“Yuck”, “like kissing an ashtray”, “this is what Scotch whisky is all about”, “the peatier, the better” are common comments heard when drinkers are introduced to certain single malt Scotches. In fact, a few years ago, a major, and quite peaty, brand used the headline “You’ll either love it or hate it” in their print ads. Perhaps no other influencer of aroma and taste in Scotch whisky evokes as much discussion as peat; it is the essence of what terroir, or “of the earth” is all about when describing single malts. On a global scale, however, peat is a powerhouse in many ways, and so much more than just one aspect of whisky-making.
The production and use of peat in Scotland and Ireland is hugely overshadowed by other countries. Russia, for instance, produces about 17% of the world’s peat and maintains two power stations to produce electric power from it. About 7% of Finland’s energy is derived from power plants burning peat harvested from the country’s vast peat resources, and nearly a quarter million acres of Canada’s land surface are classified as peatlands. In addition to power generation, peat’s other uses include water filtration, agriculture & gardening, and even curative bath therapy in spas in Eastern Europe. The International Peat Society, founded in Canada and headquartered in Finland, has over 1400 members in nearly 40 countries. Part of their mission statement reads, “… to foster the wise use of peatlands and peat.”
One of the more bizarre chapters in the history of peat bogs was the 2003 accidental discovery of two 2000-year old “Bog Men” during commercial harvesting of peat in central Ireland. The peatlands provided cold, acidic, oxygen-free conditions, which prevented decay and mummified the bodies. Researchers in the Bog Bodies Project have said such discoveries are fairly common over most of Western Europe, because of the proliferation of peatlands and their preservation qualities.
For centuries, peat has been used in Ireland and Scotland as a source of fuel and heat. It is the naturally compressed result of decomposing mosses, grasses, shrubs, leaves and twigs. It is found in wet, marshy low areas called bogs or fens. In Scotland, these peatlands started growing more than 5000 years ago, and today many are in excess of 20 feet deep.
A living museum on the Outer Hebrides Isle of Lewis is the Blackhouse at Arnol, dating to the early 1800s. In the house, a continually burning peat fire was centrally-positioned for cooking and to provide heat for warming both humans and their animals in communal living.
One of the most anticipated traditions when I stay in my favorite cottage on the Seaforth Highland Country Estates near Dingwall, northwest of Inverness, is to heat by burning “the peats” provided by management. At home, I occasionally burn peat incense in my office, or larger pieces in the fireplace during winter. There’s nothing better to set the mood for the enjoyment of single malts, a cheese board, and the camaraderie of good friends.
Most whisky lovers recognize peat’s contributions to single malts by its aroma and flavor. The character of peat from different areas of Scotland can vary, affecting their influence on the whiskies.
Highland peat tends to be light, crumbly, and easily reduced to powder; Islay (“eye luh”) peat is heavy, dark, and tinged with briny iodine; peat from the Orkney Islands leans toward a more heathery, lighter profile.
Depth of the harvest, age, and color also have bearings on various characteristics of peat. Peat must be harvested and dried before use, and a long-handled knife with an angled blade is used in this process. Soggy blocks, about four by six inches and 24 inches long, are cut and tossed out onto adjoining ground to dry.
See a two minute video of traditional peat cutting:
At the distillery, after barley grain has been malted (allowed to germinate), the malting process is arrested by the addition of heat in the kiln room. If a whisky is to be peated, it is during this process that bricks of dried peat are added to the fire, creating smoke, sometimes called “reek”, which is infused into the barley.
This dried, smoky barley is ground into grist and proceeds to subsequent steps in whisky making. Most single malts are peated to some extent, with the measurement being parts per million (PPM) of phenols. Phenols are chemicals created by peat smoke. A “lightly peated” malt will be in the one to three PPM range, like Bunnahabbhain (“bun a huven”) and Glenlivet; a “medium peated” malt will be in the 10 to 20 PPM range, like Highland Park, and a “heavily peated” malt will be in the 40 to 50 PPM range, like Lagavulin, Laphroaig or Ardbeg. Currently the peatiest whisky title goes to Bruichladdich’s Octomore 5.1/169 at a staggering 169 PPM.
When talking about peat and Scotch whisky, the malts from the island of Islay, off Scotland’s southwest coast, always comes to mind. The above mentioned Bruichladdich (“brew ik laddy”) and the other “heavily peated” malts are all from Islay distilleries.
Currently there are eight working distilleries on the island, and one commercial malting plant (they provide malted barley to distilleries that do not do their own in-house malting). Plans for a ninth distillery, Port Charlotte, call for the new distillery to come on line sometime in 2016, pending adequate funding.
Lore, mystery, dependence, as well as wonderful contributions to classic single malt Scotches have been part and parcel of peat for millennia. Today, craftspeople recreate the authentic peat keshie baskets used in the 1700s for carrying blocks of peat from harvest to home; scientists are researching how to curb the environment-choking phenomenon of smoldering underground fires in peatlands around the world, and companies have been formed to regulate and promote the mechanized harvesting of peat on an industrial scale.