Wade Cothran | Oct 23, 2020
Smoke and Earth: Getting to Know Peated Whiskey
Life contains myriad sensory pleasures. The taste of home-cooked food, prepared with love, and served with style. The sight of sunlight bouncing off your new BrüMate wine glass. The opening lines of your favorite song… the list could go on and on. For whiskey fans, however, few sensory pleasures are greater, more evocative, or more intense than the rich and fascinating taste and aroma of high-quality peated whiskey.
Peated whiskey really is something very special, and it provides a unique taste sensation that sits at the heart of some of the world’s greatest bottles. Those deep, earthy, complex flavors, that decidedly distinctive smokiness, the images it conjures up of historic distilleries on windswept cliffs… ah, it really does do something rather remarkable on the palate. But what is peated whiskey, and how does that distinctive flavor come about? As ever, we’re here to unravel the mysteries of whiskey and give you the know-how to make your whiskey drinking experiences - helped along by your unique and attractive BrüMate whiskey glasses - all the more enjoyable.
Where Does My Whiskey’s Peated Flavor Come From?
The irresistible smokiness of peated whiskey essentially arises from compounds which are released from the burning of peat - a type of dense, ancient earth - which is used in a series of processes that dries the malted barley used in the production of certain whiskeys.
The strength of the peat flavor can be moderated in a number of ways by the distiller. The length of time the malt is exposed to the smoke, and the intensity and quantity of peat smoke, will dictate how powerfully this particular aromatic flavor component comes across in the glass.
What Exactly is Peat?
Peat is a truly fascinating thing, with an ancient history that pre-dates the whiskey industry by immeasurable lengths of time. For thousands of years, peat was one of the most accessible and readily available sources of reliable fuel for the ancient inhabitants of Scotland, a land characterized by fierce winds and freezing winters, and where natural fuel resources were of huge importance, and where mining was difficult or impossible. Boggy, marshy areas of the country accumulated huge areas of stagnant water, and this stagnant water slowed down the decomposition of plant matter. Moss, tree roots, and grasses would, therefore, gradually break down across the centuries, forming the thick, dense, and dark type of earth we know as peat.
Technically, peat is a fossil fuel - which puts it in the same category as natural gas, oil, and coal. Why? Because peat is created over vast periods of time, and many of the most prevalent and productive peat bogs have been harvested for millennia, and are themselves tens of thousands of years old. In ancient times, peat collection was an effective, simple, and consistent way of accumulating fuel for fires in homesteads and on farms - it burns slowly and steadily when dried - and eventually became central for the sustaining of kiln fires for the Scottish distilleries which popped up across the country several hundred years ago.
The distillers found that the burnt peat lent their whiskeys a distinctive flavor and character, and even when more reliable and affordable sources of fuel became available, many of the distilleries decided to continue using peat in order to maintain their signature flavor and character, and as a way of keeping their ancient heritage intact. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Process of Using Peat for Malting
The vast majority of distilleries in Scotland today will rely primarily on malted barley that has been commercially produced and shipped in. However, in the past, malting one’s own barley was a key aspect of the whiskey production process. The malting involved making the various starches present within barleycorn soluble - this process allows the sugars present within the grain to be more easily converted into alcohol. You could say that the malting process is essentially a way to trick the barleycorn into sensing the arrival of Spring, as it forces the grain to begin germinating and sprouting after being steeped in water - a process which is then cut short in the fiery heat of the kiln.
When natural dried peat is used as the chosen fuel for heating the kiln, a dense and highly aromatic smoke is released. This smoke is packed full of thousands of years worth of plant matter, which itself contains countless naturally-occurring chemical compounds and flavonoids. The smoke, therefore, wields and major influence on the malt during the kilning process, as it imbues the malt with phenols which exude all kinds of aromas and flavors which eventually manifest in the bottle and the glass. The most typical flavors and aromas released? Well, as any Scotch whiskey fan will tell you, these include ash and woodsmoke, tar, iodine, and earth… all the characteristic notes associated with quality peated spirits.
Why Did Some Distilleries Stop Using Peat?
If you hang around other whiskey fans (and why wouldn’t you? Whiskey drinkers make the best buddies!) then it’s likely you’ve probably met someone who simply cannot stand the intense smokiness of peated whiskey. This is, in actual fact, not a new phenomenon or opinion by a long shot indeed; peated whiskeys have always split the whiskey-drinking community into lovers and haters, and it has come in and out of fashion pretty regularly over the past few centuries. Despite the fact that it was, at frequent points throughout history, considered something highly undesirable, a lot of the Highland Scotch and island distilleries believed that peating was an essential aspect of their heritage, and that it would be unthinkable to move away from using Scottish peat as their principal fuel. Indeed, when coal and coke became more affordable and readily available, certain regions wholeheartedly embraced the use of alternative fuel sources, while others steadfastly stuck to their peated guns.
The original regions which gave up peat use - and continue to eschew it to this day - were Speyside and the Lowlands. The railways built into Scotland in the 19th century brought easy access to coal, and it really isn’t hard to see why it was an attractive option; coal burns more easily and predictably than peat, and doesn’t give out nearly as much smoke, making it perfect for smoother whiskeys which look to impart flavors other than a strong hit of ash and tar. As a result, Lowlands and Speyside whiskeys based their ongoing signature style on unpeated flavors, which led to considerable success which continues into the 21st century.
Which Regions Have Continued Peating Whiskey?
Not every region of Scotland was interested in giving up peating, which again, led to the rise of a highly distinctive regional style. The reasons for sticking with the ancient fuel are two-fold; on the one hand, some distilleries, as mentioned, saw peating as a fundamental aspect of their whiskey heritage and ongoing identity, and suspected that their customers would be nothing short of appalled were they to make any significant change to the way they made their spirits.
On the other hand, peat - for all its difficulties - remains a highly affordable and accessible local source of fuel, especially in the more isolated and off-shore areas of Scotland where railways were yet to be developed. This is particularly the case for distilleries in Islay and the Orkney Islands, which have stuck with peat to this day, and whose sizable fanbase wouldn’t have it any other way.
Is Peated Whiskey Only Found in Scotland?
As is the case with several aspects of the ever-widening whiskey world, Scotch whiskey holds sway over several whiskey-producing countries and regions across the globe, with its heritage and influence felt far and wide. This has led to the widespread practice of double distillation and seeking out the finest mountain spring waters… but it’s also the case with the use of peat, too.
Look through the more esoteric shelves of your local whiskey store, and you’ll find peated single malts from countries as far-ranged as Sweden, Japan, New Zealand, and India, where distilleries aiming to replicate the distinction and finesse of Islay and Orkney producers make fantastic use of local and imported peat.
There you go - your quick guide to peated whiskeys! Whether you’re a diehard fan of intense and smoky Scotch or prefer your whiskeys smoother and fruitier, there’s no denying that peat has played a fascinating and significant role in the history of our favorite spirit. Let’s raise a beautiful BrüMate glass of Scotch to Scotland’s remarkable history, and even more remarkable produce! Cheers!