Updated: Aug 4
A long long time ago on the island of Islay, people originally used peat as an energy source; since it burns similarly to coal, smoky and odorous but consistently. The accumulation of water in boggy areas slows down the decomposition of plant material such as moss, grass and tree roots which leads to the creation of peat. Peat accumulates extremely slowly and bogs are often thousands of years old leading to peat being broadly classified as a fossil fuel.
Peat was the primary domestic fuel in Scotland for a long time due to it’s ready availability in many parts of the country. And it fired not only hearths but distillery kilns as well.
Today, distilleries largely rely on commercially malted barley. In days gone by, however, they necessarily had to malt their own. Malting makes the starches within barleycorns soluble so that the sugars may be converted into alcohol. In other words, malting tricks barleycorns into thinking spring has come. Barleycorns are steeped in water and allowed to germinate before the process is halted in the kiln.
When peat is burned to heat the kiln, it also produces an especially aromatic smoke. To a point, this smoke has a considerable influence on malt during kilning, imbuing it with compounds called ‘phenols‘. Typical flavours include tar, ash, iodine and smoke.
Did you know that peat used to be the main fuel for distilling whisky?
The qualities of peated whisky divide consumer opinion. This has always been the case. And yet due to a lack of alternative fuel sources, whiskies using entirely peated barley were once the mainstay of the industry. This was especially true of the remote Highland and island distillers. That was, until the introduction of coal and, by continuation, coke.
The Lowlands and Speyside were the first to convert. The development of rail transport in Scotland led to the wide availability of coke. Coke burns more evenly, more consistently and with less smoke than peat, and so these regions were the first to realise the potential of un-peated whisky.
Others followed, but not all of them. Initially out of necessity, Islay to the west, Orkney to the north and several mainland distilleries held on to tradition. These distillers continued to use varying proportions of peat during the kilning process. This maintains a traditional and now largely unique style of whisky with lots of variation and flavour. And those which still have their own maltings such as Laphroaig on Islay, Highland Park in Orkney and even Balvenie in Speyside go one step further by peating relatively small quantities of barley for their own use.
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