For the sixth year in a row, Glasgow’s Douglas Laing & Co have now released a limited edition seasonal bottling of their signature Islay malt Big Peat. Compared to the regular edition, the X-mas version always comes with a new package and in cask strength. This year, however, there is another difference: For the first and most likely also last time ever, the Big Peat Christmas 2016 includes whiskies made at all active Islay distilleries plus the closed Port Ellen distillery. Reason enough to have a little chat with Douglas Laing & Co’s Managing Director and Master Blender Fred Laing and Marketing Manager Jenny Rogerson.
BarleyMania: Releasing X-Mas editions of the Big Peat has a long tradition at Douglas Laing. The very first of these limited editions hit the shelves back in 2011. When did you first get the idea to release a seasonal “cask strength” bottling of your signature peat bomb?
Douglas Laing & Co: So Fred had the idea of an X-Mas edition of Big Peat at Christmas the year after BP was first sprung on an unsuspecting whisky community back in 2009. He started to drive our first Christmas pack when he saw such a positive reaction to the market to this cheeky chappy from Islay, responding to consumer comment that they’d love to taste this feisty dram at even higher strength! “He” is such a fun brand to work with and Fred knew it from the start – so much that a raft of alternative special edition packs have followed for Berlin, France and Taiwan.
BM: And what sparked this idea initially?
DL: We had a superabundance of Islay stock – something unheard of today – so the requirement was firstly to find a commercial vehicle to move it. Coincidentally, around the same time, the design house with whom we work – whisky buffs themselves – were in the office discussing, amongst other business related matters, our Port Ellen release that commemorated our 60th anniversary. In the description of this bottling, Fred mentioned that in amongst the tarry ropes, soft-chewed leather and creosoted beach huts there was a really “big peat“ hit. The creative one, Del, was asked to draw a bearded, windswept Ileach just about to come off his fishing boat in his Arran knit sweater, hoping we might find a Big Peat “himself”. In less than 60 seconds, we almost had BP there and then in front of us. But he was smiling. So Fred told Del that he (Big Peat – not Fred!) was going back to see his crabbit* wife, and needed a strong local dram before he could bear to meet her. So the smile was changed to a wince, and we have not changed his expression since.
*crabbit = a wonderful Scottish word that means grumpy
BM: This year’s bottling is particularly special as it contains whiskies from all active Islay distilleries plus Port Ellen. How hard was it to get everyone onboard for the Big Peat Christmas 2016? I have heard, for example, that Kilchoman are usually very reserved when it comes to offering their malts for blends.
DL: Though the term “Blended Malt” is now technically correct as far as our friends at the SWA would see it, we much prefer the outdated “Vatted Malt” terminology, which paints a far more accurate picture of the marrying of casks in the making of Big Peat. In any case, we strive to be respectful of the distilleries and their wishes, and we truly believe that Big Peat Christmas 2016 epitomises the very best of Islay in a bottle – how could anyone be upset about that?!
You mention Kilchoman and raise a very valid point. Suffice to say, we have had a heart-to-heart with our friend Anthony and this will be the first and last time Kilchoman features in the Big Peat recipe. You are very well keyed into what goes on behind the scenes!!
BM: I have unfortunately not tried the Big Peat Christmas 2016 yet. But I still got half a bottle from last year left. If you compare this year’s edition to its predecessor from last year, where do you see the biggest differences?
DL: We believe this year’s release is smokier and more complex than ever. Blender’s Rights allow us to tinker with the Big Peat “recipe”, and as well as a different alcohol strength each year, we will also use different proportions of the distilleries used in the vatting. I can’t reveal too much, but let’s just say that the richest Single Malts from Islay play a significant part in Big Peat Christmas 2016, resulting in chimney soot and tar quality that is perfectly seasonal for Santa coming down the chimney.
BM: As always with your Remarkable Malts, the package of Big Peat Christmas 2016 is incredibly cool. Can you tell us a bit more about the design? If I understood correctly, some of the details, such as the number of stockings hanging on the fireplace, are not coincidental at all…
DL: Very kind of you to say so, Tobi! We do pride ourselves on attention to detail at Douglas Laing & Co, and the packaging for this year’s Big Peat Christmas is true testament to our “Brand Innovators of the Year 2016” award. Most friends of Big Peat will notice that the Santa sack is full of Big Peat’s pals – The Epicurean, Timorous Beastie, Scallywag and Rock Oyster – and you also mention the stockings on the fireplace. There are nine of these, representing the active distilleries on Islay, and the long-closed, elusive and exclusive Port Ellen. There are a number of other subtle references too. The clock shows 5.01pm, as Big Peat has just finished a long day’s work. His kilt is Douglas tartan. And particularly attentive Whisky fans might even spot the famous Islay lighthouse through the window of his cosy seaside home.
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