Peat is formed from vegetable matter that has built up over many centuries in acidic and waterlogged conditions. This process has excluded oxygen, and inhibited decomposition, which means that instead of the organic matter being broken down by microbes and released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, it has been preserved in the ground. Peat bogs are therefore considered to be important carbon sinks, the preservation of which is important to the slowing of man-made global warming. It is also very important to Port Charlotte and Octomore whiskies.
The most important component of most Scottish peat is sphagnum moss, but all sorts of vegetable matter contribute to its makeup including grasses and sedges.
The average growth rate of a peat ‘moss’ is around 1mm a year, which is not that fast, but it is warp speed compared to the creation rate of other fossil fuels such as coal or oil which took tens of millions of years to form, hundreds of millions of years ago. For this reason, some argue that peat is a renewable resource rather than a fossil fuel, but frankly that is an argument that is generally confined to those who have a vested interest in being allowed to continue to dig it up.
Peat covers around 2% of the surface of the globe and people in areas where it is found have historically exploited it as their primary domestic fuel to heat houses and cook. Although this is now a minority activity there are still some modern electricity generating power stations, in Russia and Ireland for example, that use peat on a massive scale. The potential environmental damage from this kind of exploitation is huge. Fully half of all Ireland’s original peat bogs have now been destroyed for example, with the remaining half expected to be used up in the next thirty years. The biggest volumes in the UK however, are used as a soil improving compost in gardens. There is an active campaign to stop this, including those run by the Royal Horticultural Society and the RSPB.
It is now widely appreciated that peatlands and peat bogs constitute some of the most environmentally sensitive areas of the UK, and that their continued exploitation is a sensitive issue. Happily, the whisky industry generally has a good reputation for using their resources of peat in a sustainable fashion. The environmental and conservation organisations are broadly supportive of our collective conduct, which in the overall scheme of things is relatively small scale. Which is a relief. Bruichladdich, in common with most of our colleagues in the industry, has no interest in pursuing environmentally damaging practices.