Peat seems to confuse and intimidate many so here’s a quick intro to demystify one of the most controversial aspects of whiskey.
What is peat?
Peat is partially decayed plant matter found in boggy terrain. Throughout history, people have dug it out of the ground, dried it then burned it as fuel.
How does peat relate to whisky?
A key component of malt whisky production involves germinating barley grains. Heat plays a vital part in this process. Peat was once used as a fuel source by some distillers to dry out their grains. While the grains were being heated by the burning peat, some of the characteristics of its smoke leeched into the grain which then got carried through the distillation/aging processes and into the bottled product.
Nowadays, producers use more modern fuel sources to heat their barley, but a few go out of their way to expose their barley to peat smoke to create a distinctive flavor profile.
Which whiskies are peated?
The vast majority of whiskies — including Scotch whiskies — are not peated at all. Bourbons and Ryes are never peated or smoked. Irish whiskies are almost exclusively unpeated. The majority of Scotches are unpeated as well. If I were to walk into a liquor store and randomly choose a bottle of whiskey, I’d almost certainly pick a bottle without peat. By and large, when we talk about peated whiskies, we’re talking about a subset of Scotches.
The most prominent and well-known peated whiskies come from the Islay region of Scotland. Distillers like Laphroaig, Ardbeg, and Lagavulin pride themselves on offering briny, smoky and intensely flavored scotches. However, a fair amount of delicious peated whiskies are made outside of Islay and can provide different types of peated whisky experiences.
What does peated whisky smell and taste like?
Many associate a robust smoky character with peat but the reality is that not all peat tastes the same. Some peated whiskies don’t taste smoky at all. They usually have some combination of earthy, smoky, briny, vegetal or medicinal characteristics. Other descriptions can include heather, mushroom, rubber, band-aid, brine, leather, and sea moss.
Sounds slightly weird, huh? It is. I’ll be the first to admit that my tasting notes make some peated scotches seem unpalatable, yet I enjoy them immensely.
Why I like peated whiskies
Some love peat at the outset, most ease into peat over time and some never develop a taste for it at all. All are perfectly reasonable and acceptable responses. However, don’t shut yourself off from considering any peated whisky simply because it seems weird and unapproachable. I didn’t love my first heavily peated dram, but over time, I came to appreciate its unique and delicious properties.
Here’s why I enjoy peat now:
Peat adds layers of flavor and aroma. Sweet scotches are great but offer a somewhat narrow band of fruit-centric flavors. Peat often adds rich layers of earthiness and smokiness that draw me back for another sip and help me appreciate the complexities and nuances in my glass.
Peat can have a deep, visceral quality. Peated scotch is one of the few beverages that can transport my thoughts to another place and time. When I drink Lagavulin 16, I feel as if I’m sitting in a leather chair near a fire in a stone cottage near the sea. Very few other foods and beverages have such a strong influence on my thoughts and feelings.
Peat is unique and distinctive. I sometimes get a little burned out on sweet beverages – especially during chilly and wet weather. Peated whiskies offer a unique savory and complex alternative for those times when you’re not in the mood for a fruit and sugar bomb.
Where to Get Started
- Benromach 10. A rare peated Speyside. Mildly sweet sherried scotch balanced out by a touch of smoky peat and woodiness.
- Highland Park 12 or 18. This scotch has a little of everything including a nice earthy, floral, vegetal backdrop which leads to a complex and very balanced dram
- Springbank 10. Funky (in a good way). Its prominent creamy vanilla is balanced out by rich rubbery and briny peat
- Kilkerran 12. Floral, sherried and lightly peated.
- Johnnie Walker Black. smooth and easy drinking with a wisp of peat
- Johnnie Walker Green. Has a bit of everything including subtle peat in the background
- Talisker 10. A backbone of pepper, salt, and smoke. An appropriate gateway to the more aggressive Islay scotches.
- Compass Box Peat Monster. Classic Islay profile but dialed back and approachable. Not a monster.
- Lagavulin 16. Leather, smoke, and iodine. Beginner-friendly. An excellent place to start with heavily peated Islay style.
- Laphroaig 10. Beach bonfire, antiseptic and lemon
- Ardbeg 10. Black tar, lime, smoke, and brine. Delicious