At a recent event hosted by Laphroaig, I had the chance to hear distillery manager Barry MacAffer, an Islay native, speak about his memories of peat being burned in home fireplaces on the island. He told us how the fragrant aroma of ‘peat reek’ permeated his childhood and, later, his working life while tending the maltings’ kiln, coming home each day smelling of sweet smoke. While sipping a dram of the inimitable Laphroaig 10 Years Old, I had a chance to reflect on my own memories of peated whisky.
Nearly 14 years ago, it was a taste of Lagavulin The Distillers Edition and, days later, my purchase of a bottle of Talisker, that made me fall in love with single malt Scotch whisky, setting me on a path that led to my chosen career. Then, around eight years ago, I was dismayed to learn that, having only been offered drams of light and fruity Speyside and Highland single malts previously, my (then new) girlfriend hadn’t found much to love about Scotch. A nip of Ardbeg Corryvreckan changed all that, and now she’s a dyed-in-the-wool peat head and whisky nerd. You can imagine my relief!
These are just a couple of small, personal stories about the role of peat in the grand and ongoing story of whisky, but I think they are indicative of why peated spirit holds a special place in the hearts of whisky lovers around the world. Barry’s story is a nod to the role of peat as both a traditional domestic fuel source and a core ingredient of both Scotch and Irish whisky stretching back centuries. My own anecdotes relate to the ‘love it or hate it’ flavour peat imparts to whisky, which fuels the ‘cult of peat’ populated by proud ‘peat heads’.
Looking deeper, peat is arguably the only ingredient, aside from water, that has not substantially changed since whisky’s emergence as a distinct and identifiable drink. Barley varieties have been engineered, yeasts have been optimised, and casks types have shifted in response to economic factors and changing tastes, but peat has remained unchanged. For this reason, the peated whiskies of today are the closest we can come to tasting those of the past.
This is only natural, as it took thousands of years for Scotland’s peat banks to form, at a rate of just a millimetre per year. What are a few centuries to a peat bog? Little, if we’re only talking about time’s impact on the flavour of peaty spirits, but it’s a long time indeed for the bogs, when those centuries are characterised by drainage, mismanagement, and exploitation without restoration.
It’s undeniable that peat is a problematic ingredient. It’s functionally non-renewable (at least on the timescale of human lives) and is extracted from delicate environments home to rare flora and fauna, while bogs act as vital carbon sink. This is why, as distillers and governments focus on sustainability in an effort to reach net-zero carbon emissions, the extraction and burning of peat is firmly in the crosshairs of politicians, activists, scientists, distillers, and regulators.
Back in September 2021, Whisky Magazine published an article exploring the dilemma of peat use (‘The Problem with Peat’, Issue #178) and what the future of this vital ingredient could look like. Since then, some important things have happened. In February this year, the Scottish government’s National Planning Framework 4 was published, with Policy 5 outlining new conditions relating to developments on peatland. Its wording is a win for Scotch whisky, as it enshrines the industry’s special status as a peat user. Just four days later, the Scottish government launched its consultation on ending the sale of peat in Scotland, but we’re still awaiting the results and can only speculate on what might come next. Finally, this summer the Scotch Whisky Association released a long-awaited document titled ‘The Commitment To Responsible Peat Use’ (CRPU), which outlines its members’ intentions to not only meet their obligations as peat users as outlined in government policy but to exceed them. It sets new expectations for member-owned extraction sites and third parties in the supply chain, too. I strongly advise all whisky lovers to read the CRPU, as it will be the backbone of the industry’s much-needed future plan for peat.