But first things first:
What is Peat?Rubbish, really. Peat is thousands of years’ worth of decaying vegetation, animals and moss which have evolved into layers; a bog if you will. Peat’s substance varies; some bogs are more woody, whilst other peat is more watery. A peat bog grows by 1mm every year, so just a metre thick bog is 1000 years old.
When peat is harvested, it’s cut up into small sloppy slices of ‘sod’, stacked in pyramids and left to dry. Before you know it, well, 2-3 weeks later, you have yourself some tough peat bricks, which contain more energy than coal. Peat fires are an ancient Scottish tradition; the stuff is so compact that it burns piping hot for ages.
How is peat used in making Whisky?Lots of people think that it's the water, which runs though peat bogs, which gives Whisky its peated taste. These people are talking codswallop. The substance is in the smoke.
Barley grain, or damp malt, is exposed to the smoke of a peat fire in order to arrest germination; a crucial part of Whisky production. Peat smoke produces chemicals called phenols and these are absorbed by malted barley. The amount of time the barley grain’s exposed to the peat smoke determines the level of phenols, and therefore the spirit’s flavour. For an idea, damp malt is usually dried for about 30 hours. Laphroaig dries its malt over peat fire for between 12 to 18 of these 30 hours.
How is peat in Whisky measured?Once dried, the malt is mashed and the “peatiness” is measured by PPM, or phenol Parts Per Million. Some phenol is lost in distillation so the final PPM of the spirit is roughly one third of the original figure. Distilleries still use the PPM of the malt. For example Ardbeg clocks in at around 54ppm, Bowmore 22ppm and Bunnahabhain is a mere 1 - 2ppm.
What does peat taste like?Peat varies by region, and can add tasting notes including anything from soapy, sulphuric, medicinal, rich, smoky, herbal, creamy, saline, nutty, citrus and mossy to like a bonfire, burning tyres, diesel or even bacon depending on the amount of time the malt is peated for, the PPM and the length of time left to mature.
Peat is not for everyone, granted. But when you want to try a peated dram, look for these
Peated Whisky brandsThe peat flavour in varying degrees is considered essential in Scotch Whisky, particularly those produced in Islay, such as Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg, Bowmore, Port Charlotte and Caol Ila.
In other parts of Scotland, peated Whiskies can be found as well: Springbank, Benromach, Ardmore, Highland Park, Talisker, Leadig and Longrow, to name just a few with peaty expressions in their portfolios.
Looking for peated Whisky outside Scotland, India’s Peated Amrut is an emerging classic, Japan is also big on the peat, particularly at the Yoichi distillery, Swiss Saentis is an absolute hit, whilst in New Zealand the Manuka Smoke single malt has recently been introduced.
Like your Irish? Try the very peated Connemara Peated Single Malt, a lovely liquid.
If you like your curry extra spicy and your espresso double, you might want to go all in on the peat and are starting to wonder right now:
What is the most peated Whisky in the world?There’s no official peated Whisky ranking, but there's no doubt that the most peated Whisky in the world is Bruichladdich’s Octomore 6.3. At a whopping 258ppm, our fellow peat-eaters!
Go ahead, be our guest, just beware; this Whisky was born from a dare and your first sip of it will feel like you are actually biting into a clump of peat. No doubt future releases of the Octomore will look to build on this extreme peating, but only time will tell when they reach the upper limit.
So what do you say – peated Whisky yea or nay?