Let’s explore the notion that a person’s palate changes over time. For instance, I hated root beer as a kid. I wanted to like it. It seemed like such a cool drink (it has “beer” in the name!), and I tried to like it, ordering it whenever I had the opportunity just in case, but I just couldn’t bring myself to enjoy the stuff. Not until I was about 25 or so. That’s when I started to appreciate the finer nuances of “beer de root.” Another example: My wife used to love mangoes. She had some babies, now she hates mangoes. The palate evolves. Maybe it’s from a life-changing, hormonal shifting event, or maybe it’s from wisdom and the collection of experiences, but palates change.
One more example to get to the point: When I was in my 20s, I loved Scotch. Like, that was the only kind of whiskey that I would bother drinking. “Scotchity Scotch Scotch.” The peatier the better. But now that I’m in my 40s, I almost never choose a Scotch over a bourbon or rye. No fucking way. And if that Scotch is particularly peaty, I want nothing to do with it.
It’s not that I don’t like peaty whisky. It’s that I don’t like whisky that’s exclusively peaty. If all there is to a whisky is a robust, almost flammable, smoky character, then I feel like I’m seven years old again and sitting around my grandmother’s kitchen table while she and all my uncles chain smoke their way through a game of bridge. I’ve had enough second-hand smoke in my life. I don’t need to drink it too. A peaty whisky is like someone dumped a bunch of wet leaves on the campfire and then held my head over the billowing smoke.
So, when I get ahold of a bottle of booze that’s aged in Islay Scotch casks, I’m skeptical at best. Because, you know, wet campfire/grandma’s second-hand smoke associations. And that’s exactly what Mount Gay has just released: a well-aged rum that’s matured for several months in used Islay Scotch casks. Islay being the island most commonly associated with second hand smoke whisky.
It’s called XO The Peat Smoke. It’s incredibly rare, pretty damn expensive, and really, really peaty. No surprise there. But what is surprising is how much I love this rum, largely because it’s so peaty. Confusing, right? Because of everything I just said?
But The Peat Smoke proves my point. This is a peaty booze. Smoky as hell, but it’s not only smoky. There’s so much more going on in this sip than just grandma’s ashes and ruined campfires.
I’m actually surprised at how peaty this rum is. It only spent six months in Scotch barrels, so I wasn’t sure how much Islay character the rum would absorb. The answer is, “a lot.” There’s a significant amount of earthy, damp smoke on the back end of this rum. There’s even an element of salinity, which is my favorite attribute of certain whiskies “with no ‘e.’” But none of this is overwhelming because the rum itself is so bold, so strong in its “rum-ness,” that it stands up to all that peat. You get a balance of sweet and smoke. Ice cream and fire. Yin and yang. The smoke works to balance out all the sweetness in the rum. Like my wife and her constant lists of things to do, and me and my constant habit of ignoring her lists of things to do. Balance. And it’s fucking awesome.
The Peat Smoke pours a deep mahogany and smells like vanilla ice cream and leather. It’s warm and velvety on the tongue with notes of raisins and caramel up front before that cloud of smoke takes over with its mossy/salty/poker room wonderfulness. It’s pretty hot on the back end, which makes sense because this baby is bottled at 114 proof (57% ABV). But you don’t need ice to enjoy this expression. Pour two fingers in your nicest glass and just hang out with it. Savor it, because it’s $250 a bottle, which is a lot of money for a bottle of booze.
But I’d argue that it’s worth every penny. Mount Gay, which is the oldest rum maker in the world, knows what they’re doing at this point in the game. The Peat Smoke is the first release in their Master Blender Series, and there will only be 1,200 bottles released in the U.S. (Only 6,120 bottles world-wide). To create the expression, Mount Gay’s Master Blender Allen Smith worked his magic with a mix of column and pot still rums aged between 8 and 15 years in American oak barrels, then stuck the blended hooch in Islay peated whisky casks for another six months. It’s a painstaking process that I’d say paid off big time.
Now, if you did drop a perfect round ball of ice into the glass, you could expect to lose a bit of that heat on the back end. Really, all of the edges are smoothed out with a chunk of ice. There’s less vanilla ice cream, less salinity, less charcoal and ash. The fruit comes out to play a bit more—sweet cherries instead of raisins—which is all well and good. It’s easy to drink, for sure. But I like the sharp edges you find when you drink this thing neat. I like the heat. The added smoke. The deep vanilla nose. Those sharp edges are what make this rum so interesting.
I’m not into super expensive bottles of booze. I’m actually pretty low rent if I’m choosing bottles, but the bottom line is this: if you’re looking for a high-end bottle as a gift for the holidays, or maybe a gift to yourself for surviving your family during the holidays (in an election year, no less), you could do a lot worse than dropping $250 on Mount Gay’s XO The Peat Smoke. A lot worse.