Spring is finally here. The daffodils have opened their trumpets, the newborn lambs are frolicking, and the frogspawn has returned to my pond. Hopefully, winter is now truly behind us.

For whisky producers, spring signals the start of a new cycle. Barley seeds begin to find their way into fields where they will germinate and grow until August or September.

Whilst peat is not used to produce every whisky in Scotland, April also marks the beginning of the peat cutting season. There is plenty of peat in Speyside but we also have many trees, therefore peat cutting is not something which happens a lot in this part of Scotland. However, peat cutting is still customary on Scotland’s most famous whisky island: Islay. I am fortunate enough to be able to visit Islay regularly as Ardbeg is one of the two single malt whiskies I work on. I always enjoy having a go at cutting peat when I visit but I am certainly not an expert.

So, on this occasion, I have enlisted the help of a colleague who lives on the island and has been managing the Ardbeg Visitor Centre for nearly 25 years. I couldn’t think of a better person to share her specialised knowledge on peat and peat cutting on the fecund island of Islay. Jackie Thomson, over to you…

1. What is peat?

Here’s the equation:

Plants + heather + seaweed + bones/feathers/water - oxygen and pressure + time = peat.

It is amazing stuff, sliced out of the earth with special cutting tools. Not pretty, but magical; and this process of cutting, laying, stacking, and drying the peat starts now. This is the season for cutting peat.

Peat covers 1.5 million square miles of surface area across the world. Yet how much do we really know about peat?

Peat presence on Islay

2. Where can you find peat?

For starters, peat is not typically Scottish. Much of northern Europe - from Scotland to Siberia - has peat deposits, as do Washington State and Canada. There’s peat in Rwanda, New Zealand, and Australia. That’s a lot of peat!

Peat was traditionally the fuel that kept island homes warm throughout long, cold winters. Families, neighbours, and sometimes whole villages would go out to the peat banks together and cut up the necessary chunks. Millimetre by millimetre, minute by minute, peat accumulates. If the climate turns wetter or cooler, the plants react in response to this change. If the atmosphere around them dries or gets warmer, they adapt again. As a peat bog amasses, it preserves a record of these agronomical changes and we, on Islay, can stand on the surface of a peat bog and extract a core that takes us back through centuries. By examining each layer, we can map out climate history.

3. How does peat grow?

Peat forms in poorly-drained wetland conditions from a build-up of partially decomposed vegetation. The constant moist conditions starve microbes of the oxygen needed to fully decompose the vegetation. On Islay, waterlogged sphagnum moss, dead grass, heather, bog cotton, bog myrtle, seaweed, and other plant matter accumulate over thousands of years and are compressed to form peat bogs. The tarry, maritime characteristics typical of Islay malts are in no small part due to the marine vegetation and sea salt in the island’s peat.

Each year, at around this time in mid- to late April, the peat banks on Islay become a pastoral painting. The scent of the botanicals, the sound of the skylarks, and the sight of the peat cutter carrying his tools to begin the excavations... As you drive along the undulating roads of Islay, you see the heads of the peat cutters bobbing up and down, their cars, pick-ups, and vans abandoned at jaunty angles on the roadside.

4. Which tools do you need to cut peat?

Peat tools are handed down from generation to generation: prized possessions that have kept families warm for decades when the island was time-rich and money-poor and peat was used to heat homes or cook food. The peat spade is called a fal, and a larger version is used for crossing and lining the bank. To cut underneath the turf, we use a tool called a dulchipe – the “ch” is pronounced with the same guttural sound as it is in “loch”!

5. How do you cut peat effectively?

Cutting must be done methodically as the top turfs need to be placed back on the ground after extracting the softer inner layers. The faces of the banks are hard and cracked after 10 months of wind, rain, and fierce sunshine, and are difficult to cut away from the earth
Cutting into the banks is like a military operation and makes for arduous, back-breaking work. The top layer of heathery moss and turf of the beds is cut away and placed on the ground exposed from previous peat excavations. This is where the regeneration of a peat bank will begin once more. The Islay peat cutter will champion his peats and carve away the first layer: a light, fibrous level known as the acrotelm. Below lies a more moist and dense layer that resembles a block of chocolate buttercream. This layer is called the catotelm. Once cut, the peat blocks are stacked and left for the wind and sun to penetrate. After 6 to 8 weeks, the bricks will dry out and shrink, becoming light and ready to burn. These peat bricks give off what is affectionately known as “peat reek’” – lots of wonderful, smoky aromas.

6. How does peat influence whisky flavor?

Chemicals called phenols (creosols, guaiacols) in the peat smoke infuse the malted barley with a rich, smoky flavour. A typical Islay malt can have a range of
carbolic, vegetal, and medicinal qualities, with notes of cloves, smoky meats, and creosols. The amount of peat is measured in parts per million (PPM) of phenols. Each distillery will require its own specification of PPM in the malted barley: 1 to 10ppm signalling a lightly peated malt, 10-30ppm a mid-peated malt (e.g.Talisker at 20ppm) and 40+ppm a heavily peated malted barley (e.g. Ardbeg at 55ppm).

Smoke and heat produced from burning peat

Returning to the peat bank with the fal to dig down to the second layer produces a more compact layer of peat: more carbonised with a complex chemistry. This layer, when burned, will produce more heat than smoke. As the summer sets in, the warm winds - which blow from the Gulf Stream - dry out the stacks of peat which are then transported to Port Ellen Maltings. There, the peat is put to work in the kiln, effusing the smoky flavour that characterises a true Islay malt whisky.

Some of the peat mosses on Islay are 10 metres deep, which suggests the bottom layers could be around 10,000 years old.Think about that the next time you drink an Islay single malt. All that history in 1 glass of golden liquid…

And, if all this talk of peat has put you in the mood for an Islay whisky, here’s a delightfully smoky cocktail recipe for you to enjoy.

SHORTIE’S DIRTY DAIQUIRI

Shortie's Dirty Daiquiri

Ingredients:

  • 50ml Ardbeg Ten Years Old
  • 20ml cloudy apple juice
  • 20ml fresh lime juice
  • 10ml vanilla syrup

Method:

  1. Pour the Ardbeg Ten Years Old, apple juice, lime juice, and vanilla syrup into a shaker filled with ice
  2. Shake
  3. Strain into a chilled glass or teacup

If this post has inspired you to learn more about whisky, check out the previous chapters of the Whisky Tales written by Ludo Ducrocq.