FROM THE VAULTS
For peat’s sake
Peat is peat, right? Wrong. Where it’s cut from will bring different flavours to your dram. Richard Goslan put it to the test with four willing peated whisky enthusiasts in this feature from Unfiltered issue 41 in November 2018
PEAT TASTING and TRACTOR IMAGE: PETER SANDGROUND
He might have written it almost 100 years ago, but in his landmark book Whisky, Aeneas MacDonald is still partially correct in his discussion of the importance of peat.
“The convenient proximity of a peat bog is an economic necessity for a Highland malt distillery,” he wrote at the time – something that in our age of centralised maltings clearly isn’t still the case.
“On the north shore of Scapa Flow is Hobbister Moor, which supplies the peat for the Highland Park distillery. The famous Faemussach Moss, with its inexhaustible peat deposits, contributes something to the distinctive flavour of Glenlivet whisky.”
Glenlivet is no longer peated and there’s no more peat being cut from Faemussach at Tomintoul. But here’s his point – and one that is still valid today. “There is peat and peat. Good whisky is very fastidious in its tastes and demands a peat which is wholly free from mineral impregnations. Even among peats which are not contaminated in this way there is a certain amount of variety owing to differences in the vegetable composition of the fuel.”
THE SCIENTIFIC PART
What do those differences in the ‘vegetable composition’ of peat mean when it comes to what we taste in our glass? That was the subject of Scotch Whisky Research Institute senior scientist Barry Harrison’s study into the Composition of Peats Used in the Preparation of Malt for Scotch Whisky Production: Influence of Geographical Source and Extraction Depth. His aim was to determine whether peats from different parts of Scotland are chemically distinct and could impart different flavours.
Barry took peat samples from six locations and from different depths at Castlehill, Gartbreck moss and Glenmachrie moss on Islay, Hobbister Hill on Orkney, St Fergus in Aberdeenshire and Tomintoul on Speyside. His analysis found differences in peat composition depending on where it came from and the depth it was cut at, with the implication being that peats from different origins may contribute different chemical characteristics to peated malt and, therefore, to peated Scotch whisky.
The next step for Barry was to put that to the test by distilling samples of new make spirit under carefully controlled laboratory conditions, using chemically distinct peats from these different sources.
The results were evaluated by SWRI’s sensory panel, which found that spirits produced using the Islay peats generally gave the highest scores for peaty aroma attributes. St Fergus spirit generally scored low for peaty aromas, Tomintoul had a relatively high medicinal score and Orkney had a high smoky score.
“You have to take into account three factors with the peat,” says Barry. “We found that different peats have different proportions of compounds that can contribute to different flavours, depending on where the peat comes from, the level it was cut at and how it changes as it gets older.”
SWRI’s analysis found differences in the level of particular phenols and guaiacol compounds, with higher levels in the Islay peats contributing to the peaty aromas in those new make spirits. Tomintoul peat had a relatively medicinal aroma, possibly due to the presence of sphagnum moss, which contains high levels of phenols. St Fergus new make had a relative abundance of guaiacols compared with phenols – probably related to the peat’s higher level of woody material.
“There are differences to be found from Islay to Orkney and in between that you can see have an influence on the new make spirit,” says Barry. “But those differences become more difficult to distinguish as the spirit matures into whisky, and then different casks will have different effects on the compounds, so there are a lot of complicating factors that come into play.”
Scotland has more than 1 million hectares of peatland
Peat takes approximately 3-4,000 years to accumulate a depth of one metre
THE UNSCIENTIFIC PART
It’s all very well talking about the science of peat…but what about tasting it? We thought we’d put some members to the test with a blind tasting at The Vaults, with a line up of peated drams from different regions of Scotland.
Our peaty panel has a fraternal line up, with brothers Daniel and Alan Scott, and brothers-in-law Tyler Lunceford and Lachlan Gillies.
Dan and Alan are relatively recent recruits to the Society, after Dan was seduced a year ago by Cask No. 76.135: Moment of serenity and went on to buy his brother a membership for Christmas.
Lachlan’s father Willie Gillies was part of the Society’s first ever Tasting Panel that convened in Pip Hills’s kitchen on Scotland Street, and his brother-in-law Tyler from Oregon has also been part of the SMWS family since 2007.
Society ambassador Jim Coleman has selected three whiskies to give our guinea pigs examples of bottlings produced using peat from Islay, Orkney and Aberdeenshire. But could they tell which one was which?
The only consensus is with dram #3 (Cask No. 53.253: Ship shape and brine), which all four agree – correctly – is an Islay dram.
“Islay peat is quite distinct, and because it’s better known maybe it’s more cemented in your mind,” says Dan. “It’s like a pig roast over a campfire, really different from the first two drams,” says Tyler.
Opinions are divided, however, over drams #1 (Cask No. 66.116: Olaf bags his third boar) and #2 (Cask No. 4.242: Coastal landscape with smoke), with possible regions being named ranging from Orkney to the Highlands to Campbeltown.
“#1 doesn’t taste like medicine and there’s a sweetness to it,” says Alan. “#2 is explosive when it hits your tongue, but I’m not sure about the region,” says Tyler.
Once we reveal the sources of the three casks, we have one more surprise in store – a blind tasting of the Society’s first ever English whisky, Cask No. 137.1: An English country Mordor.
“This has the most body out of all four whiskies we’ve tried, with a powerful nose and a beautiful colour,” says Dan. “I don’t think it’s an Islay whisky,” says Tyler, while Alan simply says: “Well done, Tasting Panel – you’ve nailed this one. This is smooth and balanced, my favourite so far.”
That’s before we tell them it’s not a Scotch at all – but our panelists are open-minded enough to accept that whisky doesn’t have to come from Scotland to pack a peaty punch. Where the peat actually came from is another question…
This article first appeared in Unfiltered issue 41 from November 2018, all titles and information correct at the original time of publication
PICTURED: Jim Coleman (centre) with our four panellists