If you like Scotch from Islay there is a strong possibility that you appreciate the flavor of peat. The exact definition of peat; a brown, soil-like material characteristic of boggy, acid ground, consisting of partly decomposed vegetable matter. It is widely cut and dried for use in gardening and as fuel. Peat has a number of uses but for the sake of this writing we will only consider its use in the production of Scottish whisky.
Imagine barley laid on a concrete floor and then gently add water so that the seeds start to germinate. To halt the germination process peat bogs are burned to dry out the air and impart a smokey flavor onto the moist barley that stays with the malt indefinitely. However, the smokiness does start to dissipate the more the malt ages in the barrel which is why you get so much flavor for the buck (the smokiest malts are only 10 years old so they are relatively cheap).
Peat truly defines terroir in that the inherent flavors of only that area that have been defined over millions of years via climate, flora, and fauna are the only means of producing that conditions to produce the flavor. In addition to the smokiness peat also imparts its flavor in the water table thereby imparting some influence onto the barley while its growing in the field.
There are many distilleries in Scotland that do not use peat and there are many outside of Islay that do use it but one thing is for sure. If peat was used to halt the germination process you can rest assured that it will be detected in the flavor profile of the malt. I happen to love peat not only because it adds a distinctive flavor but because I truly appreciate its authenticity. Its a real product, with a real taste, from a real place, made from real people (the same cannot be said of a blend). Its ages in the same maritime environment and when a bottle is opened the atmosphere of a Scottish island envelops the room for a mere nanosecond.
Some of my favorite peated Scottish whiskys (in no particular order) are;
- Lagavulin (the most elegant in my opinion)
- Laphroaig (the most diverse line of Islay whiskys)
- Ardbeg (the most authentic)
- Laddie (the most innovative and they make my beloved Octomore)
- Bowmore (the most pragmatic of Islay distilleries)
- Caol Ila (the cleanest Islay single malt)
- Talisker (its not from Islay but its a bold and proud malt)