Peat and Whiskey

Despite covering only 3% of the Earth’s surface, boreal and subarctic peatlands contain between 270 – 320 Tg of carbon, or about 34-46% of the carbon currently present in atmosphere – dominantly as CO2 (IPCC, 2007). Many of these peatlands began their lives after the last glacial maximum, following the retreat of glaciers from the northern hemisphere between 18,000-10,000 years ago. Since then, they’ve accumulated dead organic materials (like grasses, heather and mosses) at a rate of about 1 mm per year. Despite their slow buildup and generally wet methane emitting environments, peatlands are considered a net carbon sink, locking carbon away for many thousands of years.

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Across the world, peat is also an important natural resource. Many will be familiar with its horticultural use, to infuse soil with carbon before planting a garden in the spring, but peat is also commonly used in some regions for fuel, both to heat homes and to dry barley in the process of making Scotch whiskey. Islay (eye-la), a small island off the west coast of Scotland, is (most recently) famous for its peated whiskeys. While 2 of the distilleries currently on Islay produce unpeated whiskeys, the remaining 6 are churning out smoky, peaty drams of uisge beatha (“water of life”). While hiking in Islay, I had the opportunity to talk to many people, both residents and employees of the various distilleries, about the process of whiskey making and peat cutting on Islay.

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Islay from Beinn Bheigier, Islay’s higest point

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Laphroig Distilleries

Of the distilleries on Islay, only Laphroaig still cuts its peat by hand. The very knowledgeable tour guide at the distillery informed us that while Laphroaig tried to move to machine cutting some time ago, they found that the process of machine cutting squeezed out the moisture in the peats; with it many of the dissolved organic compounds that contributed to the taste of the final whiskey product. Due to this change in the product, the distillery opted to do it the “old way” which involves removing the top vegetation layer, which is very tricky to cut through, and then using the peat cutting tool (pictured below) to remove two layers of peat (each layer being one tool height high). The peat, which is initially the consistency of butter, is then dried and brought back to the distillery to be used to smoke and dry the barley. Laphroaig uses about 200-250 tons of peat per year year in the whiskey making process.

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Peat shovel, Laphroig

Manual peat cutting - peat drying in the field on the left

Manual peat cutting – peat drying in the field on the left

I heard a similar story at the Bowmore distillery, located in the island’s capital town of Bowmore, where the tour guide told the group that the distillery uses about 3-4 tons of peat per week (160-210 tons/year) in their whiskey making process. Here we were also told that Islay consists of about 80% peat, and that the estimated lifetime of peat on the island (assuming it was all used in the whiskey making process) is around 10,000 years. It was interesting to notice the laughter of the group at such a large number, somewhat abstract in the context of a human lifetime, but about the same number of years it has taken to date for the current global peat deposits to form.

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Bowmore Distillery

Talking to folks around Islay during my visit, it’s incredible the number of people who are employed on the island by one of the eight distilleries or the associated maltings operations on the island. I was told by many of the importance of water and the islands pristine Loch’s for the distilling process. The Ileach’s all know about the summer stoppages (usually a few weeks) that happen at all distilleries to manage the water draw. However, fewer people were aware of the state of the peatlands on Islay, with most folks saying that they had heard that the companies, universities and government were all studying the peat resources.

A quick Google search before writing this article didn’t turn up much outside general awareness webpages – so Eosense is putting the call out for researchers who read our blog or are active on Twitter to send us anything you have on Islay peats!

Thanks for reading – and slàinte mhath!

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Have an article or some information on Islay peats? Tweet @eosense or sends us an email at articles@eosense.com.