– Where There’s Smoke…. –

Understanding Peat and Smoke Flavors

Let’s start with the obvious. What is peated whisky? It’s a descriptive term in the whisky world that describes a smoky whisky. Smoke and peat go hand in hand because the smoky taste is a result of burning peat moss to dry different types of grain in the malt making process.
Before we go any further, we need to explain another process called malting. This is the process of converting grain into malt. For single malt scotch whisky, the grain is barley. For bourbon, it is mostly corn. For many types of whisky, it can be a blend of several grains. Beer, wine and other alcohols use similar methods. The process consists of three basic steps. We’ll use single malt scotch as our example.
First, the barley is soaked, on and off, for a couple of days, in a process called steeping. This takes it out of dormancy and causes it to start germinating. Sort of tricking it into thinking that it’s being planted in spring. Second is the germination step, which continues for three or four days. This happens by spreading the steeped barley on a big drying floor and turning it regularly to control the moisture content. Finally, the newly germinated barley is kilned, or dried, by forcing hot air through tiny holes in the floor, until it reaches the perfect consistency. Then it’s ground up and ready for use.

Barley germinating on the malting floor.

So what has all this got to do with peatiness? Well. unpeated (non-smoky) whisky is made by drying the barley over a smoke-free heat source. That heat source can be a big heater, or a wood fire in the kiln, which is located (usually) beneath the malting floor. Peated whisky, however is made by creating fires that are made with peat moss. This creates a thick smoke, which passes through the little holes in the malting floor and into the wet barley.
Simple? Not really. Back in the old days, the goal was to simply dry the germinated barley to use as food for the yeast, which, in turn, created the alcohol. But tradition has a way of taking over, starting with the available fuel for making the drying fires. In some places, where trees were plentiful, nice clean wood fires created a completely unpeated malt. In other places, particularly in many northern Scottish areas and on the islands, peat moss was used.
So, peat moss fire equals peated whisky. If only it were that simple. Trust me, it isn’t. For starters, there are several different kinds of peat, based on where it comes from. Also, peat decays differently, depending on location, composition, and time. For example, the peat moss in the Orkney Islands is mostly made up of decomposed heather. This gives the Orkney whisky a soft, sweet, floral flavor. Meanwhile, down in Islay, the peat offers up a heavier whisky which includes salty, seaweed, tar, and iodine flavors.
Clear so far? Just to get a wee bit more complicated, there are layers in a peat bog, and each layer offers something unique to the whisky. There’s the litter, or white layer, which is very top layer of the bog. It’s fairly new and light in structure. Not much decomposition. Then there’s the mid section, or coloured layer. And finally, the black layer, which is the best for creating big smoke. While it may only take 10 years or so to build one centimeter of new peat moss, as you dig deeper, the aging process stretches out. In fact, many of today’s peat bogs were formed at the end of the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago. Add a few million years and that peat becomes coal. Add a few million more and you get oil. It’s part of the fossil fuel formation process.

Harvested black peat. The heart and soul of peated whisky.

About 3% of the earth’s land surface is composed of peat bog. That’s about 1.5 million square miles. And it stores 600 gigatonnes of carbon, by far the biggest carbon sink in the world. And when it’s harvested and burned, that carbon is released. Not good. That’s why the whisky industry is active in the implementation of ecologically responsible harvest methods which conserve and protect peatland. After all, to get to that good, black peat, you need to dig down at least 5-8 feet. That’s about 3000 years of time – up in smoke.
But this is not Geologylove – it’s Whiskylove. So let’s tie it all back to that smoky dram that you know and enjoy.

We love to map things out. Or, even better, to put them on a chart. Let me introduce the Whisky Flavor Chart. You will notice that all the peated whisky is located at the top. But, if you’ve been following along, then you’ll know know that, even though these whiskies are all smoky, they’re all different smoky, depending on the endless nuances in the peat used to create that smoke.

Whisky Flavor Charts are neat because if you find a whisky that you like, then you can find others nearby on the chart that you might like to try. And there are lots of different charts out there.

One last point – it’s not just scotch whisky that’s available peated. You can shop for a nice peated bourbon or American whiskey, like Balcones Brimstone, Ranger Creek, Corsair Triple Smoke, or, my absolute favorite, McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt. If you are a fan of Irish whiskey, try a dram of Connemara, Waterford, or Teeling Blackpits. For Canadians, tip back a Ghean Dubh, a Lot 40 Peated, or a Two Brewers Peated. And if you are looking for the path less travelled, Israel’s Milk and Honey Distillery has a nice peated whisky, as does the Puni Distillery in Italy.
Can’t quite get your lips around the smoky stuff? Stick with it. It me me about ten years to really appreciate that campfire licking taste. Cheers!

2 thoughts on “– Where There’s Smoke…. –

    1. The smoke. It’s all about the smoke. To ignite the lignite right, you might pack it tight on a bright night and stack it at the right height. But you still won’t get any smoke. You can’t beat the same feat with peat. And there’s less heat to burn the wheat (or barley).

      Liked by 1 person

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