How does peat get into whisky?

There are many common misconceptions about the peatiness of whisky, chief of which is the notion that the peat flavours come from the peat in the dark waters which we draw from the hills above the distillery and use to create our spirit.

This isn't true. If you taste peaty water you'll find it tastes slightly minerally, but certainly not smokey. The peatiness is in the barley itself.

To prepare barley for distillation it must first be malted. Anyone who has ever sprouted seeds at home will be familiar with the process. Steep the grain in water, allow it to germinate, generating the sugars that are so important for fermentation. After drying, the barley is known as malt and has that characteristic rich breakfast cereal/ Horlicks flavour.

Traditionally the drying would have been done using whatever fuels were available locally - wood, coal, or peat. Nowadays hot air is common to produce classic unpeated barley. Burning peat however produces a smoke with a very characteristic smell. (Many people are quite surprised to find that the peat itself in its raw, dried form is almost odourless.)

It is during the drying process then that the barley becomes smoked as the peat burns and is absorbed into the kernels. The result is peated, smokey barley which, when milled, mashed, distilled and matured creates the characteristic smokey whisky we either love or hate.

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