Fred Laing, our Chairman and Big Peat's "father" gives us the insider story on how Big Peat came about and how that led to the upcoming Vintage Series...
I was in a meeting with our designers discussing another brand whose packaging we were upgrading, and the designers who love their Scotch, asked me to describe the quality of that Port Ellen, as they could not afford to buy it themselves. “It was full of chimney smoke, tarry ropes, coal dust, with a ferry engine room backdrop to a big peated hit of creosoted beach huts”. The “big peated” phrase stuck in my head, and I asked the artist in the group to immediately draw me a sketch of a big fisherman coming off his boat in Islay, with hair and beard blowing away in a strong wind. This guy drew Big Peat in 2 minutes and, as they say, the rest is history!
We felt (just a gut reaction, which is always how we do it!) we had the basic makings of a brand with the first stage of this design.
-Fred Laing, Big Peat's "Father"
So, through the early part of 2009 we started to attack the details of the label and similarly started to look at putting together a recipe, combining some of the more interesting Islay Malts we had in our stocks. There was no urgency, but by summer we knew we could take the “blend” either into a dry and subtly peated version, or a sweeter and distinctly phenolic style… the latter ultimately becoming the basis on which Big Peat would be based (owing to my own sweet tooth!).
Unusually – I think it was UNIQUELY, though others have now followed; we decided to actually show some of the “blender’s secrets” on the packaging – Ardbeg, Bowmore, Caol Ila and Port Ellen amongst others (that we contractually cannot mention). Great names to mention on a pack, and great Malts to put together and have the pleasure of working with.
I must say when we filled the first tentative trial small batch 2,000 bottles in August 2009 we had mixed reactions from our importers. Many said “No way, I would not consider buying a bottle of this stuff – Douglas Laing, you are joking!” But the more open-minded importers with whom we were working were much more adventurous and excited at this step away from the reverential, old fashioned style of packaging. They also appreciated that inside the fun bottle was a really serious Islay Whisky, where the sum of the parts were seen to be greater than each individual Malt.
So, despite some clients being slow to pick up on a more controversial Whisky – suddenly the 2,000 bottles sold out by October and we felt “he” had legs and potential. In fact it was around Christmas 2009 that we stopped talking of “the brand” and referring to “him” as a person, something we still do. I really think there is a generation out there who caught the feisty, characterful and irreverent side of Big Peat, though we still have to introduce him to many more people.
I must say when we filled the first tentative 2,000 bottles, we had mixed reactions from our importers. Many said “No way, I would not consider buying a bottle of this stuff – Douglas Laing, you are joking!”
The first Big Peat Christmas Edition was released in 2010 and that has been an ever growing phenomenon each year thereafter – and it reflects the increasing spiral of sales and fans he gathers around the world.
As for the Big Peat 25 Years Old, that was a natural progression from our blending strengths around the Pacific Rim which for many years was the backbone to our company sales of the King of Scots (17 and 25 Year Blends in ceramic) and bottlings such as our Eaton’s Special 30 Years Old Reserve. Many of our sales there were based on our history of selling what the Japanese still call “Fancy Packs” for the Day & Night markets and into Duty Free Shops. However, being Far East focused, the blends were Speyside and Highland heavy – so really rather sweet. That in turn meant that some of the older Islay Malts were being used less… an abundance in stocks from then, means an opportunity for us today.
It was difficult to create an aged and “classic Scotch” image of Big Peat, while still retaining his “jolie-laide” facial qualities. But we believe this has been successfully achieved by a perceived high end black/gold colour change; much in the style of our old JPS-John Player Special Scotch Blend (think of Ayrton Senna’s Lotus F 1) – a brand licenced to us by the tobacco brand owners some years ago, when Big Peat was just a stripling.
With age we believe that Islay Malts ease to a softer, more subtle and Mainland style. That is partly the case with Big Peat 25 Years Old, so you may recognise much of his feisty and characterful past, but his youthful spirit has matured, moderated and mellowed. Yet there is still memorable coal dust, chimney soot with a particularly pelagic, beachy and phenolic style; but the creosoted beach huts have not been repainted for a few seasons and the punch of Peat is a more subtle smack of soft chewed leather.
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