What is Peat?
Peat is a term you’ll come across very often while traversing the world of whiskies, and something you’ll no doubt experience when tasting through the fine drams the world has to offer.
But what exactly is peat, and what role does it play in producing whisky?
Peat is, in fact, a fuel, generally considered a fossil fuel - though it is technically a VERY slowly-renewable fuel. It’s not often used or harvested in most parts of the world, but northern countries are familiar with it, and Northern Europe especially is well known for its use. Typically found in large bogs, which tend to be called peatlands, there are many variations and different termed areas of soil that could include peat. In these areas, the soil takes on dying vegetation and other organics, but one key difference for peatlands is that the higher acidity prevents full decomposition.
The process of vegetation dying and integrating into the peat takes a long time - peatlands typically grow at just 1mm/year! So, for peatlands being harvested, they’re actually thousands of years old. During harvesting, the peat is cut away from the land, cut into small briquettes, and stacked up to allow the water to drain out. Once dried, peat becomes much more combustible, which enables it to fuel fires in the malting process.
As we already know, germinated barley needs to be dried out before it can be used, and this is typically done via hot air in kilns. When firing the kilns, peat can be added to produce a vast amount of smoke that goes through the barley and imparts its characteristic smoke flavours. This is all done during the malting stage, so most distilleries (since they don’t produce their malt themselves) will specify when ordering whether they’d like to use peat or not, and if used then how heavy an influence they’d like from peat.
Notable Peated Whiskies: Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroiag