Why Peat Is Popping Up In Non-Peaty Scotch

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.

Return of the Peat

The revival of peated malts is being achieved in two ways, the traditional being the addition of peat-kilned malt to the distillation regime. During malting, the desired level of peatiness—measured in phenolic parts per million (ppm)—is achieved by the length of time the malt is exposed to peat smoke at the kilning stage. Most distillers who declare a ppm value for their whisky do so based on the phenolic level of the malt before distillation. On average, the ppm of the spirit ultimately produced is around one-third of that in the original malt.

Balvenie was the first to come up with an alternative: finishing unpeated whisky in Islay casks, introduced in its 2001 Islay Cask expression, followed by Glenlivet’s Nàdurra—Gaelic for natural—in 2005. According to Glenlivet master distiller Alan Winchester, “If you look at old photos of Glenlivet Distillery right into the 1960s there are big stacks of peat. Like all other Speyside distilleries, burning peat in the malt kiln was part of what we did. So the idea with Nàdurra was to see what it would be like to reintroduce an element of peat. We used casks that had previously held a heavily-peated Islay.”

Islay cask-finishing was also introduced at Scapa, where Glansa was launched in 2016. As with Nàdurra, casks from a heavily-peated Islay single malt were used. For Scapa this was also a modest return to its roots, as records show that Scapa single malt was heavily peated until the 1950s.

Benromach produces a peated Speyside single malt.

Peated Malt

One distillery that paved the way for peated variants of single malts was the Speyside Benromach. When new owners Gordon & MacPhail reopened it in 1998 after a major restoration project, they began to distill all their spirit using malt peated to around 12ppm, declaring their intention to produce a Speyside single malt as it would have been during the 1950s and ’60s.

Ardmore is another distillery in the area that had never forsaken peat in the first place. Constructed by the Teacher family in the late 1890s, it has been providing the element of smokiness that characterizes Teacher’s Highland Cream blend to this day. Most Ardmore is distilled using malt peated to around 12-14ppm, while a percentage of unpeated spirit is now produced each year using the name Ardlair.

Following the lead of Benromach, a number of other distillers also began making peated single malt, but usually in relatively modest annual batches. In part, this was done to secure supplies of peated spirit for blending purposes. As Islays became progressively more popular as single malts, it seemed likely that their producers would find themselves short of spirit for blending customers, or at the very least they would be in a position to increase prices to the laws of supply and demand.

In some instances, however, this was not the only motivation. According to Whyte & Mackay’s master blender Richard Paterson, “We started to make batches of peated spirit at Jura, Dalmore, and Fettercairn, partly for blending purposes, but also with a view to possibly releasing some as single malt, depending on how they matured.

“In the case of Jura, it was a return to our roots in a way, as Jura single malt had traditionally been as heavily peated as many of its Islay neighbors. And there was obviously the resurgence in popularity of Islay single malts to bear in mind. We first launched Superstition, which was lightly peated, during 2002, and it was so well received that in 2009 we bottled Prophecy, which has a significantly higher peating level.”

Also going down the peaty path was Tomintoul, which released the youthful peated Old Ballantruan in 2005, and this has been followed up by a number of subsequent variants. Each year Tomintoul produces some 360,000 liters of spirit with a phenolic level of around 55ppm.

Isle of Arran Distillers began to make peated malt in 2004, and distillery manager James MacTaggart says, “We first released a peated Arran in 2010 and have been releasing it every year since then. We currently count two peated expressions in our range–Machrie Moor, 46%, and Machrie Moor Cask Strength.

“There has always been a rich history of whisky distillation on the island, and the thought process behind introducing Machrie Moor into our range was to pay homage to this history. We felt that the introduction of a slightly different style would only serve to add a different side to our distillery style.”

Casks at Tomatin

anCnoc and Tomatin

Knockdhu also began making peated spirit in 2004 in Aberdeenshire, home to the anCnoc single malt, where the initial impetus was a blending requirement. Master blender Stuart Harvey explains that, “Producing stock for single malt was not our primary objective, but when we made the first batch we knew it was an excellent product and we did not have to change the distillation cut points for the production. Therefore, it is the same style as the unpeated Knockdhu, with the peaty character on top.

“We thought it would be a good idea to keep some for single malt and to monitor the maturation until it was ready. We sampled it at various ages and then decided it was ready to bottle as limited releases from 2014.” These bottlings became the Peaty Collection, with individual expressions named after implements used to harvest peat, such as Rutter and Tushkar.

South of Inverness, Tomatin also produces batches of peated malt, and distillery general manager Graham Eunson notes, “Until the 1950s we did actually use peated malt at Tomatin, but when we got rid of our floor maltings in 1956 we then switched to unpeated barley. Other than one accidental delivery of peated barley in the 1980s, all of our whisky from then until 2005 was produced using unpeated barley.”

Blending demands were behind the decision to start making small amounts of peated spirit, and as Eunson explains, “In 2012 we were tasting samples from various casks and upon trying the peated Tomatin, we immediately knew it was a fantastic quality whisky which deserved to be sold as a single malt, and so Cù Bòcan was born—batch 1 was released in 2013.”

Glenlivet master distiller Alan Winchester uses Islay casks to impart peaty flavors on the whisky. (Photo by John Paul)

Islay-lite?

For the scotch drinker, the most significant questions are probably how do these peated malts differ from ‘classic’ Islays and what can they offer as an alternative? One factor to bear in mind is that mainland peat differs from maritime peat in terms of composition and influence, so you will never experience the big briny, medicinal notes from the whiskies in question that you find in the likes of Laphroaig.

Speaking of Glenlivet Nàdurra, Alan Winchester notes that, “What you have is the characteristic fruity, floral style of Glenlivet, with just a slight hint of smoke. It’s a new flavor for Glenlivet, and there is undoubtedly a huge interest in peated whiskies, but it’s unmistakably still Glenlivet.”

In terms of the style of Arran’s Machrie Moor single malt, James MacTaggart says, “Ours is a fresh, island style which is fruity and aromatic without much of the oily, maritime notes of Islay malts.  The influence of the peat adds an earthy dimension to our spirit, which gives a layer of depth and intrigue without dominating.”

Meanwhile, Stuart Harvey declares, “AnCnoc heavily peated malt has more smoky character than the Islay malts. It has less cresol and guaiacol, which give the Islay malts their medicinal and spicy character.”

When it comes to Tomatin’s Cù Bòcan—named after a legendary local ‘hell hound’—Graham Eunson says, “In general terms it is a softer, more approachable peated malt, more delicate and less medicinal than the heavily peated Islay malts. This is due to the lower ppm level, which complements our traditional house style perfectly.”

One interesting example of a single malt brand that has been significantly rehabilitated by the introduction of an amount of peated malt is the Whyte & Mackay-owned Fettercairn. It would be reasonable to say that Fettercairn did not enjoy the highest reputation until the launch of the Fior expression in 2010. For this, master blender Richard Paterson used 15 percent heavily-peated 5 year old Fettercairn matured in first-fill bourbon barrels, along with a proportion of 14 and 15 year old unpeated spirit.

According to Paterson, “When I was working to create it I found that 15 percent of peated whisky was the perfect amount. It just gave it extra character and backbone.”

anCnoc, which is made at Knockando distillery (washbacks pictured), has a series of peated single malts.

Outliers

Even on Islay, the spiritual home of peated whisky, Bruichladdich switched to the use of unpeated malt in 1962. When Mark Reynier and his team took over the distillery in 2000, they made the decision to reintroduce peated malt. As the global fascination with Islay malts has grown, Bruichladdich positioned itself to offer three distinct styles of whisky, namely unpeated Bruichladdich, peated Port Charlotte (40ppm), and ultra-peated (80ppm) Octomore.

Bunnahabhain also switched to the use of unpeated malt during the 1960s, and as Kirstie McCallum, lead blender for Burn Stewart Distillers notes, “Experiments were then carried out in the 1990s using various peating levels, and when we took over the distillery in 2003, we thought it would be fitting to produce peated Bunnahabhain. We source our malt from Islay and use a similar level of peating to other Islay whiskies.”

She adds, “We introduced peated editions firstly as a tribute to the history of the distillery, but secondly to show consumers what Bunnahabhain could do, and give them that difference and depth of character. The first releases were a mix of peated and unpeated whisky, and we now have two heavily peated whiskies available—Ceobanach and Moine (exclusive to Sweden).”

Peat’s Appeal

When it comes to buying the new wave of peated whiskies, Jennifer Masson of Tomatin says of Cù Bòcan, “The style of the whisky along with its unique packaging appeals to both existing loyal customers of Tomatin and also to new audiences—younger and less traditional whisky drinkers. It doesn’t appeal so much to the hard-core peat heads due to its low ppm.”

James MacTaggart says, “Two countries in which there is always a request for it are France and Denmark, but our core range of unpeated Arran also performs very well there, so it is not a case of the peated expression opening doors for the rest of our range. Rather, it provides an additional interest for consumers where our malt is already established.”

What the new generation of peated malts demonstrates is that introducing an element of peatiness need not lead to a Laphroaig-style of whisky. It is a character of single malt that past generations of drinkers throughout the Scottish Highlands would recognize and of which they would surely approve. n

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