With the wide range of whiskies and bourbons available, one of the most interesting flavor profiles is peat. People may love or hate it and those who hate it may end up loving it.
While peated whiskies are more commonly associated with Scotch whisky, it is used in American whiskey and Bourbon, though less often.
Peat can be quite a contentious topic, so let's take a little dive into some peat basics.
What is peat, and why is it important?
Here is a good explanation from Garden Organic:
"Peat comes from peat bogs; it is an accumulation of partially decayed organic matter. Because it is stored underwater, it doesn't release carbon as it decays. Peat bogs are the largest and most efficient carbon store on earth (10 times more carbon per hectare than any other ecosystem, including forests). They are an important defense against climate change."
The more you read into it, the more you find that peat is essential to the planet's ecosystem.
Not only is peat used in whiskey/bourbon but also in horticultural practices.
From a horticultural perspective:
Peat has been used for approx. 40+ years as a growing medium. Mixed into compost, it holds water well, adds no nutritional value (so nutrition can be added), and when dry, is exceptionally light, making it cheap to transport.
For example, the total amount of UK peat for horticulture is around 25%, and the rest generally comes from Ireland and Eastern Europe. Recently Bord Na Mona has announced that they will be ceasing peat harvesting. This is a very positive move. However, on reading the PR a couple of other companies will continue to provide peat for horticulture.
Peat from a whiskey perspective:
Those of us who enjoy a peated whisky are enjoying a by-product of a historically necessary practice.
Peat has been and, in some areas, still is a material used for burning to create a heat source. In whisky, that heat source was for heating the Pot-stills. It was and still is for some distilleries used as part of the process of drying malted barley.
Peat from different areas can give varying flavors to the malted grain, which is transferred into the whisky.
The bottom line is this: peat is no longer necessary in producing whisky. It's not required to heat the stills and it's not needed to dry the barley. Those things can still happen without peat. Peat is now a preferred luxury.
So, as plants can grow without peat, so can whisky be made.
What flavors does peat bring to whiskey?
As noted above, peat from different areas will have differing flavor profiles. Coastal Islay (pronounced eye-la) peat will give smoky, medicinal, and even rubbery/sulfur flavors. In contrast, inland peat from Sweden will be more herbaceous and "green" with an element of smoke. The easiest way to think about it is to imagine the plants that would have typically grown in that area. And not only plants, coastal peat will likely have decaying ocean creatures in it.
As well as geographical area making a difference to the peat flavors, so does the distilling process. Each distiller will know what level of peat they want in the whisky, whether strong or light smoky, medicinal or herbaceous.
These flavor compounds are released during the burning of peat and are called "Phenols," and even though there are quite a few of them, the primary two we can detect in our whiskey are "Cresol" and "guaiacol."
Cresols will give more medicinal flavor notes, while guaiacols give smoky notes. The distillers can raise or lower the levels throughout the distilling process. So, while "peaty" may be a word used to describe a whiskey, take a little more time to work out if it's medicinal or smoky or a balance of the two. As we note, these are the two prominent flavor profiles. Some may be sweeter, others meatier.
How do I know how peaty a whiskey is?
A peated whiskey or Bourbon will have a "PPM" number. PPM means Parts Per Million. In the world of whiskey, for some reason we get a little excited about how much peat is in our whiskey. But we need to remember that the PPM of the malted grain before the distillation process will be higher than what ends up in your glass. So, while you may be excited to drink a 78ppm dram, what is in your glass is more likely to be around 20ppm.
Lastly, many are put off peated whiskey after a negative experience by drinking it at a younger age or having a flavor profile they didn't like. Don't let your dislike of one peated dram put you off trying others.
Peat and Sustainability:
In writing this article, time was spent emailing distilleries, global whisky brands, the SWA (Scotch Whisky Association), and even malting companies to find out if someone would be willing to answer some questions about peat use in whisky.
Is there an acknowledgment of the climate issue? Would there be a response?
Yes, there is. Both the SWA and Diageo, for example, have highlighted the usage of peat and how it aligns with the overall global actions from the UN (United Nations) Sustainable Development Goals. Many are talking about Net Zero emissions.
This link goes to the SWA Insights page and gives some great info on the plans:
This link focuses specifically on peat and Scotland's landscapes:
This is also part of the SEPA (Scottish Environment Protection Agency) action plan:
Diageo has released the Society 2030 program, which incorporates all responsibilities, from people to water to land.
The Peat Action Plan for Scotland has now been published and can be read here:
Can anything be used in place of peat for flavor? Well, yes and no. We already char barrels for a smoky effect and some distilleries are experimenting by using other materials within the drying process for flavor. Swedish whisky brand Mackmyra is well known for the use of Juniper. We can reuse barrels that had previously held peated whiskey/bourbon.
Will the use of peat ever disappear in whiskey production? We will have to wait and find out.
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