Understanding Peated Whisky
You may have heard of a peaty or peated whisky, but what exactly is peat, and what is its role in the distillation of whisky? To understand peat’s role, we first have to understand the early stages of the distillation process.
Malted barley, also known as malt, is the grain used in the distillation of whisky. Barley is “malted” by being steeped in water in a process that leads to the barley sprouting and germinating. This process produces the sugars that, later on, will turn into alcohol.
The distiller takes the sprouted barley and dries it in a kiln which is heated by a fire. Next, this dried malted barley is ground down into fine particles and mixed with water. This mixture is known as ‘wort’, and it is transferred to larger vats where the preparatory process prior to casking continues.
What is peat and how is it used?
A completed whisky, poured at a Parramatta bar, Sydney whisky bar, cocktail bar, or similar venue, is comprised of diverse flavours. These flavours do not originate from one point of the distillation process or from one ingredient, but rather, through all elements of the distillation process – from the cask wood to the water used in making the wort or filtering, through to the means by which the malted barley is dried.
Peat is an organic material located just below the ground that is made of partially decayed organic plant matter (such as sedges, scrubs, and mosses, especially sphagnum moss). Peat is found in wet, boggy areas, common to Scotland.
Historically, peat has been extracted and used for a number of different purposes, notably heating. Peat is often formed into bricks, which are then air or kiln dried, to form a combustible material. In a boggy area that is highly damp and with few trees around, peat has proven to be a useful alternative to firewood over the years.
Whisky cannot be separated from its origins. Rather, whisky emerged from these origins and would not exist if it were not for the convergence of specific historical conditions that continue to define the spirit we know in the modern day.
The presence of peat in Scotland, and its use in the kiln-drying of malted barley, shaped the trajectory of whisky distillation. Its presence in modern whiskies varies, making how ‘peaty’ a whisky is a measure of its style, and a way of explaining and communicating its characteristics.
Peat lends a smoky, earthy, and dense flavour profile to a whisky. There is also a lot of variety within peat types, with the qualities of peat (and therefore the whisky) varying depending on proximity to the ocean, for example.
Where can I try a high-quality peated whisky?
The first is Laphroaig – the Ian Hunter Story 30 Year Old. Unsurprisingly, this whisky is from the Islay region of Scotland, where whiskies are often heavily peated and demonstrate a warming smoky character. The second is from Speyside distiller Glenfiddich, in the form of their 40 Year Old.
Sample these sipping whiskies at the Heritage Lounge if you want to experience the potential of peat.