Peat character is nearly synonymous with distilling in Scotland, where some 20 percent of the country is covered by peat bogs. Unsurprisingly, most Scotch whiskies include at least a hint of smoked malt, while brands like Laphroaig, Ardbeg, and Bruichladdich have upped the ante by releasing a number of “peat bombs” over the last decade or so, each with a bolder profile than the last.
But peat is not exclusive to Scotland. At Westland Distillery in Seattle, a new single malt called Solum plays the card as well, albeit in a slightly different way, distillery manager Tyler Pederson emphasizes, because its peat comes from a bog in the state of Washington.
“We get a noticeably different aroma — I always find it less medicinal across the board, less of the ‘burning hospital’ intensity that you find in some Islay peats,” he says. Instead of the typical notes of campfire and iodine that you might find in an Islay single malt, he describes the peat notes in Solum as “leathery, earthy, light mossy, and floral.”
“It’s because of the bog composition,” he explains. “It’s a different set of flora.”
The Washington peat used to smoke the malt for Westland is partly made of decomposed sphagnum moss, which is also found in Scottish peat. But Pederson says that Westland’s peat also contains other plants, including bog cranberry, Alaskan bunchberry, alpine bog laurel, and Labrador tea, as well as Douglas fir and local cedar.
“All of these are unique to this part of the world,” he says. “You’re not going to find those in any Scottish bog.”
Westland is not alone in attempting to derive something new — and highly place-specific — from local peat. Around the world, whiskey makers are embracing their own local resources, often using new techniques, in an attempt to express a sense of place that goes far beyond Scotland’s borders. Today, one of whiskey-making’s most traditional elements is getting remixed, resulting in unexpected new flavors and aromas.
New Challenges and New Techniques
Scotland might be known for its peaty whiskies, but Ireland is getting in on the game, too. At Sliabh Liag Distillers in Ireland’s northernmost county of Donegal, founder James Doherty says that the use of peat, there known as turf, to dry malt and add smoky aroma is not exactly a new development. Instead, it’s a taste of Ireland’s past.
“There’s very little coal on the island, so everything would have been turfed originally,” he says. “You’re starting to see people engage with this idea that smoky Irish whiskey would have been a thing. My challenge is: Irish whiskey should be peated, full stop.”
“I want that sort of dry, sweet, smoky aroma, to go on top of Irish whiskey’s intrinsic, sweet, nutty style. I think those flavors are synonymous, for me, with Donegal.”
The nature of the peat at the northern tip of Ireland, he says, is unlike that of the Scottish highlands, and more that of Islay.
“You look where we are, all of the bogs are sphagnum moss and heather,” he says. “There’s no really big trees so we don’t have great big carbon content. It isn’t woody.”
For Silkie, its line of smoky whiskeys, Sliabh Liag has used both Irish and Scottish peat, with limited releases that have been made with 100 percent local peat. Doherty says that his inspiration was the smell of his grandparents’ kitchen in Donegal, especially the apple-like scent of his grandfather’s pipe tobacco.
“I want that sort of dry, sweet, smoky aroma, to go on top of Irish whiskey’s intrinsic, sweet, nutty style,” he says. “I think those flavors are synonymous, for me, with Donegal.”
It’s not always easy to get the aroma of a local peat into malt. Originally, the material was used to dry barley malt and stop it from germinating simply because that was a common local fuel in Scotland and Ireland; the evocative smoke and sometimes medicinal aromas imparted counted as a bonus. Despite concerns over its carbon footprint, peat is still being used as fuel today in those countries, where the long history of use has led to know-how that is often lacking elsewhere.
To make its peat-smoked malt, Westland worked with a local malt company, Skagit Valley Malting, which needed some time to figure out the process.
“The technology and the historical knowledge of how to infuse malt with peat smoke is all in Scotland, or elsewhere in the world,” Pederson says. Starting in 2016, Skagit’s initial deliveries of Washington peat were turned into pellets, but that turned out to burn too efficiently for its kilns, resulting in reduced peat presence.
“In 2015, when we first started to use peat, everyone told us, ‘You’re crazy — no one wants peated Irish whiskey.’” And now it’s like one of the hottest sectors in the category.”
“By 2019, they had reworked the system and had discarded the pelletizing machine,” he continues. Instead, they dried and pulverized the next batch. “We’re now just feeding the peat into a newly designed kiln in powdered form.”
Unfortunately, Skagit Valley Malting filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. Pederson says that Westland is working to find a new partner for its locally peated malt, assuring fans that the distillery has plenty of Washington-peat whiskey already laid down in barrels for future editions of Solum.
Exhibit in the Cut
Although local peat can contribute to a whiskey’s sense of place, distillers stress the importance of technique, as well as ingredients. With Silkie, Doherty notes that the distiller can control the peat character by changing the “cuts” of spirit coming out of the still.
“The top cut is about 82 percent for us in the final still, and the bottom cut, we go to 67.5 percent alcohol,” he says. “At that point, we find you’re just starting to get that seaweed-y, iodine-y taste, and we don’t like that. So that’s the bit where you send that back into the intermediate still and clean it up.”
Other parts of production can make a difference in terms of how peat expresses itself. At Rademon Estate Distillery in Crossgar, Northern Ireland, David Boyd-Armstrong emphasizes the importance of time in oak, as well as less obvious angles like fermentation and the role of blending. For him, peat is what adds magic to whiskey.
“In 2015, when we first started to use peat, everyone told us, ‘You’re crazy — no one wants peated Irish whiskey,’” he says. “And now it’s like one of the hottest sectors in the category.”
“When we use virgin oak, while we get a lovely peat flavor, we tend to find it pares back more of the smoke. So you get a sweeter whiskey.”
For Rademon’s Shortcross Irish Whiskey, he uses what he calls a “full-fat” smoked whiskey that does not include any non-peated malt. Later, he blends it to get the peat character that he wants.
“It gives us almost like a palette of colors,” he says. “And then we can use that to produce the composition that we want to do in the final whiskey.”
A lot of the peat character of his “full-fat” whiskey disappears during maturation, he says, adding that different barrels change the whiskey in their own ways.
“It just depends on how active the wood is,” he says. “When we use virgin oak, while we get a lovely peat flavor, we tend to find it pares back more of the smoke. So you get a sweeter whiskey. The vanilla, the sweetness from the new oak is masking some of the smokiness. That’s something that we’re still exploring.”
Peat Without Smoke
While peat is often associated with smoke, ash, and campfire aromas, that’s not always the case. At Brother Justus Whiskey Company in Minneapolis, the local peat doesn’t add anything resembling smokiness to the whiskey because it’s never burned. In part, that comes from founder Phil Steger’s desire to better understand the vast stores of peat in his state. Minnesota is home to some 6 million acres of peat bog, about 50 percent more than Scotland and roughly twice the amount in Ireland. Much of the peat in Minnesota, he says, is composed of reeds and sedges, rather than sphagnum moss.
“I want to know what Minnesota peat tastes like, and how that might be different from Scottish peat and Irish peat,” he explains. “If you’re digging peat out of the ground and setting it on fire, how can I taste the terroir?”
Instead, Steger came up with a new technique inspired by a whiskey-making technique from Lincoln County, Tenn.
“The Lincoln County process is charcoal-filtering the whiskey,” he says. “I thought, ‘Well, let’s just figure out a way of peat-filtering — essentially peat-infusing — the whiskey.’”
“People who are Scotch drinkers will say, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s peat,’ but they have to step back for a second. Then they say, ‘But this is so different — it’s not coming in the midst of this smoke cloud.’”
Filtering whiskey through a bed of raw peat, he says, results in a spirit with flavors that echo the umami in many foods — without any trace of smoke.
“It is earthy, mushroomy, kind of miso-like, like nori seaweed, dark chocolate, or cocoa nib,” he says. “You recognize the flavor immediately, but it’s the peat flavor that’s buried underneath all the smoke and iodine and other things in a Scotch. It’s the difference between tasting something in fresh air, versus tasting something next to a campfire.”
That innovative approach might sound weird in the tradition-loving world of whiskey, but he says that people who really know peat will recognize it anyway, despite the lack of bonfire and iodine aromas.
“People who are Scotch drinkers will say, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s peat,’ but they have to step back for a second,” he says. “Then they say, ‘But this is so different — it’s not coming in the midst of this smoke cloud.’”
For Steger, peat bogs are much like the ancient religious texts he helped digitize in his previous career in manuscript preservation.
“A peat bog is a manuscript of the land,” he says. “It is a chronicle of every year’s growing season since the Ice Age. I mean, the plants that were there photosynthesizing 8,000 years ago, they’re still there.”
You might even be able to taste them in a glass of peat-filtered whiskey.
“There’s this slow unfolding of flavor as you’re sipping it that kind of recapitulates the slow layering of the bog itself,” Steger says. “The bog is layering reed after reed, growing season after growing season, and the flavors unfold that way, too.”