What is Peated Whisky?

by Matt Chambers
at Whisky for Everyone
17.3.23 09:13

Peated whisky is a style that uses peat to flavour the spirit. Until recently it was one of the defining aspects of Scotch whisky, but now others are using peat in whisky around the world. In Scotland, peated whiskies are some of the most desirable and collectable on the market and are backed by plenty of heritage and tradition.

The style is particularly associated with Islay, a small island sitting at the bottom of the Hebridean chain off the west coast of Scotland. The Queen of the Hebrides, as the island is known, is home to nine distilleries with a couple more in the pipeline. It is a hotbed for peated whisky.

However, the extreme smoky flavours can be an acquired taste. Their flavour profile divides opinions – you either love them or hate them. Those that love them tend to be fanatical. But there are nuances within the genre creating differing styles with regional variations at play, different peat used, and smoking levels altered.


Characteristics of Peated Whiskies

Peated whiskies are often described as smoky and earthy. The rich and deep smoky aromas and bold flavours can be intense but can also be used in more subtle ways. Lower peat levels give depth and earthiness to a whisky, like seasoning food with salt and pepper.

Key descriptors range from ashy bonfire embers and tar to surgical bandages, medicinal notes, and iodine. These tend to relate to coastal or island whiskies. Mainland Scottish bottlings can show softer, sweeter, and gentler smoke with notes of floral honey, subtle smoky spices and burnt caramel.


Leading Brands of Peated Whisky

What is the best peated whisky? Laphroaig is the biggest-selling Scotch single malt whisky in the peated category and consistently sits in fifth place for sales – only Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Macallan and Glenmorangie outsell it.

However, the largest Scotch peated whisky in terms of sales is Johnnie Walker Black Label. This uses a high proportion of Hebridean malts as part of the blend, predominantly Caol Ila from Islay and Talisker from Skye.

Lighter styles with more subtle peat influence include Highland Park from the Orkneys, Kilchoman from Islay, plus Benriach and Benromach from Speyside. At the other end of the scale, and sitting alongside Laphroaig, are heavily peated whiskies from Islay including Ardbeg, Lagavulin, plus Port Charlotte and Octomore from Bruichladdich.

A mid-range of smokiness is represented by Bowmore and Caol Ila from Islay, Talisker from Skye and Ledaig, which is made at the Tobermory distillery on Mull.


What is Peat?

Peat is a dense material made from vegetation that is decayed and compacted over thousands of years. Peat forms when an area is waterlogged for a prolonged period, and this slows the natural decomposition rate of vegetation.

The peat can be several metres deep and is slow growing – it generates about one millimetre per year. Therefore, peat at a depth of three metres is 3,000 years older than that on the surface.

The vegetation contained within the peat is dependent on location. This commonly includes moss, fern, bracken, heather, tree roots and grass. However, in areas such as the west coast of Scotland and Hebridean islands this can also include seaweed and kelp as they were historically below sea level.

Peat bogs are highly acidic and support flora and fauna adapted to live in such challenging conditions. If left long enough peat would eventually be compressed enough to form coal and then oil.

Peat bogs cover large areas of the Earth’s surface, including significant parts of Scotland and Ireland, and are one of the most efficient environments for storing carbon. This makes peat high in energy when burned.

Traditionally, peat was used as a fuel before modern alternatives were available. It was harvested as part of the annual farming cycle – cut in the spring when at its wettest and sodden with winter rain and snow melt, then piled up and dried over the summer months before being used for heating, cooking and the preservation of meat and fish during autumn and winter.

Peat is cut using a traditional tool called a ‘tairsgeir ‘- a long wooden handled tool with an angled blade on one end. It cuts the peat at right angles on two sides. When cut peat is dense and clay-like with a consistency and look of good chocolate brownie.


How Does Peat Get into Whisky?

Peat enters whisky making during the malting stage – the process of turning naturally occurring starch in the grain to sugar. Sugar is needed to produce alcohol and the ‘green malt’ needs to be killed otherwise the sugar will be used to create a new barley plant.

Peat smoke is the traditional way of achieving this. A peat fire is lit in a kiln below a mesh floor holding the ‘green malt’ and smoke rises through it. The smoke dries the barley, killing it off.

A compound called phenol permeates the husk and is carried through the entire production process – milling, mashing, fermentation, distillation, maturation, and bottling – until it lands in your whisky glass. This is what you smell and taste in a peated whisky.

The smokiness or peat level of a whisky is measured by the phenol level or PPM scale (Phenol Parts per Million). Distillers increase or decrease the levels in their whisky by simply burning peat in the kiln for longer or less time, or with less or more intensity.


Where is Peated Whisky Made?

Scotland is the largest producer of peated whisky with the island of Islay being at the forefront. Islay is famous for its smoky style of single malt and remains one of the last bastions of the peated genre. This is also true for many other outlying and remote regions and is a direct result of being the final locations in the UK to receive modern fuel alternatives.

Peated whiskies are produced in other countries such as India and Japan, although they use peat or peated barley imported from Scotland. Elsewhere several craft distillers are using local peat sources where they have them. Leading examples include Mackmyra in Sweden, Stauning in Denmark and Westland in Washington state, USA.


The Drive to Make Peat More Sustainable

Several concerns about the burning of peat and releasing of carbon have been raised recently, along with damage to sensitive peat bog environments during harvesting. With peat only regenerating itself at the rate of one millimetre per year, nothing of significance will grow back during our lifetimes.

This has led to distillers trying to operate in more sustainable ways. Some are now powdering down the peat rather than using traditional blocks – this creates more surface area and therefore more smoke from the same amount of peat.

Higher amounts of phenol are also released. Industrial maltings are also using closed ventilation systems to recycle the same smoke through several batches of malted barley.


For further information on peat in whisky or the best peated whisky cask to purchase, then please contact us below.

Matt Chambers

Matt Chambers has run Whisky for Everyone with his wife since 2008. Whisky For Everyone is a blog for all lovers of whisky - beginner, keen enthusiast or connoisseur.

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