For peat's sake: Scotland in a glass

The trouble began with Jameson on a trip to Ireland as a 20-year-old. A throat-clearing splash into a cup of coffee on a frosty morning at the beginning of a long drive down the east coast. Something was awakened with a deep gasp from the pit of my stomach. I was home, this was my drink. I could feel it in my genes. From that day onward, I've considered myself a whisky enthusiast.

For many years this passion for Irish stumble juice had me well covered, but there comes a certain point in a tippler's journey where one must climb the mountain to be taken seriously. And for me the mountain is made of peat, the partly decomposed vegetable matter that gives many Scottish single malts their distinctive tastes.

I've never been able to finish, let alone enjoy, a bottle of peated whisky. The raging bushfire smokiness of your Ardbegs, Laphroaigs and Lagavulins is beyond my palate.

The only way to do it is to take a trip around Scotland in a glass, and hopefully edge ever closer to finding a way to enjoy that blue cheese of Scotch. To advance from enthusiast to connoisseur - more Don Draper, less Jimmy McNulty - and hopefully drink a heap of free booze in the process. For though the days of endless freebies in this horribly underpaid profession of journalism have mostly dried up, when a dishevelled hack prostrates himself at the doors of this nation's whisky importers it appears they're willing to spill a few drops.

My journey begins with a few drams from the magnanimous importers of Glendronach (Speyside region), the Bunnahabhain (Islay), and the more unusual Tobermory, from the Island of Mull.

Glendronach

Some suggest that this sherry-casked single malt has a peat flavour, and I hope that's true because both the 15 and 18-year-old are welcome companions. Dense, viscous and with a long warm flavour that wobbles around in your mouth, and a sweet fruitiness from the cask, this is a good regular drinker. For my tastes it's best served with one massive ice cube so as not to be too watered down. Toffee, caramelly. In short, this is dangerously good. The 18-year-old has an even stronger nose of sherry. Both weighing in at 46%, they burn the throat in the most wonderful way.

Bunnahabhain

This 12-year-old is also aged in a sherry cask, but has more of a blackcurrant, Christmas cake sort of flavour. Not as easy drinking as the Glendronach, perhaps due to slightly more complex and varied elements, but a great dram to enjoy with dessert. A nice contrast to the above varieties, underlining their differences, but probably not a required cabinet starter.

Tobermory

This 15-year-old comes in a wooden box that makes it appear very expensive, hence ideal for gifting. It's an unusual flavour - very difficult to place. But further inspection reveals it to be a grower, not a shower. This is a weird, rich and extremely cakey single malt, which dodges and weaves when you're trying to home in on one stand-out flavour. Depending on your tastes you'll either love this or find it downright weird. After several, I fell well into the former.

Next column: The wonders of Speyside via Glenfarclas across the decades.

Patrick O'Neil is a Fairfax staff writer.

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