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What Does Peaty Means For Scotch Whisky? Here's All You Need To Know

By: Neelanjana Mondal

peaty whisky

Ever heard of smoky whisky, sure you have if you're here, those are the kind of whiskies that have a bold smoky flavour that has something to do with its manufacturing process. The peaty kind gives whiskies their air of sophistication and the infamous reputation of being a man's drink. The aroma will hit your olfactory senses and if you like your drink smoky this is something you will love. The smell is very close to that of the burnt asphalt you get on roads when they are freshly making one, hence this can be quite a polarising drink.

Peat, the major flavouring agent for the whisky, is an organic matter abundant in humid environments with plenty of bogs and swamps. Like petroleum and coal in the ground, peat also takes a long time to form, typically thousands of years as an amalgamation of dead vegetation. It's a great fuel and looks like a dark brick of sponge and whisky-producing countries like Scotland have plenty of peat areas. So how does the peaty flavour profile creep its way into whisky?

How peat was used before 

Growing several metres into the ground, Scotland has a vast supply of them and it's no wonder it was used in distilleries since it was discovered. But with time, especially today, peat transitioned from being used as a fuel to an agent of flavouring. Before malted barley was commercially available, most large distilleries depended on peat to malt their barley. 

The malting process turns the starch in the barley soluble and allows for it to be converted into alcohol. The older method involved soaking the barley in water to allow it to germinate and then stopping the germination by drying it in a kiln. When peat is burned to heat the kiln, it produces aromatic smoke. This smoke can influence the malt during kilning, giving it flavours like tar, ash, iodine, and smoke from compounds called phenols.

Where it is made

The answer is Scotland but it is no longer exclusive, other countries like India, New Zealand, America and Japan also produce their own peaty whiskies. But Scotland deserves a section because it pioneered in the flavour profile and its main whisky-producing areas offer a range of peated styles.

The Lowlands region just north of England is known for producing softer, more mellow whiskies that provide a delicate base allowing smoky peat flavours to blossom, especially in blended Scotch whiskies. The typical Lowland character exhibits light notes of toffee, toast, and honeysuckle.

In contrast, the Highlands encompasses a vast area producing everything from light, grassy whiskies to much fuller-bodied, robust drams. While peated expressions remain in the minority here, moderately peated styles and some expressions from Highland Park showcase a classic dry-smoke character.

The Speyside region further northeast is home to over half of Scotland's distilleries. The whiskies here tend to have fruit-forward flavours like apple, pear and citrus, and along with it some trailing hints of smoke. Some are matured in sherry casks, adding rich notes of dried fruits, nuts and spice.

Down in Campbeltown on the Kintyre peninsula, the typical peated character leans toward a more delicate, wispy smokiness balanced by underlying briny, mineral notes contributing to an overall hearty, robust flavour profile.

But it is the remote island of Islay, off the southwest coast, that is most renowned for its peated whiskies. Legendary distilleries like Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg and Bowmore all call this island home, producing some of the most intense, heavily peated whiskies in the world. The peated malts from these Islay giants are famous for their distinct pungency and an almost medicinal smokiness, along with savoury, umami notes imparted by the local peat.

Measuring peatiness and how ageing affects flavour

peaty whisky

The level of peat in whisky is measured in phenol parts per million (ppm), although ppm levels are high in the dried, peated malt, they decrease significantly during distillation and maturation, leaving most finished whiskies between 30-40% of the original peat level. Lightly peated whiskies measure 15 ppm or less, mildly peated around 20 ppm, and heavily peated styles are 30 ppm and above. The ppm measurement can indicate how smoky or intense the peat character will be in the finished whisky. With extended ageing, the phenols bond with other compounds, gradually fading the intensity of the peaty notes over time.

How to enjoy peaty whisky

Peaty whiskies fall in the ambit of those whiskies that are enjoyed neat or with a few drops of water. You will either love it or dislike the experience; dilution will not help with tasting the flavours and it will be as good as any other whisky then. However, there are a few cocktails that enhance the flavour – Blood and Sand, Penicillin, and Manhattan Twist, that you could also enjoy. 

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