How do you achieve a smoky whisky without peat?

How do you achieve a smoky whisky without peat?

In pursuit of smoky whiskies that reflect their origins, distillers around the world are looking beyond peat and towards local smoke alternatives

Production | 11 Sep 2023 | Issue 193 | By Thijs Klaverstijn

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Whisky companies are often quick to brand their products as innovative, even though most are not truly deserving of the label. However, last year’s A Tale of the Forest from Glenmorangie actually was different, and certainly unique in the modern Scottish whisky landscape. As the story goes, Dr Bill Lumsden, the distillery’s director of distilling and whisky creation, drew inspiration during walks through the woods near his home.


The scents, sounds, and sights of the forest itself led him to create a whisky made from barley kilned with woodland botanicals. After experimenting with numerous botanicals, he finally settled on juniper berries, birch bark, and heather flowers. The resulting spirit introduced alternatively smoked whisky to the mainstream.


But resourceful distillers around the world have been pioneering new fuel sources for years, including different types of wood, nettles, and even sheep dung. They’ve been doing so out of a desire to capture regional flavours, distinguishing themselves by adding a local character to their whiskies. One such producer is the family-owned Thy Distillery in the northwest corner of Denmark, run by eighth-generation farmers passionate about the grains they grow. “We’ve always been very nerdy about growing a good crop, but as farmers you never see what becomes of your product,” says Jakob Stjernholm, co-owner and master distiller. “It’s just a heap of grain going out and it doesn’t really matter if you do something extra, better, or slightly different. Everything gets mixed with other crops to the average industry standard.”


And so, they began distilling their own grains 13 years ago. Only 16 casks were filled in the first five years, but between 2015 and 2019 a new warehouse, brewery, malthouse, and distillery were built in the various wings of the old estate. Production capacity today is about 50,000 litres of organic new make. “If we are making whisky in Denmark, it must makesense to do so,” Stjernholm asserts. “Buying in Scottish peated malt means we would be making Scottish-flavoured whisky in Denmark. It wouldn’t be a bad project, but it also wouldn’t be very local, or terroir based. Our answer to that was beechwood.”


Stjernholm and his family settled on beechwood to smoke their malt because of its centrality in Danish culinary tradition. Bacon, fish, ham, sausage, cheese – you name it, and the Danes will use beechwood to smoke it. Beech is considered the Danish national tree, along with oak, and is one of the preferred types of wood for Danish-designed furniture. “That smell of beechwood is basically everywhere. It is very much a part of Danish culture. But it wasn’t yet part of whisky.”

The founding family of Fary Lochan, Morten Jorgenson, Anne Jorgensen, Tine Toft Laursen, and Thomas Smidt-Kjærby. Credit: Fary Lochan

One of the distillery’s three malting drums is reserved for smoking barley, which equates to a capacity of around 250 tonnes of smoked malt per year. Instead of choosing from a maltster’s catalogue, the maltings allows Thy Distillery the freedom it craves. Its system sprays water on the fire if it gets too hot, but otherwise, the kilning is still a very manual process. During 12 to 18 hours of smoking, the beechwood is shuffled around to make sure there are no flames. Timing is also paramount. Introduce smoke to the germinating barley at the right moment and magic ensues. “If you get the balance just right, you get this fruity flavour from the grain, combined with a beautiful, aromatic, soft, warm beechwood smoke. The best batches, it’s almost like the new make is fizzy when it hits your tongue. And beechwood in whisky isn’t like this statement of smoke. It’s integrated with flavours from the cask.”


Stjernholm remarks that peat-averse guests of the distillery are often surprised by how much they like Thy’s beechwood-smoked single malt. The whisky hits people in a different way, he says. Smoky and totally novel, yet somehow familiar.


Elsewhere in Denmark, Thomas Smidt-Kjærby concurs with Stjernholm. Together with his siblings and mother, he runs Fary Lochan, another Danish distillery that captures traditional local flavours in its whisky. “Whisky drinkers that usually don’t like peat often enjoy one of our smoky whiskies,” says Smidt-Kjærby. “There’s a hint of smoke that doesn’t kill all the other tastes and flavours.”


That hint of smoke isn’t the result of peat, nor is it imparted by any wood smoke. Instead, Fary Lochan smokes its barley with nettles. While Fary Lochan is in Jutland, the distillery’s founding family is from Funen, the third-largest island of Denmark. They took their local tradition of smoking cheese with nettles and applied it to whisky making. Fary Lochan sits within a forest, next to a stream and a small lake; around this lake and the stream, fresh nettles grow all summer. If lucky, they can harvest this fast-growing plant twice a season.


Fary Lochan is a tiny distillery, producing only around 50 casks per year. Less than a fifth is nettle-smoked, depending on how many nettles the team can get their hands on. The biggest disadvantage of using fresh nettles is that they need a lot. For example, a few years ago the Danish summer was intense. For three months barely any rain fell, and the thermometer regularly indicated 30oC. Very uncommon, says Smidt-Kjærby. As a result, they could only smoke enough malt for one cask of nettle-smoked whisky.

The family unit behind Thy Whisky in Denmark. Credit: Thy Distillery

Smoking malt with nettles is a time-consuming, hands-on process. Fary Lochan only has one small oven sitting outside the distillery. It takes two days to smoke 250kg of malt. The nettle is fed to the fire by hand. At the end of day one, the fire is shut down, only to be ignited again the next day. Usually, the distillery’s smoked whiskies contain 10–20 per cent of the nettle-smoked malt. “If you’re familiar with peated whisky, you will sense a different kind of smoke in our whiskies,” Smidt-Kjærby explains. “It’s a bit lighter, some people even call it a green smoke. It’s not as salty and heavy as most peated whiskies you’ll find on Islay.”


Although Scottish whisky is still viewed as the gold standard in many circles, emulating it is not the goal for Stjernholm, Smidt-Kjærby, and other like-minded distillers, such as Mathew Thomson. He’s the founder and head distiller of Thomson Whisky Distillery just outside Auckland, New Zealand. Like many of his contemporaries, Thomson is adamant about using local ingredients and making regional styles of whisky rather than replicating Scottish techniques and products. “Around the world, different countries utilise the local raw materials in their spirits making, and for us, it is about creating a New Zealand style that is unique to our home country.”


To accomplish this, he turned to manuka, a fast-growing shrub-like tree native to New Zealand, known around the world for the honey that’s produced from its nectar. “You’re not using old-growth New Zealand forest for fuel and it’s a tree that’s easy to harvest,” he explains. Inspired by the smoke flavour and local traditions around manuka, which is well regarded for its medicinal and culinary uses, Thomson first began smoking malted barley on his Weber grill in 2004. He experimented with the smoke levels, then mashed, fermented, and distilled on his home still. It was the birth of Thomson’s Manuka Smoke single malt whisky, although it would be another 10 years before the first commercial distillery was built, during which time the recipe was tweaked and improved.


“As opposed to peat, which is made of sphagnum moss that died thousands of years ago, the manuka wood may have only been harvested from trees that were growing as little as six months ago. It is much fresher and has a high oil content, which comes through in the smoke. The oil flavours that come over in the smoke taste quite ‘foodie’ and are sometimes not recognised as traditional smoke.”

Amanda and Stephen Paul, founders of Whiskey Del Bac producer Hamilton Distillers. Credit: Hamilton Distillers

Adhering to a similar philosophy to Thomson, Stephen Paul became obsessed with the idea of using velvet mesquite to smoke barley. His beginnings were modest, but now he runs Hamilton Distillers in Tucson, Arizona. It was Paul’s wife Elaine who planted the seeds for it in 2006. They were enjoying Scotch whisky and barbecuing over mesquite from their long-time furniture design company when she asked, “What if you made single malt whisky with ‘mesquited’ malt instead of peated malt?” It was a lightbulb moment and Paul hasn’t looked back since. The notion of making a single malt whisky from his native Sonoran Desert was too enticing to let go.


“After many experiments – and making some bad whisky – I began making some decent single malts, still running the furniture company all along.” In 2011, their daughter Amanda suggested thinking of the project less as a hobby, and more as a business. Together, father and daughter founded Hamilton Distillers and launched its Whiskey Del Bac brand.


Initially, Paul was floor-malting small 30kg batches and drying them in a glorified meat smoker he had built. “I was literally building a fire in the bottom of the smoker,” he says. For bottling, they were using a funnel to fill and had to apply glue to the labels and position them by hand. But the whisky was warmly received by the local market in Tucson. Nowadays, capacity has been expanded “by a lot” and the operation is much more professional. There’s a combination germination/kilning tank. Typically, after four days of germination the barley is ready for mesquite smoke – not by direct fire, but an outside smoke box where the mesquite is burned and the smoke blown in via fans. “Even with the smoke separate from the tank, as the fire burns the temperature begins to creep up. It’s a fine balancing act… From an organoleptic standpoint, mesquite is a fickle smoke to work with. You use too much, and it becomes bity, astringent, and unpleasant to drink.”


But when done right, there’s a striking difference between peat and mesquite. “It seems perhaps a bit too on-the-nose but the smoky impact of velvet mesquite is, well… velvety. It’s hard to describe mesquite to those who haven’t had it. It’s such a singularly distinctive wood. Mesquite tastes like mesquite. That said, mesquite imparts a softer, more honey-like note to the whisky. It lacks the damp ashtray note of some peated Scotches, offering a rounder mouthfeel and a more pleasing finish. It’s generally just softer on the palate than peat.” This can even be tracked down to a molecular level. A series of tests comparing Whiskey Del Bac’s mesquite-smoked whisky to a well-known heavily peated Scotch showed that the former was lower in both phenol and guaiacol levels.

Whiskey Del Bac Dorado. Credit: Hamilton Distillers

Finally, one inventive distiller in Tasmania is combining a drive for sustainability with the desire to make something purely local. Belgrove Distillery is run by founder, head distiller, and Renaissance man Peter Bignell. His ancestors came down from Scotland and England, and he’s now the sixth generation in Tasmania. With a background in agricultural science and a passion for sculpting, Bignell grew up on a farm and approaches whisky making as equal parts science and art. Some of his whiskies are smoked with peat from his brother’s farm on the northeast coast of Tasmania, but he also uses sheep dung to make his aptly named Wholly S*** Rye Whisky. “I don’t recall exactly where the idea came from, but there is a sheep-dung whisky from Iceland, called Flóki, and I think I heard about them,” Bignell recalls. “I’m not certain, and I can’t remember a lightbulb moment where I was: ‘Oh, I can do that.’ But I think I must credit them. The still and my sheep are almost in the same building, anyway.”


Everything at Belgrove Distillery is geared towards sustainable production. The only significant material Bignell brings to the farm is waste cooking oil and the main product to leave is whisky. The cooking oil acts as biodiesel for the copper pot still, which Bignell built from scratch. His tractors, forklift, and truck all run on biodiesel, too (but only during the summer months , as in the winter it can freeze). The spent mash is fed to the Belgrove sheep. Brewing and diluting water is harvested from his roofs, cooling water comes from his dam, and wastewater is recycled or used for irrigation of next year’s rye crop. “I’ve been malting my own grains from the start. I did floor-malting initially, but when I went away for the weekend or a couple of days, the malt would end up all tangled up, very uneven. So, I made a small drum malting system. It’s only a large-scale clothes dryer that I modified a bit, and it works and automates the malting. It’s got a little programme on it. I just turn it on and it is malted three, four, five days later.”


To preserve energy, Bignell doesn’t dry the malted rye. Smoking the wet malt is also done in the converted clothes dryer. “I think by using green malt and smoking it until I get the smoke stuck on it, you retain a lot more of smoke influence.” He loads up a cylinder with sheep dung and pumps air into the clothes dryer at a very controlled rate, generating lots of smoke without too much heat. The malt just tumbles through the smoke. Bignell mostly produces sheep dung-smoked whisky these days, the result of an appearance on a travel show hosted by chef and TV presenter Gordon Ramsay. “I built a bit of a reputation for it after the TV show,” he acknowledges. But he thinks it tastes nicer than peated whisky anyway, being somewhat softer and sweeter.

Peter Bignell, founder of Belgrove Distillery in Tasmania. Credit: Samuel Shelley

Much like his peers around the globe, Bignell has created something that is uniquely distinct. While originally inspired by traditional distillers, these contemporary producers have explored new smoky avenues to put a regional spin on their whiskies. 

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