Peat.. What is it ?

The beginners guide to peat and whisky.

Peat is basically decomposed plant material, usually found in wet areas where materials have been partially restrained from decaying fully by acidic and anaerobic conditions. Peat is basically made up of wetland vegetation, mainly things like moss, shrubs, leafs, and other foliage. Most of the peat formed in the modern era was formed  around 12,000 years ago after the last ice age but can be aged to around 360 million years ago.

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Peat for use in the whisky industry is  harvested into brick form by traditional methods as well as industrial extraction,

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the traditional methods of cutting the peat involve tools such as a ” flaughter”  a “rutter”  and a ” tusker”  for cutting the top part and forming the blocks, the top part of the cut is then returned to the field in order to reduce the ecological impact. Once harvested the peat is then stacked into ” sturrows” and left to dry,  prior to the 1960s most of the whisky industry would have used peat to dry the barley but today the majority have turned to more modern technology.  Most of the distilleries on Islay as well as Highland park and a few others still use the traditional methods of peat fires to dry their barley, other distilleries buy in malted barley from firms such as Port Ellen maltings and Simpsons. The use of peat in the drying of barley gives us the strong flavours so many whisky lovers seek, although it is very much a ” marmite” thing, you either love it or hate it..  The use of peat in the fires can vary greatly depending on the finished product you are after, for example some of the heavily peated whisky might use up to 5 tonnes of peat per run whereas some distilleries with  very lightly peated expressions might only use 5 tonnes per year.  The strength of the peated whisky is measured in phenolics in the barley and “ppm” ( parts per million)  1 ppm = 0.0001%  or 1ppm is 1 part phenol diluted in 1,000000 parts of spirit. A typical peated whisky might range from 20-50 ppm but some of the big hitters like Ardbeg and Bruichladdich range from 50-80ppm and higher, the current offering of octomore from Bruichladdich is a whopping 208ppm.  As the whisky matures in the barrel the “ppm” will decrease, for example, new make that measures 25ppm might drop to 10 ppm at 10 yo and down to 6ppm at 30yo. So next time you drink your peated whisky, give a thought to the thousands of years history that helped produce the flavours your tasting..

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