Peat—or as I like to think of it—amateur coal, is one of the greatest discoveries of humankind. It embodies the true smell of Scotland—apart from wet wool, which I’d have to say is your everyday eau de parfume on your average Scot.
For many, a whisky without some degree of measurable peat is almost comparable to a tree without leaves; still beautiful if you can appreciate the skeletal aesthetics, but not quite fully fleshed out. A few would even go so far as to say whisky without peat isn’t worth watering plants with, let alone quenching one’s thirst. I’m not saying I’ve ever said that, but let’s just say I have heard it uttered.
To truly understand peat one must visit a peat bog. And not simply to view from the inside of your car. Instead, arrive fully outfitted in rain slicker rubber, sealed at every potential opening with surgical hosing, and thrust yourself out into a typical Scottish island summer day. The wind is whipping with the frenzy of a small tempest, practicing for the big day when it will be released across the cornfields of America’s flatlands. The rain is falling horizontally and occasionally pitching itself upward from whence it came. You can hear nothing apart from the roar of both. You will be handed a slippery mud-caked instrument that looks a little like a wooly mammoth’s dental pick. The goal is to harvest the ground. Except the ground is actually soup, so good luck.
Peat, for those of you who have never had the memorable opportunity to attempt farming consommé, is actually just dead plants (and once in a while, the remains of a deceased relative everyone agreed would not be missed). Millions of years have gone into the making of this material, millions of plants and—don’t forget—millions of rain drops. After all this time, nature has produced a rather unremarkable boot-filling bog. Except that somebody somewhere said to someone else, “Hey, why don’t we try to burn this stuff?”
To me, it’s like wondering who came up with the idea of grilling ice cream. Yet, there are plenty of wannabe Ferran Adriàs out there who will pursue this dream until it is a reality.
There are two different layers of peat: one that looks like chocolate ice cream when it comes out … and the hairy layer. Yep. Hairy. Folks in homes cut peat and burn it for warmth. Distilleries use it for flavoring their barley. The hairy kind gives off more smoke than a Pink Floyd concert, so the home choice is the one that allows you to see what food you’ve speared with a fork for your dinner.
Distilleries on the other hand have found that peat smoke oils stick to the barley. Measurements of peat in whisky are done on a scale of ppm, or parts per million. And unless you’re a scientist with microscopic equipment it’s a little tricky to calculate the degrees of peatiness in your dram.
I searched for an easier definition and visual and came across an article written by Zane Satterfield of the National Environmental Services Center. He defines one ppm as simply ‘1 part in 1 million’ and suggests picturing someone placing four drops of ink in a 55-gallon barrel of water then giving it a good solid stir. This is the formula for creating an ink concentration of 1 ppm.
He also provided a few other analogies from the University of Minnesota to help you picture the scale. One ppm is like:
• one inch in 16 miles,
• one second in 11.5 days,
• one minute in two years, or
• one car in bumper-to bumper traffic from Cleveland to San Francisco.
It’s the last one that really clears things up for me.
So now that you have a little more information about peat and the role it plays in your whisky, you might sit back for a minute as you sniff and taste, experiencing awe at the amount of time it took to get that flavor into your glass and just how a little goes all the way to San Francisco.