Man at His Best

3 Basic Things You Need To Know About Peat Before You Start Acting Like A Know-It-All

It’s time to learn more about this mossy accumulation of compressed decaying plant material that “puts” smoke in your drams.

BY Patrick Chew | Feb 17, 2016 | Food & Drink

Image from Laphroiag

“As I take my first sip from my dram and chew and swirl it around my mouth, I immediately hear the eagles calling in the north as my eyes well up with tears because I’m reminded of a sad bagpiper’s tune. As I go in to nose the whisky, I smell salt from the sea combined with musty smoke—something that can be likened to sniffing a seagull’s armpit after a spring rain.”

Oh, quit it already. Whisky is meant to be shared and enjoyed without any of that snobby bullsh*t. But yeah, we get it, whisky is indeed difficult to talk about without coming off as a haughty prick. 

Our only advice: know your facts. 

So the next time you find yourself in a conversation about peated whiskies (something many Asians are starting to gravitate toward after having moved on from the sweeter and lighter stuff), remember these three little facts.

1 | Peat was used as an everyday fuel in the past.
Peat forms in bogs, which are wetlands with high acid content. It is this acidity that prevents organic material such as vegetation and dead animals from fully decomposing. After building up and being compressed for thousands of years, the matter eventually becomes peat. When first harvested, peat looks like long, heavy and mushy turds. However, pick one up after leaving it out to dry for a few weeks and you’ll notice that it’s somewhat light and porous. It is a fossil fuel much like firewood that has been used for cooking and keeping warm for over 2,000 years. But with the prevalence of coal and electricity, the use of peat has dwindled and is largely confined to the isles of Scotland by whisky distilleries for whisky production.

2 | Peat doesn’t even touch the whisky.
Master distillers don’t plonk bricks of peat into their spirit stills or stir them in with the cask-matured whisky before bottling. As a matter of fact, peat is used before whisky even becomes whisky. After harvesting and malting barley, distillers would begin the drying process by burning peat in kilns for up to 15 hours. More than just being dried, the barley absorbs some of the peat smoke to become infinitely more fragrant compared to unpeated barley. The barley will then be moved into mash tuns for mashing before fermentation and eventually distillation. 

3 | It’s not so much about how much peat you add but rather how long you burn it for.
Adding too much peat will undoubtedly make the fire bigger. And while that may have been a good thing for people in the past to keep warm, it is not ideal for distilleries. A big fire means more smoke. More smoke means more heat. And more heat means the barley will get dried out too fast and become unable to absorb any more than it already has. Instead, fires are kept at a minimum when drying barley to increase the amount of smoke absorbed. In the end, the degree of peating is measured in parts per million (ppm). A measurement of one ppm translates to one milligram of phenol per kilogram of malted barley. To put things in perspective, Bowmore peats their malted barley to a level of 25ppm, while heavier whiskies like Laphroaig peats to about 40. The title of heaviest peated whisky in the world belongs to Bruichladdich’s Octomore, which boasts of a whopping 169ppm.