Peat is the decomposed remains of grasses, moss, sedges and reeds that have been compressed over centuries in the oxygen-starved, waterlogged conditions of bogs. Ireland and Scotland’s west coast are ideal locations. In Ireland they call it Turf. We have been burning peat for fuel for thousands of years, mostly as a cheap heat and cooking help. It’s burning peat smoke that is revealed in peated whisky. At the Laphroaig Distillery maltings, they burn peat in the kiln, 1.5 tons every day. A kiln at Highland Park is stacked with glowing bricks of peat.
We have to mention Islay, the west coast home of Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Kilchoman distilleries for example, here, peat offers a diversity of flavours. But it’s not just Scotland that makes peated whisky, the U.S., Japan, Ireland, Taiwan, India, Sweden, Australia and a host of other countries do. Those with their own peat sources may dig it up locally, that’s what they do at Mackmyra in Sweden and Lark Distillery in Tasmania. Those without, such as Japan, import peat or peated malt from Scotland.
The distribution of phenols, guaiacols, and syringols (had to look this up!) are responsible for the peat smoke influence in whisky. The flavours depend on the composition of the decomposed constituents in the peat, which in turn depend on what plant life once grew there in times past. Mainland Scottish bogs, for example, are formed more from trees, so produce a greater guaiacol-to-phenol ratio when burnt compared with peat lifted on Islay. Malting is the process of converting starches in the grain into sugars. This is done by steeping the barley in water, the wet barley is laid out on a floor where the starches slowly convert to sugar to provide energy and sustenance for the growing plant. Germination is halted by drying the barley out. Traditionally in Scotland, the barley was dried over a fire fuelled with peat.
What is “ppm” ? When whisky producers produce a peaty/smoky whisky, they instruct or specify the phenol levels they desire in the malt. It’s at this point they start to make peat levels. Some distilleries aim for no peat whatsoever. The majority of Speyside/Highland distilleries specify “highland peat”, which weighs in with a peat level of 1-3ppm phenols. Most whisky drinkers will not taste peat or smoke at these levels. Talisker has a iodine, ozone-like character with its malt peated to around 14ppm. Highland Park has a malt peated to 12-15ppm. The whiskies of Campbeltown exude a dirty, engine room-like peatiness, with Springbank peated to 12-15ppm, and Glen Scotia coming in at similar levels for its regular make. Bruichladdich’s Octomore – famously peated to phenol ppm levels of 160 and higher.
My pal Liz, hates peat, cannee stand the smell or taste. I can drink it, even the Octomore. It’s a marmite thing, love it or hate it. Said a cousin over in Ireland, “peat/turf whisky is like licking a hospital floor”. A wee tip to newbee whisky lovers, do not start a tasting session with a peaty dram if you are also drinking Speyside or lowlanders, it will ruin your taste buds. My favourite time for a peaty dram is winter, night time when it is snowing outside. No telly, maybe a bit of Creedence on to listen to and a good measure of the dram, your room lights doused to a single lamp giving your room atmosphere. Enjoy.
PAUL MCLEAN, PERTH 2023