The push for peat sustainability

The push for peat sustainability

The burning of peat has played a significant role in Scotland’s whisky for centuries, but are the days of ‘peat reek’ numbered?

Production | 11 Sep 2023 | Issue 193 | By Joseph Phelan

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In the whisky sector, sustainability has cemented itself as an agenda staple. The industry is, in many ways, a perfect example of what can be achieved through joined-up thinking, and a dogged determination to do better. Numerous distilleries – Nc’nean, Bruichladdich, and Glengoyne, to name a few – have either achieved, or are on the way to achieving, net-zero status, while GlenWyvis, Scotland’s first crowdfunded whisky distillery, is entirely powered by green energy.

 

Yet the march towards an entirely sustainable future is not without its challenges, and dealing with the environmentally detrimental burning of peat, something long associated with Scotch whisky, is a hurdle that needs to be overcome.

 

Going over old ground

 

The burning of peat, a fuel formed over thousands of years from the partial decomposition of vegetation in waterlogged conditions, remains a somewhat contentious matter in the whisky sector. It is, undoubtedly, a far from environmentally friendly exercise, but it is also true that the entire Scotch whisky industry equates to less than 1 per cent of the total peat extracted in the UK each year.

 

Peat has traditionally been used in the malting process, an activity that imparts a distinct smoky flavour to the spirit. The smoke is absorbed into the barley, infusing it with aromatic compounds. The intensity of the smokiness varies depending on the amount of peat used, the duration of the exposure, and the peat’s characteristics. Although Scotland cannot claim the exclusive use of peat in whisky production, it remains a Scottish signature, contributing massively to the diversity of the whisky landscape – but this could be set to change.

 

The Scottish government is on the cusp of completing a consultation designed to determine the best way of managing Scotland’s delicate, vital, largely depleted peatlands. Scotland’s peat soils cover close to 20 per cent of the country, with estimates suggesting they store around 1,600 million tonnes of carbon. But research has also found that 80 per cent of these peatlands are regarded as being degraded.

 

Scotland’s peatlands have a critical role to play in responding to the dual crises of the climate emergency and loss of biodiversity. The Scottish government has already committed to investing £250 million to restore 250,000 hectares of peatlands over a 10-year period to 2030, but this is unlikely to be the only measure introduced. While decisions are yet to be made regarding peat use, it seems conceivable that regulations will be put in place to, initially, limit its sale. Such a move would, should it come to fruition, likely be the first step towards a complete ban on peat usage.

 

“Although the amount of peat being extracted in Scotland is small, there is a need for the government to show environmental leadership. There is also a need for our industries to become sustainable, and however small the quantity of extracted peat may be, it will continue to deplete a non-renewable resource,” explains David Large, a professor of geoscience at the University of Nottingham. “I hope the [whisky] industry will be successful far into the future, so industrial leaders should embrace government directives and the public concern over climate change by acting and branding accordingly. Sustainably produced whisky definitely has an appeal, as long as it’s not washed in green.”

 

As things stand, the much-discussed ‘regulations’ around peat use are little more than predictions borne of speculation; nothing has yet been written in stone. The Scottish government recently held a consultation on plans to ban the retail sale of peat for home gardening, the feedback from which could be used – alongside further consultation on how a ban would affect commercial users – to inform future plans and timescales for restrictions in the use of peat products.

Peated malt at Waterford Distillery. Credit: Waterford

When asked about how the mooted regulations could impact the whisky industry, a Scottish government spokesperson said: “We recognise the key role that peat plays in whisky production. It has been used by whisky makers for centuries, providing the signature taste of many of Scotland’s most iconic brands.

 

“The Scottish government’s National Planning Framework (NPF4) recognises this and is explicit that development proposals for new commercial peat extraction can be supported if the extracted peat is supporting the Scottish whisky industry. There are currently no regulations in place around selling or using peat in Scotland.”

 

They added: “We commend the industry for its ongoing work to achieve net-zero emissions by 2040. Providing further protection to peatlands will bring us one step closer to this goal, and we look forward to working closely with the sector to ensure a carbon-free future for our nation’s favourite tipple.”

 

A greener Scotland

 

Restoring Scotland’s peatlands could play a role in fighting climate change, supporting biodiversity, and bolstering the availability of eco-centric jobs. Green advocates argue that, regardless of the amount being burned each year, the whisky sector should be curtailing its peat use to reduce its environmental impact, and to support Scotland’s wider sustainability vision.

 

“Assuming that there are appropriate restoration measures in place, bogs can start to restore relatively quickly,” notes Susan Page, a professor of physical geography at the University of Leicester. “There is a need for long-term monitoring data to establish that the peatland ecosystem is moving towards carbon neutrality, but as soon as water levels are raised, emissions will already start to fall.”

 

Yet some voices within the whisky sector have suggested that, while reducing carbon emissions and minimising any form of ecological damage is eminently laudable, any form of peat ban could be hugely detrimental to one of Scotland’s most beloved – and profitable – exports.

 

The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) Sustainability Strategy has committed the sector to reaching net-zero emissions in its operations by 2040, and this includes a commitment on peatland restoration. The SWA regularly engages with the Scottish government around the use of peat in the industry, the approach to its use, and the management of peatlands.

 

 

Waterford's peated Fenniscourt whisky. Credit: Waterford

However, it remains the case that peat is central to many distilleries’ operations, and any directive to dictate its use could have a serious impact, at least in the short term. Indeed, it could conceivably result in peated whisky finding new homes overseas, in countries where similar regulations are absent.

 

Waterford Whisky, an award-winning, environmentally conscious producer of organic and biodynamic whisky, has taken it upon itself to restart Ireland’s peated whisky scene. Ireland, which has a history of peat use to rival Scotland’s, has recently introduced laws designed to minimise peat extraction, but they are widely regarded as being far from rigid. This is, in part, why peated whisky could see a revival on the Emerald Isle.

 

“For environmental reasons, something needs to change, or there needs to be an initiative of some sort where money can be set aside to look after the peat bogs,” says Neil Conway, head brewer at Waterford Whisky. “However, I personally believe the use of peat as an ingredient needs to remain, as it’s been part of our history for hundreds of years. As more distilleries open in Ireland, I think some will look at resurrecting Irish peated whisky. I know of one or two besides ourselves who are now producing peated spirits.”

 

And it isn’t just Ireland getting in on the peated act – distilleries in the United States are also starting to jump on the smoky bandwagon, though on a far smaller scale. “We harvest only approximately 2.5 cubic yards of peat each year for the entire annual production,” says Amanda Hathaway, spokesperson for Seattle’s Westland Distillery, which launched its peated single malt Solum (produced with locally harvested peat) in March 2023. “Rather than following traditional Scottish cut-and-drain methods to harvest peat, which damages the ecosystem, Westland employs a more sustainable method of digging peat from a live bog that is continually flooded to maintain a healthy ecosystem that allows the flora to flourish.”

 

But, in this era of technological progression and scientific innovation, some are questioning whether peat is truly necessary to create palatable smoky whisky.

 

The next iteration

 

Success is reliant upon evolution and continual improvement. Brands need to adapt to stay relevant and to align with the changing needs of the consumer. Attitudinal shifts often catalyse progress, and in terms of sustainability, the whisky sector has often been ahead of the pack, laying out a blueprint for other industries to copy. The next progressive step, it would seem, will be stepping away from peat, at least to some degree.

 

Duncan McRae, co-founder of Woven Whisky, is confident that careful and considerate peat usage is already on the radar for most distilleries, but thinks more action is needed, especially from whisky makers that retain a strong peat focus. “There are a handful of brands that build their entire image around the flavour imparted by peat. This strange cultification of a flavour profile has created an interesting dynamic in the industry. These brands have somehow carved out a sense of aspiration or exclusivity for themselves based on the amount of peat they use. If it was trees harvested from an unsustainable resource, they sure as hell wouldn’t be so proud of it.”

 

On a more positive note, McRae is adamant that the sector will continue to attract individuals with an entrepreneurial spirit and a desire to do things better. As such, he is confident any incoming peat ban would be little more than a minor inconvenience to inventive distilleries, suggesting it would simply encourage them to think outside the box.

 

“Whisky is a hugely dynamic industry. From production processes right the way through to how the product is consumed, everything is constantly in flux,” McRae notes. “We’ve seen numerous attempts to use other materials to impart a phenolic or smoky aroma into whisky, from different types of wood smokes to sheep dung and seaweed. Some have been really successful in terms of the flavours achieved. Right now, the tight regulations in Scotch probably prohibit producers going too far off piste, but if regulations relax there will be no shortage of viable alternatives and innovation potential.” 

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