What Is “Peated Scotch” Anyways?

A peat farm in Scotland that will be used to make peated scotch.

What is peat?

Either you love it or you hate it… or you’ve never tried it! Either way, peated scotch can be a drastically divisive issue. But, what the heck is a peated scotch? Or, even peat for that matter?

Well, to answer that we have to take a trip back to the early days of Scottish distilling.

Back in the day, fire fuel was king. The longer it burned, the better.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve seen the beautiful pictures of sprawling green hillsides in Scotland. But, there’s plenty of plants in those parts. And, peat is formed when plants in particularly dense areas of vegetation begin to decay.

So, what exactly is “peat?”

Peat is formed when the decaying of plants is slowed down due to waterlogged, nutrient and oxygen deficient, and acidic climates. It’s a dense layer of organic soil that consists mostly of these slow-decaying plants. It’s mostly found in bogs, which Scotland has in abundance.

While peat is a relative of coal, it burns faster and puts off an enormous amount of heat. However, it burns slower than wood and was available in mass quantities in the Scottish countryside.

Peat used to be harvested by hand (and in some cases still is), but the surge in demand due to the whiskey industry’s explosive growth have lead to the development of specialized machinery. This allows peat harvesters to keep up with production needs.

What is a “peated scotch?”

A picture of the Barley Malting process to make Peated Scotch.

Scotch is made with malted barley. And, as we know, we have to heat the barley up to dry it and halt the germination process. This allows the starches to be converted naturally to sugars, but stops the fledgling plant’s growth before it is able to consume the glucose as fuel.

Now, that barley is dried out and smoked in great big kilns. And, the fuel source for those big kilns was peat.

The scotch is imbued with smoky, earthy, tannic flavors that drastically alter its flavor profile.

This flavor profile carries through to the end product. Even though much of the flavor comes from a barrel and environmental conditions, there is still a tangible and noticeable amount of flavor that still comes from the grain itself with whiskey.

So, in short, a peated scotch is one that used the classic peat method of drying out the malted barley before it’s used.

Now, not all scotch is peated. There are many that can be unpeated which use alternative fuel sources to give it a smoky flavor without the distinctive peated notes.

This is a great way to get started in scotch if you’re used to bourbon or other, more delicate whiskey while you work your way up to appreciating peated expressions.

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