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Know Your Peat: Smoke & Whisky

Jane Ryan | 24/03/2016

Inside the moody, wild whisky from Islay.

Windswept wildernesses, fire embers, seaweed and dark salted chocolate; smoky whisky is one of the last untamed spirits, it’s a dram full of the elements, the marmite of the drinks world.

If you’re a whisky fan you’ll know that brisk, seaside and smoke aroma which certain Scotch and Irish whiskies can carry. That moody whisky is possibly your ideal drop of liquid or perhaps, to you, its strong and punchy taste is a far cry from palatable. After all, the wilderness is not for everyone.

You’ve possibly even tried smoky whisky in cocktails, now that no liquid is barred from the bartender’s creative impulse (and so much the better), from the modern classic Penicillin to smoky twists on Rob Roys and Whisky Sours.

But what makes that discernible smoky and salted, even leathery, taste?

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In a word: peat.

In a few more words: the compact matter of decomposed plants from the unwalkable, boot-filling bogs of Scotland which are dug up, dried out, and burned beneath malted barley before the grains, now rich with peaty smoke, are fermented and distilled into whisky. We’re not talking about any old decomposed plants however, you can’t make peat from your garden compost. These are plants of an irredeemably wet place, a place from which water cannot drain. Or, as the exceptional Andrew Jefford penned in Peat, Smoke and Spirit “A dark, living clock of rain-gorged plants, burned – for what? To drink wilderness.”

There is one place in the world, windswept and eternally damp, that is most famous for its peated whiskies – the Inner Hebrides island of Islay, where almost all the whiskies either have peat’s flavour sharply fighting for dominance or sweetly blended in by age.

There the peat year starts in March when the earth is peeled back a layer, revealing a top level of rough and hairy young peat. The bogs and moss of Islay are mostly made up of coralline Sphagnum capillifolium and its many relatives – a strange rootless community of plants fittingly called bog moss. This impressive plant can absorb eight-times its own weight, gorging itself off the wet island, and making decomposition difficult. As the plant grows up, climbing onwards, the lower layers are left without air, swimming in their own weight and making for an acidic medium devoid of nutrients. Accumulation occurs and peat forms. Can't put a price on mud right?

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Once April ticks around the islanders start to cut the peat into thick slabs. The deeper they go the smoother the peat becomes, resembling bricks of chocolate ice-cream. Islay’s famers have been cutting peat to keep themselves warm, and to cook with, for the last 5,000 years – it’s one of the original fuels. Harvesting is traditionally done by hand but no industry is unmoved by modern times and there are tractor-like devices now used on the bogs, although the amount of water makes driving the motors more akin to surfing than harvesting. If you’re in the whisky industry you’ll want that initial rough layer as it produces thick smoke when it burns while the smoother, old peat provides more warmth and less smoke, making it perfect for home fires. 

Peat extraction isn’t without its controversies however. As a finite resource, which renews itself very slowly, it's use as fertiliser has been protested by environmental groups; peat bogs are also a precious habitat for rare plants and birds. Is it feasible, however, to say using peat to flavour the malt for whisky production on Islay is a wasteful extravagance in the face of global environmental issues?

Probably not has been the resounding answer for the last few decades. It’s predicted that Islay still has a good 5000 years’ worth of peat left and some renewal would take inevitably place in that time. Yet as summed up perfectly by Jefford “nonetheless, extraction rates on Islay can’t be considered sustainable.”

While the outlook isn’t in peril just yet, or anytime soon, whisky lovers and producers will have to harvest carefully, knowing that each slab of peat they take is one less for the future.

Peated whiskies can be an everyday dram for some, and a particularly dark and emotional drop for others. Some carry enough heat to blow the top of your head off, others simply warm your palate. They are so deeply personal to each drinker, whether it reminds you of sweaty workmen, men in kilts, burnt knickers (nope, me neither...just click the link) or days gone by. Essentially they’re a liquid that transports you to your own rugged coast of a wind battered island.

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From The Whisky Exchange: Five Peated Islay Whiskies To Try

1. Peat – Elements of Islay

A newly launch blend, by Speciality Drinks, of single malts from around the island, this is a big, punchy 'full-throttle' dram with notes of roasted fruit, smoke and roasted spice. Despite the 59% abv, the whisky is incredibly smooth and very palatable neat.

2. Lagavulin 8 Year Old

Released to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Lagavulin distillery by John Johnston in 1816, this eight-year-old is big and smoky, with sweet spice that becomes apparent with a drop of water. Classy and complex, this has less fruit than the regular 16 Year Old, but adds a delicious extra layer of smoke and bite.

3. Ardbeg Uigeadail

A fine drop of Ardbeg bottled at cask strength. A marriage of Ardbeg from bourbon barrels and sherry butts which gives a sweet and smoky finish to this malt. Uigeadail is the loch from which all Ardbeg water flows. An absolutely stunning whisky, and following the demise of Airigh nam Beist, this probably represents the best value in the core range.

4. Kilchoman Machir Bay

The 2015 bottling is the fourth release of Kilchoman's ongoing Machir Bay. It's a vatting of whisky matured in first-fill bourbon casks for around six years, married and then finished in oloroso sherry butts before bottling.

5. Laphroaig Lore

Laphroaig Lore is a 2016 addition to the distillery's range. Made up of whiskies aged in a combination of quarter casks, sherry casks and reused peated casks. This is rich and classically peaty with a spicy chili bite and a long, sweet aftertaste.

One for the collectors

Bowmore The Devil's Casks III

The third and final appearance of The Devil's Casks from Bowmore, this combines the features of the previous two. Both Pedro Ximénez and oloroso sherry casks have been used, resulting in an intense and rich whisky with notes of coffee, salted treacle, chocolate fudge and dates. This is a limited edition release, selling at £190 a bottle, making for an excellent collector’s item. 

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