Peated whisky is given a smoky flavour by compounds which are released by the peat fires used to dry malted barley. The Length and intensity of exposure to the peat smoke dictates the strength of this flavour as do the characteristics of the peat itself. This smoke has a considerable influence on malt during kilning, imbuing it with compounds called “phenols”. Typical flavours include tar, ash, iodine and smoke.
The qualities of peated whisky divide consumer opinion. This has always been the case. And yet due to a lack of alternative fuel sources, whiskies using entirely peated barley were once the mainstay of the industry. This was especially true of the remote Highland and island distillers. That was, until the introduction of coal and, by continuation, coke.
The Lowlands and Speyside were the first to convert. The development of rail transport in Scotland led to the wide availability of coke. Coke burns more evenly, more consistently and with less smoke than peat, and so these regions were the first to realize the potential of un-peated whisky.
The whisky drinker eventually makes his or her way to peated whisky, or so it it said. Exploring those lighter, un-peated expressions which are common to the mainland generally comes first. But why should this be? As the author and Master of the Quaich Charles MacLean notes in MacLean’s Miscellany of Whisky: “Perhaps the big Islays, the smokiest of all malt whiskies, recollect the whiskies of the past. And perhaps one of the reasons for their current popularity is their ‘authenticity’, their ‘heritage’. An atavistic folk memory, like candles and open fires, Christmas trees and stormy nights.”
Perhaps it is fair to say, then, that peat is so much more than a stylistic trait or a differentiating factor which tempts whisky drinkers to test their mettle. It is much more than a simple addition of ‘smoky’ flavours which overwhelm all the many others. Peat was and still is a defining aspect of Scotch whisky, and we should approach it with reverence and an open mind from the start of our explorations.