THE ABOMINABLE PEAT MONSTER… kind of….
Asphalt, house fire, burning tar, medicine, scorched earth, morning breath, Lysol, pasture dirt. These are only a handful of terms used to describe peated whiskey by those who don’t like it. It’s partially decomposed plant matter that took thousands of years to produce. A piece of dried sod that is loved by many and hated by even more.
There is more than just dead plant matter in bogs. There are lots of other dead things in bogs. Bugs, birds, lizards, oak, weapons, vellum, humans, butter… whaaaat?!
Peat bogs are absolutely fascinating in their creation and use over time. Well, fascinating if you’re an armchair nerd and never tell anyone that you find yourself on YouTube at 1:30am on a Saturday watching Irish dudes in wellies joyously run around in the muck of a bog and talking in a heavy brogue you can’t understand regarding why sphagnum moss is the solution for global climate change and – shit, nevermind. That’s a whole ‘nother blog!
Currently I’m sipping on a Bowmore 12 while watching The Replacements at 11:15pm, kicked back in a recliner with a cat yelling at me that my lap is not available. Not exactly the best whisky mood maker to talk to you about peat, but it’s relaxing.
It’s only been within the last six months that I’ve begun to explore the world of peat beyond my original favorite, the lightly peated Oban 14. I’ll pay personal homage to Oban in a later post. Well, probably three. It’ll be four once the Oban 18 makes its way into my cabinet. Until that time, enjoy this video of the running of the Oban Distillery. Now onto the subject at hand!
I had let other people’s verbal fear and “ick” of peat influence my mind on what to expect and therefore an unwillingness to try an Islay or other peated dram. All of those negative words mentioned above sticking in the brain, waiting to turn against my senses of smell and taste if a stronger peated malt found its way to me. Thankfully my friend Andrew is a big fan of Laphroaig and helped to change my mind on giving it a go. I’ll get to that experience in just a bit. But first, what is peat, anyway?
Peat is a ton of slow-growing history that goes from dying plant life in a lake to then form a fen and then to form a bog to finally be harvested chunks of earth that are dried and burned. That’s my ‘sum it up in short’ description, but here’s a bit more… By either melted ice age snow and/or a swelling of groundwater in a low lying area, small lakes were formed. Plant life began to grow in and around the lake and over a few thousand years the lake then filled with all of the plant life that slowly died, as plants do as they’re not immortal, and filled in the lakes. That environment is deprived of oxygen, so full decay is sloooooooooow. Slow slow. Thousands of years slow. Over even more time a fen (low, marshy place) is formed from that filled in, oxygen deprived, dead vegetation area. New plants, primarily sphagnum moss and fungi, grew on top of the water logged fen and grew and died and grew and died. With the continued buildup of primarily moss and other new, then dead but not fully decayed plant life and the occasional tree, the bog is formed. The organic material left is what we call peat. That layer of peat is pretty deep considering this process takes thousands of years.
Now, over time, other stuff falls into bogs and becomes part of that ecosystem. Small animals, birds and the like. But did you also know they’ve found bodies in those bogs? Really old bodies from thousands years ago. Some thought of as sacrifices, some as burials, maybe even a couple of unfortunate souls that found themselves stuck in the mire and perished. Their preservation state is remarkable. Skin, hair, organs, clothing – it’s all there due to the lack of oxygen and slow rate of decay in the environment. The ancient folk even used bogs as a form of storage and preservation for butter. Thousands of years old butter has been found and yes, some is still edible. Bet you want to try some peated whiskey now, don’t you?
Don’t let the fear of malt that was smoked with peat harvested around a couple hundred ancient Euro-Celtic sacrificed bodies scare you off. There’s way more untainted bog than Iron Age burial plots. It’s fine! I’m just messing with you!
Peat is a wonderful thing. It’s used to heat homes, cook food, and add layers of complex flavors to our favorite spirit. The flavors and smells we associate with peat are the chemical compounds called phenols, aka carbolic acids (check out this Popular Science article). The whiskey industry uses peat to dry malted barley. This use of smoke from burning peat infuses into the malt and the mash and carries all the way through the distillation process. That’s some pretty pungent stuff to last through at least two distillations, three if you’re drinking Irish whiskey. So not only do you get straight on smoke in your glass that’s easy to recognize, you also get the flavor remnants of thousands of years old peat in your glass. Grassy, earthy, strong, herbal, bitter, sometimes salty; there are many different profiles that come through depending on where the peat was harvested. You are drinking history and that is so cool!
Did you know you can purchase peat yourself? In the pic’s above I have Siobhan’s Irish Turf purchased through Amazon and Scottish Burning Peat from Caledonia’s Best. You can see the slight differences in color between the Irish turf on the left and the reddish and woodier Scottish peat on the right. Good ‘ol Celtic dirt.
Still hesitant? Let me tell you more about the Laphroaig tasting. We sampled the 10 and the 18. As a peated whisky ages, it tends to mellow out a bit. Because of the time the Laphroaig 18 spent in the casks, the pungency of the peat and peat smoke has diminished. (that mellowing of initial strong flavors from the new make spirit is called ‘subtractive maturation’ in the industry) I first nosed it cautiously due to my preconceived fears… nothing scary. I smelled vanilla and tasted red fruit; not an apple, but more like cherries or plums. The smoke and earthy peat came through gently, rolling on at the end. Nice, smooth, and a slightly thick mouthfeel. Then came the 10 year old. Boom! Peat smoke! A good alcohol burn on the tongue that is slightly numbing and cooling. You can taste ocean in this glass as well; after all, the distillery sits on the edge of a sea island. Now, I’m a Texan and love strong flavors – we eat jalapenos three meals a day here. I preferred the Laphroaig 10. Untamed in its younger state.
All this to say, “give peat a chance”. You may surprise yourself. Check out 5 Peated Whisky’s to Get You Started. Begin with something light, like the Oban 14 in which the peat will not punch you in the face like Tyson. It greets you and asks, “do I smell ok?”. If you already like a peated dram, do you have a favorite? Is it from Scotland, Ireland, or even an American peated malt like Westland? What smells and tastes of the peat trigger your senses? Whether you’re peat-shy or you like to tackle the peat monster head on, I hope you have at least an appreciation for this slowly renewable fossil fuel and the impact it’s had on the whiskey industry.