By Gavin D Smith
For most of its existence, peat was one of the hallmarks of Scotch whisky. Whether wisps of smoke wafting from blends like Johnnie Walker, or the pure and punchy peat of Islay, many drinkers came to assume that scotch means peat. Peat is actually nothing more than a convenient fuel source that worked its way into whisky as the result of kiln-drying malted barley over fires fueled by the decomposing vegetation.
Peat bogs are found in many parts of Great Britain, but they are widespread in the Scottish Highlands and islands, where for centuries they have provided a valuable source of domestic heat. In remote locations where coal was at a premium, it was hardly surprising that distillers turned to peat when heat was required.
As the Scotch whisky industry expanded during the 1960s, however, traditional floor maltings, with their liberal use of peat for kiln drying, were unable to keep pace with increases in production. So centralized, mechanical maltings were adopted by many distillers. This coincided with a growing thirst for blended scotch in the U.S., and what North American drinkers did not want were smoky whiskies. So the advent of centralized malting led to a decline in the use of peat during kilning, and an overall reduction of ‘peatiness’ in malt whiskies. Peat was slowly slipping away.
Some distillers, like those on Islay, kept the peaty faith, though even there the likes of Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain joined the many mainland single malts which dispensed with peated malt altogether, or reduced peating to very low levels. Now, even distillers who had long since disassociated themselves with anything vaguely smoky are hearkening back to their roots with the introduction of peated variants of single malts. Peat is back
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