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Peat and its meaning for Whisky

Peat DitchScotland is in large parts covered by an 1 meter-thick layer of peat. It was formed in the past thousands to five thousand years by dead plants. Each moor grows approximately one millimeter per year. If a moor is 3 meters thick, it is therefore about 3,000 years old.

Within living memory humans in Scotland used the peat as an energy source. The peat is dug in narrow strips and piled in small pyramids to dry. The water runs off very fast from the peat and makes the soft strips to a hard briquette. This briquette contains, similarly to coal, the energy of the dead plants.

In contrast to coal dried peat burns down fast and thereby delivers a large amount of energy in a short time in the form of heat. If you once sat at a peat fire on an evening in Scotland, you can confirm the warming strength of the peat.

Torf for dryingFor what do you need peat in the whisky production? The old Scots used peat for heating the pot stills. However that didn’t lead to the smoky taste of the whisky. Only during the drying process of the damp malt over a peat heated fire, the smoke gets into the barley. The difference in the smokiness of the whisky depends on the time the barley is exposed to the biting peat smoke. The drying time of damp malt lies at approximately 30 hours. At Laphroaig about 18 hours of these 30 hours it is dried over peat fires; in contrast at Glengoyne it is dried over non-peat fire. Thus a huge pallet starting from extremely peaty up to whiskies with little smoke flavor develops. There is a special characteristics of malt. Even without peat, the seed develops a little peatiness.

Kiln LaphroaigDoes the water, which flows through peat moors, have an influence on the smokiness of a whisky? The answer is a clear NO! Peat water contains only a few ppm (parts by million) of peat, which colors the water brown, however it contributes to the smokey taste in no way. Surely, the water is of crucial importance for the quality of whisky, but it does not have an influence on the smokiness. The peat smoke delivers a ten to hundredfold peatyness than the water does.

The mass production of Scotch over the past 200 years drove up the need for smoky whisky enormously. Particularly the distilleries of the island of Islay produce very smoky whisky. Especially the distilleries Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Caol Ila, Ardbeg and Bowmore. The peaty taste of these whiskies is so strong that they still can give their smokiness to Blended Whiskies, even if they are mixed with a 1:20 ratio with water and other unpeaty whiskies.

Water LagavulinHowever there are also critical voices! The strong use of peat for the production of malt already exhausted some peat moors. In the area around Campbeltown the peat supplies are already exhausted, so that peat from areas further away e.g. from Islay, has to be ordered.

The whisky industry however tries to reduce the usage of peat by other means. Thus the distillery Bowmore grinds the peat to a coarse powder, which is spread on a normal fire and so produces the necessary smoke with less peat. In that way the smoke yield of the peat is increased. Also the modern large maltings like Port Ellen, Glen Esk and Glen Ord exploits the peat in an industrial way far better than it would be the case on a conventional drying fire in a kiln. In a closed system of a large malting drum the smoke doesn’t escape through the Pagoda roof though the Kiln into the environment after a single contact with the malt, instead it is led over the barley until the smoke is optimally used. The malt ordering distillery gives exactly the specification for their necessary peatiness to the maltings.

PeatminingThe modern digging methods for peat permit a wide area extraction of the peat layer, as it is shown on the following pictures. The digging doesn’t resemble the mining of brown coal at the surface. It is rather a harvesting of an agriculturally cultivated food. The agricultural machines with which the digging takes place, surely contribute their part to this feeling.

The drying process of the briquettes (they are after 200 years still briquettes) still happens on large heaps, from which the water flows out, following the law of gravity. When a peat area is exploited the machines drive further and continue at the next moor. Computer forecasts showed, that in Scotland grows more peat than it is constantly dug out.



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letzte Änderung: 20. Januar 2011