through more towards the end.
The Finish: Long, smooth, and smoky with a good dose of clove and salty, slightly savory peat.
Thoughts: Much like his hideous creation surprises Victor Frankenstein by being eloquent and learned, The Peat Monster surprises by not being the overwhelming, overblown novelty whisky its title hints at. Yes, it is definitely full of big peat and smoke tones but there is a subtle smoothness and roundness that gives it a welcome touch of refinement and elegance. Very well crafted stuff, balanced and nuanced despite its big, bruising flavor profile. The consistent sweetness makes it quite drinkable and in a way, much less “monstrous.” It’s hard to not compare this one to two other similarly priced ($55 range), peat-centric, vatted malt whiskies, Big Peat and Smokehead(correction, Smokehead is a single malt, not a vatted malt). Thanks to that subtle refinement and greater complexity, I think The Peat Monster is better than both. Is it better than similarly priced distillery bottlings from the likes of Caol Ila and Ardbeg? Well, it may not be better but it’s certainly unique and certainly worth a try. Definitely recommended.
Compass Box The Peat Monster, +/- 2011, Vatted Malt Whisky