The Encyclopedia Britannica defines peat as “fuel consisting of spongy material formed by the partial decomposition of organic matter, primarily plant material, in bogs, fens, and moors.” Peated whisky is a much misunderstood and feared type of Scottish whisky, but I will try to make it seem less like a dram that an old bearded Scotsman complaining about the world would enjoy and more a dram that is as multifaceted and expansive as any other whisky out there.
The first dram that I enjoyed was a no-holds-barred, peated monster from Islay and it blew me away – the aromas of smoke, tobacco, wood fire and salt all combined to make it an unforgettable experience. However, not everyone’s first impression of a peated whisky from Islay is like this – often people find it harsh, unpalatable and just too strong. The question we need to ask is what gives whisky from Islay and other regions in Scotland this distinctive and almost in your face ‘Scottish’ characteristic?
What gives the whisky this flavor is peat. For a long time, peat was used as a source of fuel in Scotland and was readily available for the distillers as a cheap, low cost form of providing heat for the malting stage in distilling. What they would do is burn blocks of peat under the barley and this in essence would create a smoke infused barley, a characteristic that would be carried right throughout the distillation process. This is still done to this day in the malting plants that supply many distilleries in Scotland.
Often when people try peated whisky for the first time, it is from the big, well known distillers on Islay and these whiskies are often akin to hiding in a bothy, storm coming in, peat fire billowing and an acrid smoke filling the room. This can be something people struggle with.However, there are other peated whiskies throughout Scotland that have different characteristics. The whiskies from Skye, for example, have an almost brine like quality to them and, to quote a famous Skye distillery, a “taste of salt.”
Peated whisky has long been thought to be a style only done in Scotland.However, peat is found across the world, ranging from North America to Japan and beyond. All these countries and many in between are beginning to experiment with the use of peat in their whiskies. When trying whiskies from these regions, I find that if the peat has been sourced locally to the distilleries, it can produce a very different style of smoke. The trick is finding what style of peat you prefer and going from there. These ‘world’ whiskies often use peat as a way of giving people access to what used to be a Scottish dominated area. When you are trying these whiskies, it is important to remember that they are often very young and feisty. This is primarily due to the conditions under which they have been matured.
As an avid smoke head and peat lover what I would recommend is starting easy – don’t go for the big full on malts, but instead try the softer, easier going ones. Also, consider the addition of water if it is cask strength, and you will begin to appreciate the world of peated whiskies and smoke. However, if the notion of sipping on a dram of smoky, earthy, peaty goodness is difficult to swallow, how about drinking it on a cold day when some fire is needed in the soul? At the end of the day, the main characteristic of the best peaty whiskies is that when you try them for the first time, or the hundredth, they still taste as full on and unashamedly smoky as ever.
What to remember when you are faced with a smoky peaty dram sitting in your glass is to take some time, sit back and enjoy a style of whisky that is rooted in Scottish heritage and tradition. It will also evoke thoughts of sitting by a roaring fire, breathing in these notes of wood smoke, your eyes stinging, mouth-watering, but also feeling that contented glow deep down, knowing you are drinking something truly unique while the harsh Scottish winter rattles your door and you need something to truly lift your spirits and put fire back in your soul.
No one is an an expert, i'm simply a Scotsman with 12 years experience selling whisk(e)y and other libations. From the bar to the shop floor my passion has always been whisk(e)y and cigars, starting in a humble whisk(e)y shop then running a cigar boutique, to being a brand ambassador...