Smoking out the spirit of Islay

Smoking out the spirit of Islay

Andrew Jefford's Peat Smoke and Spirit is the best whisky book published this year. In this extract, he writes about trhe constitution of peat itself

Whisky & Culture | 25 Nov 2004 | Issue 44 | By Andrew Jefford

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So what are they exactly, these dark sods which Norrie has been cutting for 44 years, and his Uncle John Campbell cut for a lifetime before that, and which Islay’s farmers have been cutting to keep themselves warm and cook food with for the last 5,000 years?Dead plants. Not just any plants, though; these are the plants of an irredeemably wet place, a place from which the water cannot drain. Visitors to Islay are sometimes surprised to hear its peat bogs described as ‘moss’. Surprised – because the intractable, unwalkable, boot-filling bogs don’t look at all like the vivid green carpets and soft poufs of woodland moss you can find on a forest stroll. True; but examine those bogs more closely, and you will see that much of their mass is made up of coralline Sphagnum capillifolium and its many relatives: a strange, rootless community of plants commonly called bog moss. Sphagnum is sponge-like; its tiny, orange-yellow ‘leaves’ are in fact nothing but water flasks. The chlorophyll in them is squeezed in to slender strands between rain-gorged cells. This is why sphagnum can absorb eight times its own weight in water; this is why a blanket bog itself is not terra firma at all, but a kind of soup. During the First World War, dried sphagnum moss was used as a dressing for wounds: in addition to its remarkable absorbent capacities, it is also a deodorant and anti-putrescent. Were one sphagnum plant to grow in isolation, it would rapidly collapse under the weight of the water it absorbs. Instead, it grows as a mass, a mat, a community, fighting every other plant for life, but supporting every other plant as it does so. Remind you of anything?Perhaps, though, I opened the previous paragraph erroneously. Sphagnum is deathless – as only a rootless plant can be. Together with its kind, it just keeps climbing, growing from its bud tip, lifting the whole bog by a whisper more than a millimetre a year. There are dormant but living buds beneath it for 20 centimetres or so; after that, the dormancy becomes permanent and irreversible. Even then, decomposition is difficult, since there is no air (just water), making for an acidic medium devoid of nutrients. Accumulation occurs. Peat forms. This process has been underway in Scotland for about 7,000 years, since the warm, dry, tree-growing weather which followed the last Ice Age gave out; banks of peat up to 10metres deep are found on Islay.Of course sphagnum is by no means the only plant group found in a bog moss: silky, brush-like bog cotton bobs cheerfully in summer breezes; there are grasping rushes and sedges in profusion; bog myrtle draws scent from the water-locked substrate; bogbean, heathers, and heaths provide flowering colour; and carnivorous sundews give the wee beasties their come-uppance. In winter sunlight, the russet deergrass makes the moss glow like children’s eyes. Some of these plants (and there are hundreds of others) have developed special survival strategies to cope with the wet austerities of their surroundings: bog myrtle furnishes its own nitrogen using bacteria in its roots, while bog cotton creates air-filled spaces in its roots and leaf bases (and tiny, brightly coloured jewel beetles then use these spaces as apartments).Peat bogs are divided into two unequal sections. The upper part, about 30 cm deep, is called the acrotelm: that is where you find the living plant material. Under that is the much thicker catotelm, where the plant matter (and particularly the fragile sphagnum) has broken down to form a shapeless, dark brown colloidal mass. Water can move swiftly through the catotelm; remember that the water for all of the Islay distilleries except Bunnahabhain comes tumbling out of the sky into a mass of plants of this sort, and then spends weeks, years or decades lying locked up in this vegetative tangle before finally emerging into the lochs, reservoirs or rivers. The transition between the two sections of peat, of course, is gradual; if you watch Norrie Kimble cutting a peat bank, you will see that the rougher, hairier acrotelm gradually modulates into the smooth, dark catotelm. By the time Norrie has sliced down a metre or so using his peat spade (tipped with cow horn), the peat resembles bricks of chocolate ice-cream. Distilleries want the hairy stuff from the acrotelm, dark bricks of catotelm are preferred for domestic fires on the island, since they provide more warmth and less smoke.Once cut, the peats have to be stacked and dried over the summer: they need a good drying wind for about three weeks, which will enable them to lose 75 per cent of their water content and shrink by 25 per cent or so. Not every summer provides perfect drying conditions. Port Ellen maltings was using peat from the Scottish mainland during 2003 because the summer of 2002 on Islay (with a particularly sodden June) meant that it was not possible to get enough peat cut and dried.Those maltings, of course, are the main consumer of peat on the island; they use around 2,000 tonnes a year. At present, this is being cut from Castlehill Moss which lies just to the south-east of Glenegedale and Glenegedalemoor, north of the Leorin Lochs (which once provided the Port Ellen distillery’s peaty water source, and which now provide the peaty water used for sleeping the barley). Alec MacIntosh, known as Tosh, is the main contractor used for ‘winning’ the peats for both Port Ellen and Bowmore (Iain Brown wins Laphroaig’s peat), and he does it with what is called on the island ‘the sausage machine’. This is a tractor with six rear wheels, three on each side, and a peat extruder fitted behind it. The extruder is dragged through the peat, excreting the long sausages behind it. Scary work, according to Ian McPherson from Bowmore. “It’s crazy. The whole lot’s floating up there: you can see the wave move down the bog in front of the tractor. Somebody’s going to go out of sight up there one day; somebody’s just going to disappear. There’s nothing below but peat, peat, peat.” I watched the process in action one afternoon with Jim McEwan, and it is indeed a kind of slow-motion cross between ploughing and surfing, though those six big tyres speed the load up as well as providing the necessary traction. Castlehill was opened up as the main peat extraction moss on Islay after the ‘Battle of
Duich Moss’: the major environmental confrontation in Islay’s history, which took place in August 1985. Prior to the Duich Moss squabble, the peat used to be taken from a number of different locations on the island, including near Loch Gorm on the Rhinns.Peat extraction, as Duich indicated, had become a controversial matter by the late 20th century. Peat is a finite resource which renews itself only very slowly; peat bogs are also a precious habitat for rare plants and birds. Environmental organisations such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have mounted successful campaigns against the use of peat in horticulture. Can we say that its use to flavour the malt for whisky production on Islay is a dangerous prodigality?On balance, probably not. Diageo’s Kay Fleming estimates there are about 5,000 years’ worth of peat left on Islay a present rates of extraction, though not all of this would be economic to cut. Some renewal would take place during that time; nonetheless extraction rates on Islay cannot truly be regarded as sustainable. Present global extraction rates, by contrast, are sustainable: around 100 million cubic metres of peat are deposited annually, and around the same amount extracted.Globally, two-thirds of peat is burnt as fuel (especially in Eastern Europe and Scandanavia), and around a third is used for horticulture; its use in whisky production is statistically insignificant. The UK has 1.9 million hectares of peatland, the world’s tenth largest reserve; its reserves are exceeded by those of Belarus, Canada (whose 11.1 million ha make it top peat nation), Finland, Indonesia, Malaysia, Norway, the Russian federation, Sweden and the USA. Few countries have no peat reserves at all; even such unlikely spots as Algeria have 22,000 ha of peatland, while countries such as Iraq and Uganda have almost as much as the UK. Nonetheless, 90 per cent of the world’s peat lies in the temperate and cold belts of the Northern Hemisphere. Some 40 per cent of all the peat used in the UK is home-produced, with most imports coming from Ireland (whose total land mass is 16.2 per cent peat bog, though some of this counts as UK reserves as it lies in Northern Ireland). Over half the peat bogs in the European Community remain pristine, as do almost all of those fond in Canada and Siberia. There is, in sum, plenty of lonely, cold, wet and desolate peat bog left on Planet Earth.A more provoking question is exactly what distinguishes Islay’s peat from that found elsewhere. Obviously the range of plants found in Islay’s peat will be very different from that in Malaysia’s; it will also differ, though, from that found in peat in Caithness of Donegal. In times of shortage, both Scottish mainland peat and Irish peat has been burned at Port Ellen and has proved less phenolic than Islay’s own; according to Kay Fleming, Islay’s peat even has ‘a seaweediness and a saltiness’ which you don’t find in other peat sources. John Thomson, who manages the Port Ellen maltings, says that Diageo doesn’t analyse its peat for seaweediness or saltiness; “salt (as in sodium chloride) would not transfer
directly from the peat smoke to the malt anyway. The flavour characteristics of some of the relevant components of peat are such that they are reminiscent of seaside smells, but this can be true of peat that has not been anywhere near the sea. The chemistry and organoleptics of this whole area is a bit of a minefield. We have carried out some trials recently with mainland peat. We found that, in like-for-like situations, Islay peat gave slightly higher phenol concentrations in the final malt than in the mainland peat. Not huge, but a useful difference.”If Islay’s peat is unique, of course, this would constitute one of the rare elements of terroir (characteristics attributable to place of origin) in its whiskies. Indeed for Diageo, this would be the only one, since the company disputes the influence of Islay’s water sources on whisky character and Islay’s air on whisky maturation.‘Islay’ has, in the past, spent millions of years underwater, but not since its present peat bogs were deposited, so if there is indeed ‘a seaweediness and saltiness’ in Islay’s peat, then it must be wind-borne. And if the wind is capable of infusing a peat bog with those characteristics, then why should it also not infuse whisky with the same way, stored as it is in a far-from-airtight cask which is never topped up.The one Islay whisky which demonstrates more than any other those notes of seaweed and salt is Laphroaig, though no one is sure why. Manager Robin Shields posited that the different may be its own peat source, used for around one-third of its supplies; Laphroaig’s own peat is indeed cut from nearer to the sea than Castlehill, to the west side of the Low Road running past the airport. Yet when in August 2003 a batch of Laphroaig was made using this peat alone, Allied master blender Robert Hicks declared that the ‘iodine’ note was missing from the new make. If it comes from anywhere, therefore, it must be the Port Ellen malt – in which case the ‘iodine’ should also be present in the island’s other peaty whiskies, all of them supplied by Port Ellen. It isn’t. Conclusion? Oddly enough, it would be that this maritime note is derived in some way from Laphroaig’s brewing and distilling practices.Port Ellen makes malt for eight distilleries at present: the Islay seven, plus Jura, too. Boats arrive with between 750 and 1,200 tonnes of barley every 12 days or so: Scottish barley is used first, then English barley when Scottish is unavailable, and finally imported barley if neither is on offer. Up to 650 tonnes can be stored on the very visible pier silo, with a further 2,040 tonnes at the maltings. The high-yielding, easy malting Optic is, at present, the preferred variety, though eventually this modern strain will lose its fungal resistance, drop its agronomic yields, and another variety will then have to take its place.The malt is steeped with peaty water from the two Leorin Lochs and the moisture level in the grain rises from under 15 per cent to 45 per cent. Does the use of peaty water flavour the malt? “We have analysed Leorin water,” says John Thomson, “but the humic acids which come off the peat do not contain any significant levels of the phenols that are used to signpost smokiness. Peat has to be burned to create those phenols. So even if water does contain high levels of ‘peat’, this water does not reach high enough temperatures in the distillery process to generate these signpost phenols.” The flavour, in other words, is vegetal rather than smoky at this stage.There are eight steel steeps holding 25 tonnes (and 30,000 litres of loch water) each; when I toured the maltings. An inverted pair of Wellington boots protruded, with dark humour, from one full steep. After just under four days of alternate wetting and draining (called an ‘air rest’), the now growing grain is transferred to one of Port Ellen’s seven cog-rimmed steel Boby drums, the largest malting drums in Britain; each holds 65 tonnes of moistened barley. In the low light and the gentle moisture-laden fog of the plant, these giant, toothy, gross bellied beasts look sombre, almost sinister. The drums rotate every eight hours while humidified air is blown through them, and the malting process continues for around five days, until each grain has produced a mass of curly roots and the beginnings of a shoot within the grain (called acrospire: it should be more than half the length of the grain when the malting is complete).The would-be plants are then transferred to one of Port Ellen’s three kilns, where their hopes for growth and life are shattered by hot air (from computer-controlled oil fuelled burners) and peat smoke. The peat smoke comes first, since it is most easily absorbed by the malt when it is wet; it continues until the point known as the ‘break’ is reached, which is when all the surface water has dried off from the grains of malt. The kilning requires skill, and there is a strong sense of rivalry between the seven kiln operators, each of whom has a unique way of banking and tending his fire so as to get the most smoke and the least heat out of it. This, too, is another deeply evocatively industrial scene, unfolding in peat-scented, faintly smoky gloom to the roar of a giant fan: not exactly the fires of hell, but delicately infernal nevertheless.I watched kiln operator Willie Johnston as he hosed down a slag-like mound of peat. The smoke poured from it, and it was slurped up into the kilns like a Dali-esque, anti-gravitational stream of water. Six tones of peat are needed in order to give 30 to 40 ppm phenols to a wet load of 65 tonnes of barley; this will result in 50 finished tones of malt at 4-6 per cent moisture – and copious peat smoke blowing over the village of Port Ellen itself, perfuming the washing on the lines. The peat, both whole sausages and the fragments and dust called ‘caff’, is loaded into the kiln by machine, but Willie said he had to tidy and sort out the ashes, and work with the kiln doors to perfect the draught. Kilning a batch is a multi-shift job, taking 30 hours to complete. Peat ash, incidentally, is white, light and astonishingly odourless, as those who have burned peat in Islay’s holiday cottages will know; all of its vital essence leaves in the smoke.Tiny birds were flitting to and fro in the air, braving this nether region of gloom and danger in order to feed on the spilled grains. Nor are they the only creatures to dine out on maltings leftovers: after the malt is finished, a machine called a dresser removes all the rootlets. These rootlets are mixed with dust from the incoming barley, dampened with water and then pressed into cattle-feed pellets. Cattle on Islay don’t mind the reek, but if the pellets are destined for mainland beasts they have to have five per cent molasses added to sweeten the peaty pill. Peat Smoke and Spirit
Peat Smoke and Spirit, Aportrait of Islay and its Whiskies is published by Headline this month, priced £18.99. It is Andrew Jefford’s fourth book but his first about whisky. He is drinks correspondent for the London Evening Standard, is a regular broadcaster on the BBC
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