How does heavily peated water make unpeated whisky?

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The water we use for mashing the grist at Bruichladdich is often quite a rich ‘peated brown’ colour. This can give folk the impression that it is the source of the famously peated character of some Islay whiskies, including Port Charlotte and Octomore. But this is not the case.

The island’s plentiful rainfall collects in our reservoir, called ‘An Torran’, following a relatively short journey filtering through the peaty soils, loams and glacial alluvia of the Rhinns of Islay which form a thin porous layer of sponge sitting over the hard (almost) impermeable bedrock. It picks up plenty of ‘peaty colour’, and a lots of lovely minerals, from these soils.

This water adds a significant element to the character of the whisky we produce at Bruichladdich. Exactly how much is difficult to say, because we have never run a proper, scientifically controlled, experiment to find out. To do that, we would have to obtain enough water from a different source to run a control mash and subsequent distillation for comparison. That has never been done, and it is extremely unlikely that it will ever be done. No matter, it all adds to the mystery – the artisanal distillation at Bruichladdich is as much alchemy as science anyway.

So our water source at An Torran, in the hills high above the village is unique and precious to Bruichladdich. It can be a lovely brown colour, yet, contrary to popular belief, it does not impart a peaty character to our spirit. The water may look brown, but despite the colour, the phenolic content of it is very very low. Distillation will take that even lower. That is why unpeated malt distilled at Bruichladdich will give you an unpeated spirit.

The very high phenol counts characteristic of Port Charlotte and Octomore whiskies come entirely from the malted barley. The skills of our maltsters are brought into play, making unpeated Bruichladdich, heavily peated Port Charlotte or very very slowly coaxing the phenomenal levels of phenols into the malt that will become Octomore, the most heavily peated whisky in the world.

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