Ardbeg’s Brendan McCarron preaches the gospel of smoke.
On a rainy night in East London, a group of off-duty bartenders huddle beneath a renovated railway arch nosing perfume samples. “I’m getting tar, definitely tar,” says a tall man with an ungroomed beard. He narrows his eyes and leans in for a second whiff. “Wait, no, lavender. Definitely lavender.”
Dispensing the samples is Brendan McCarron, the head of maturing whisky stocks for Ardbeg, the makers of the smokiest single malts in the world. In the ever-expanding whisky-verse, peaty scotch is the fastest growing of the single malts. No longer is it a partisan pour reserved for pipe-smoking connoisseurs in overstuffed chairs. Smoky whisky is fast becoming a favorite of forward-thinking bartenders, valued as much for its raw intensity as its sneaky complexity and ability to spin a cocktail into new directions.
The London launch of Masters of Smoke, presented by Ardbeg
In response to the growing trend, Ardbeg created Masters of Smoke, an educational program that leads drink mixers through the beautiful black heart of smoke, the science behind it, and all its delicious possibilities. The program kicks off in earnest in September, when Ardbeg will invite bartenders from around the globe to take part in the in-depth training. Sessions are free and will provide bartenders with an immersive education on the complexities of peated single malts. Attendees will have access to a massive library of scientific research, as well as direct contact with the whisky makers at Ardbeg.
There will be tastings, yes, but also an opportunity to experience the whiskies in a way that few people do: through the lens of science. Tonight is the program’s launch, a preview of what Masters of Smoke will look like when it comes to your town. For the next three hours, McCarron and his team will run through core elements of the program, engaging all of the senses to help bartenders better understand an often-misunderstood spirit.
“We wanted to capture the feel of our sensory lab in Edinburgh,” says Cameron George, the brand ambassador for Ardbeg USA, who will help lead the Masters of Smoke training sessions in the U.S. “For the longest time, single malts have been a kind of scary and uninviting place for bartenders. They hear ‘Islay scotch,’ and the only thing they think of is smoke. Well, what does that mean? We created Masters of Smoke to give them the tools to answer that question.”
“Smoke is such a challenging element in spirits,” says McCarron. “It sits way up here above all of the other flavors. Things get really interesting when you go down a level and break it into its component parts. That’s when you start to see smoke’s true potential.”
After more than two years of researching the chemistry of its whiskies, Ardbeg identified five main types of smoke in its core offerings: medicinal, herbal, wood, coal and savory. Each one contains a cascade of constituent flavors, dozens in total, from pear juice and peach to smoky bacon to tar and lavender. The findings are captured in Ardbeg’s peaty-odic table, a clever, and useful, taxonomy that allows bartenders to mix and match flavor profiles when drawing inspiration for cocktail recipes and food pairings. It will be one of the cornerstones of the Masters of Smoke training sessions when they roll out in September.
The peaty-odic table brings bartenders closer to the science of smoke.
“I think of it as a kind of flavor thesaurus,” says Jon Hughes, a bartender at Bramble Bar & Lounge in Edinburgh. “It might not give you an immediate answer to what you’re looking for, but there’s enough in there to send you down some very interesting rabbit holes.”
Inspired by the medicinal qualities found in Ardbeg 10 Year, Hughes created the Smoke Oil Salesman, a bitter-brown-stirred cocktail that pairs Ardbeg 10 with a trio of modifiers: Bramble liqueur, Bigallet China-China and Cherry Heering. It’s served in small vials that are decanted into chilled Nick & Nora glasses misted with absinthe. The first sip smacks of wood and smoke. But as the drink mellows, richer, fruitier flavors begin to surface.
The Smoke Oil Salesman shows off the medicinal flavors in Ardbeg 10 Year.
One of the more popular rabbit holes of the evening belongs to German bartender Armin Azadpour, who wrestles cult favorite Ardbeg Corryvreckan into the base for his cocktail Dr. Watson. “It’s such a big, powerful, smoky whisky, but it also has these tender herbal notes that jump out at you,” he says. “I tried to work with those.”
His take on a scotch sour—made with Corryvreckan, lemon juice, fino sherry, hay lavender syrup and celery bitters—comes in a glass pipe bubbling with smoke from dry ice pellets. It’s an entertaining flourish and fitting for the night’s theme. But it’s also an example of the untapped potential of smoky whisky.
This is not a pipe. It’s a delicious herbal cocktail made with smoky whisky.
“Masters of Smoke isn’t just about making classy cocktails with a slight twist of smoke,” says Azadpour. “It’s about finding the flavors inside the whisky and allowing them to guide your creativity. It’s up to us to take that first step. Once you do, the possibilities are endless.”
But make no mistake, that first step can be a doozy. Islay whisky remains one of the most challenging spirits in the world, praised by peat freaks for its high phenolic content but approached with caution by so many others, including those whose livelihood depends on selling drinks to the public.
“It can be very intimidating, no doubt” says David Blackmore, the global brand ambassador for Ardbeg and Glenmorangie. “However, one of the first things we teach people in Masters of Smoke is that, structurally, Ardbeg makes one of the lightest whiskies on the island.”
There are more than 80 aroma compounds in peated malt. How many can you find?
Blackmore calls this the peaty paradox. Due to nuances in Ardbeg’s production—such as the use of wooden fermenters and a copper purifier that filters out the heaviest compounds during distillation—what pours from the bottle is often a softer, more multidimensional spirit than one might expect.
“Sure, there’s smoke, and a lot of it, but hidden beneath that are so many other flavors to explore,” says Blackmore. “There are more than 80 aroma compounds in peated malt alone. Just think about what that means for someone working with cocktails.”
The man with the beard is getting the hang of it. One by one, he moves through the perfume samples, calling out his picks on the peaty-odic table: banana, sea salt and well-oiled leather. With each whiff and each guess, McCarron serves a corresponding taste of Ardbeg, thereby connecting the sensory dots. Others stand behind him, curious and eager to master the smoke.
Explore the potential of peated whisky with Masters of Smoke.
“Tonight is just the tip of the iceberg,” says George. “We’re going to amplify these technical elements and really nerd out. Bartenders are some of the most creative souls on the planet, but we sometimes forget that we’re also adventurers at heart. Masters of Smoke is all about empowering them to take risks. It’s about showing them that smoke isn’t such a scary place.”
To learn more about Ardbeg’s Masters of Smoke program and how you can get involved, check out ardbeg.com/en-int/mos.