If you enjoy a smoky kick to your whisky then chances are that you’ll already know your best friend’s name is ‘peat’.
Peat itself is quite an interesting entity (if you’re into that sort of thing) and represents something that is hundreds of years in the making. Personally, I was pretty blown away to find out that a 1 metre deep cut of peat has roughly 1,000 years of history to its name.
‘So what is it?’ you ask. Essentially, peat is layer upon layer of compressed, decomposed vegetation that has built up over time.
‘So why is this boggy dirt so important to whisky?’ you then ask. Well, despite being a wet sludge out in the open, it is a surprisingly great fuel that can burn quite ferociously – essentially like a primitive form of coal. Distilleries collect, dry and burn the peat and then channel the smoke towards their malt before it goes off to form the base liquids. The smoke rising from the peat infuses with the malt (or grain or whatever is being used) and then forms an essential ingredient and characteristic of the final spirit that is produced. Distilleries then measure the peat smoke intake in their final product by looking at the phenol count in parts per million or “ppm”.
The world’s peatiest drams tend to hail from the western isles of Scotland, where the majority of the lands are covered in fields of deep peat. Down on the south-east coast of Islay, in particular, you’ll find the industry’s 3 biggest peaty players, Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig, who have their core range of whiskies averaging between 40-50 ppm.
Interestingly, the world’s peatiest whisky is not produced by any of the 3 distilleries listed above but is, in fact, crafted by the good people of Bruichladdich, on the other side of the island, whose experimentation has resulted in the beast now known as Octomore. At the time of writing, their biggest hitter is the Octomore 5.1, which weighs in at a whopping 169ppm! That’s basically 4 times as much peat per sip than the world’s smokiest staples! Incredible.
(Since first writing this post, Bruichladdich have since released Octomore 6.3 – at a colossal 256ppm!)
There are, of course, other ways of getting that smoky taste into whisky, which use different methods and materials (such as the charcoal ‘mellowing’ used by Jack Daniel’s) but when it comes to winter-beating, ashen drams you just can’t beat a bit of peat!