• 5 mins

Guest Writer Angus MacRaild has been exploring "Peat in Scotch Whisky - From Fire to Flavour" for us.

Two out of the three ranges of single malt whisky that we make are peated. As we look to bring back some malting capability in-house, the peat we use is on our mind more than ever. We know from our mailing list survey apropos of the UN Climate Summit in November 2021 that it is on your minds too.

This company has a fine wine background, so we've been pursuing ideas about terroir in whisky since 2001 - it's interesting to have Angus' perspective and analysis of peat in the context of terroir, and in historical, political, industrial, environmental contexts too! 

Here's an introduction to the themes and structure of Angus' three part essay series. The other essays will follow later in 2022.

Angus MacRaild [AR]: The story of peat in the production of Scotch Whisky is the story of how a carbon-rich organic material transitioned from a fuel source to an agent of flavour.

Peat is an ingredient which bears considerable responsibility for lending countless whiskies their soul. And, as such, it cuts to the heart of all that is important and pressing about whisky’s future as a drink, and as a cultural phenomena.

Peat is many things, but most of all, it is land. Vast tracts of Scotland are carpeted in bogs and peat moss, the reality of its physical reach has impacted the course of civilisation in this country - and others - for centuries. Before we dug and burned it, its marshy geography curtailed our desire lines, restricting our travel along specific routes and pathways. It drew out creatures that we hunted and ate; it captured and channelled water that we drank; and in its depths we sank our dead. Peatland in our minds, much like whisky itself, is mythical, ancient and Celtic - despite also existing abundantly in far-flung locations around the world.

Its marshy geography curtailed our desire lines

When we discuss the ingredients and creation of Scotch Whisky the focus has always been on barley, yeast and water as primary ingredients. Then upon wood as the key sculpting agent of maturation. Understandably, this is because these components are universal; not all whiskies are peated. However, when peat is used, it is undeniably a cornerstone ingredient of those whiskies - such is the manifest weight and presence of its flavour in the eventual glass.

This series looks at the past, present and future use of peat in Scotch Whisky. It looks at the way its flavour has manifest and how and why that flavour has changed over the decades. As peat is ‘land’, this piece also looks at how the use of peat ties into questions and ideas of terroir - and why those questions and ideas are important. Finally, we look at peat’s place in the future of Scotch Whisky and how this squares with the realities of the climate crisis.

Peat is many things, but most of all, it is land

Links with "terroir"

Terroir is a very old French concept. It is a cultural one which has been applied to people as well as to crops and produce over the centuries, and it has not been static in its meaning or intentions.

Today it is most deeply associated with wine growing (note, I say wine ‘growing’, not wine ‘making’). A winegrower would characterise terroir as the discernible influence of the micro and macro climate upon the personality of her wine. The cumulation of weather, geology and nuance of location. It is the role of the winegrower to negotiate with nature and with the land, to know when to intervene and when to step back. With their terroir, inaction can be as influential as intervention. Most importantly, terroir must command consensus, there must be accumulated recognition of these location-specific characteristics and their consistent manifestation in the product.

This very specific template and definition of terroir is not easily transplantable onto Scotch Whisky. Whisky cannot be wine, just as wine cannot be whisky - and why would we want them to be anyway? The purpose of interrogating how we make whisky with concepts and ideas about terroir is not to discern once and for all whether a particular whisky displays ‘terroir’ (though that may emerge) but to explore ways to make better whisky.

The greatest and most beautiful Scottish malt whiskies were created in large part by incident of historic circumstance...

The Past

Scotch Whisky found its peaty flavour because peat was a reliable, easily accessible fuel source. It was local, transportable, storable and abundant. That it lent signature phenolic flavours to kilned barley malt - and subsequent distillates derived from those malts - was incidental. In this fact it shares much with the most powerful romantic truths of Scotch Whisky’s history: that the greatest and most beautiful Scottish malt whiskies were created in large part by incident of historic circumstance, not by deliberate, consciously planned craft.

By this I do not mean that the people who made the early commercial scale malt whiskies in the 19th century were not skilled and conscientious in their trade - rather that the processes were governed by wider commercial and social realities. The nature of the brewing industries that provided a ready supply of certain types of yeast influenced the diverse natures of different distilleries fermentations. The steady supply of fresh Spanish sherry casks fed into the Scottish distilling industry by fortune of historic supply routes and popular British tastes in good quality sherry; later the fortuitous and low-cost supply of ex-bourbon casks from America by dint of US laws around number of permissible fillings.

The evolution of Scottish malt whisky as a commercial product benefitted from, and was influenced by, many such factors which were external to and preceded any collective and conscious industry decision-making along the lines of ‘this is what we should do’.

Indeed, the processes, equipment, practices and ingredients (especially including peat) were all arrived at and well established by the time of initial legislative efforts around definition of ‘Scotch Whisky’. Early significant legislative attentions to Scotch Whisky, notably the Parliamentary Select Committee of 1890, and later the Royal Commission of 1908, were concerned primarily with description and categorisation. They were primarily responses to the disruptive rise of continuous distillation and blending; they were not directly prescriptive to the single malt producer about method or ingredient. Although the era of blended Scotch they would help to usher in would, in time, have huge commercial influence over the production processes of single malts, the fact remains that whisky’s broad character was evolutionary and incidental. It would be many decades before it started to become conscious and deliberate on an industry-wide scale.

In-house control of the malting process remained prevalent until the late 1950s.

One of the most important early aspects of malt whisky production in Scotland was that, for a long time, floor malting remained indigenous to individual distilleries. Most of the Highland distilleries in Scotland pre-dated the railway lines that would later bring access to casks and coal. As such, proximity to a great diversity of peat bogs for fuel source, and in-house control of the malting process, became a signature part of malt whisky’s production which would remain prevalent until the late 1950s. In his book ‘Whisky’, Aenas MacDonald, writing in 1930, frequently references peat as both a key flavour signature of Highland malt whiskies, while also emphasising its economic necessity. The excellent 2016 edition with footnotes by Ian Buxton provides a neat contrast between then and now regarding peat:

“The convenient proximity of a peat bog is an economic necessity for a Highland malt distillery.”
Buxton annotates this point with the following footnote:
“Quite simply not a sentence that could or would be written today.”

Commercial-scale malt whiskies would have been made in largely the same fashion in Scotland for over a century by the time MacDonald was writing this. His intention behind the word ‘economic’ probably allows for a balance of character and spirit quality, as well as satisfying energy requirements. As MacDonald, and others, make clear, the ‘peatreek’ of Highland malt whiskies was already a popularly recognised signature of their product. What began as incidental, had become fortuitously commercial - for both the single malt enthusiast and the blender alike.

MacDonald’s ‘Whisky’ is a text well worth revisiting with regards the subject of peat and its role within the broader historical context of Scotch Whisky. He was a Highland romanticist to a fault, yet his writing stands as a fascinating cultural snapshot of an era when malt whisky and blending were rapidly intersecting to affect immense change.


Discover the latest stories and news from Bruichladdich Distillery