It is almost unfair that Marmite remains the most widely accepted shorthand, in English at least, for something that is either loved to death or loathed with passion, as peat’s ability to polarise opinions is simply nonpareil. For starters, peatiness is very much a supplemental element in most whiskies, and unapologetically peaty whiskies are but a niche. Peat is, however, way more common in the physical world than in the realm of whisky.
Peat is essentially a fossil fuel formed as a result of the accumulation of partially decayed organic matters, mostly vegetation, in wetlands. An early stage in the formation of coal and petroleum, peat is particularly commons south of the Arctic Circle and indeed across much of Northern Europe. Various sources indicate that approximately 3% of the world’s land surface contains peat, which covers nearly a quarter of Scotland, especially the Highlands and Islands (in the sense of administrative divisions, not single malt regions).
Depending on climatic and geological conditions, peat grows by around a millimetre per year, i.e. a metre-deep peat bog is the result of a millennium of natural accumulation. Peat is arguably a renewable source of energy, as its regeneration outpaces extraction, but it does not make peat environmentally friendly; after all, it is a fossil fuel. Since peat is slow-burning at relatively low temperatures, it has never been as important as coal and petroleum.
Readily available and in abundance, peat was widely used in the distillation process, but unless the pot stills are not airtight, this does not impart any flavours on the spirit. Water coming through peat bogs has negligible effect on the nectar, unless the taster’s nose is as acutely sharp as a German Shepherd. Peatiness in whisky almost entirely comes from the drying process, during which the germination is halted by drying damp malts over a peat-heated fire, which can take over 30 hours.
The strength of peatiness is measured by PPM (Phenol Parts per Million). At single digit, PPM is virtually undetectable. The softest of Islay single malts, Bunnahabhain, contains less than 2ppm; the dauntless Highland Park and Talisker contain between 20 and 30ppm; even the potently peaty Laphroaig and Ardbeg have less are than 55ppm. For serious peatheads, Bruichladdich’s Octomore series, often exceeding 200ppm and even reaching 300ppm, remains the highlight in their calendar.
Peat is no longer the only viable source of energy for distillers in Scotland, same as salting fish (unhealthy) and smoking meat (cancer-inducing) are not the only ways to preserve food nowadays, but old habits and acquired tastes die hard. Once elevated to the status of tradition, such practice will likely continue for a long time.
Translucent citrine with pastel golden reflex, the pungent nose radiates salted lemon, cardamom, oyster shell, antiseptic liquid and charcoal. With a robust mouthfeel, the mighty palate oozes smoked meat, white pepper, sea water, turpentine and cigar ash. Medium-full bodied at 46%, the upright entry continues through a delineated mid-palate, leading to a powerful finish. The inborn vitality of peat on display here.
Luminous citrine with light golden reflex, the maritime nose effuse salted lemon, white pepper, oat biscuit and tarry ropes. With a fresh mouthfeel, the vigorous palate emanates cardamom, arugula, buttered toast and wet peat. Medium-bodied at 43%, the bright entry persists through a clean mid-palate, leading to a saline finish. Who said that peat cannot be fragrant and refreshing?
Rich amber with copper-vermillion reflex, the multifaceted nose reveals roasted barley, dried Chinese yam, Pu’erh, camphor and wood smoke. With a tea-like mouthfeel, the chiselled palate unveils burnt sugar, dried ginger, Lapsang Souchong, tobacco and smoked salt. Medium-full bodied at 43%, the rounded entry evolves into a melodious mid-palate, leading to a mellow finish. Peat can taste harmonious and sophisticated.
Jacky I.F. Cheong is a legal professional by day and columnist by night. Having spent his formative years in Britain, France, and Germany, he regularly writes about wine, fine arts, classical music, and politics in several languages