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Peat source location: Does it make a difference to flavour?

Can you really taste the geographical profile of peat in your Scotch whisky? Two of our whisky lecturers, Vic Cameron and Dr Gordon Steele, discuss whether the peat source location impacts the flavour of the final product you drink.

[VIC] OK Gordon, so we're going to talk about peat now. So, obviously very important in the process. Quite a few different areas where you can get peat in Scotland... so does it really matter what peat you use at your distillery?

[GORDON] Yes, I would say. Short and sharp!

[VIC] Good answer!

[GORDON] It does! A lot is to do with scale. If you're making hundreds of thousands of casks worth of whisky, you're going to have to take peat from different sources and in the blending process afterwards the differences between different peat sources aren't going to make a big difference. If you're a smaller, bespoke, single malt distillery then where you get your peat from is going to make a difference to your whisky. I don't want to exaggerate how big that difference is because it's like every difference that you make between distillery, it will have a small difference.

[VIC] Right.

[GORDON] And it's the additive effect of all these differences that end up with the Scotch whisky character from that particular distillery. But I don't think - it's not going to be a big lever - but there are no big levers in Scotch whisky flavour. But it is one of these differentiating points that will have an effect on the flavour. There are only a certain number of peat bogs in Scotland that are actually harvested for for whisky manufacture and they do have a different character but I think we can over-emphasise.

[VIC] OK, so, let me ask you, for example, you know very smoky whiskies, peaty whiskies coming from Islay. They use peat. Up on Orkney, we've got Highland Park that uses peat. So, is it essential for Highland Park to have an Orkney peat and Lagavulin and Laphroaig to have Islay peat?

[GORDON] That's a difficult question. I would say, yes. That doesn't mean it has to use it all the time you know

[VIC] Yeah.

[GORDON] because you've got blending and you've got different ages. Of course, the biggest driver in peat flavour is just how much you use in the malting process. That overrides huge amounts of these differences. Plus, within the recipe itself, you can get differences of peat flavour depending on how, particularly during fermentation, how long your fermentation is, particularly during your cuts, how your cuts are and that can stretch out the flavours, change it from sort of like a Laphroaig peatiness which is in your face, very smoky, to say an Ardbeg which is much more pulled out, much more sweeter peated flavours, much more complex I would say.

[VIC] So, maybe it's a provenance, terroir thing is it that some people might do?

[GORDON] Yes, I think there is a terroir to do with that, to do with peat. But I would repeat - and I think it's very important - I think it's not a major driver. What do you think?

[VIC] Yeah, I would agree with you. Knowing that some Islay whiskies sometimes are made with mainland peat, not a lot but, you know, as you say, peat bogs are limited, you have to use different sources. So I think it's important as everything's important but in terms of peatiness, smokiness, types of profile you're going to get... probably the amount of peat, where you take your spirit cut, is going to have a bit more impact than specifically where that peat is from. I mean, you've done you've done quite a lot of work at the SWRI?

[GORDON] Yes, aha. We really looked at that and we did find differences, depending on where the peat was brought from, in the spirit not just in the chemical makeup, but, remember, that was a trained sensory panel that was picking those differences up.

[VIC] That's true.

[GORDON] Now, I think that's important because I think it's building up the complexity of that flavour, so it's as important as everything else is important. It's not the be all and end all, even within the peat flavour. For instance, a lot of people don't realise that some peat flavour comes from the cask itself.

[VIC] Yes.

[GORDON] because it's charred on the inside. What is peat? It's, you know, it's it's burnt, woody material. What's the inside of a cask? It's burnt, woody material! So, you get some of the same congeners from that. And something like Glengoyne, for instance, which is famous for not using peat will have a slight taste like peated score from a panel. Does the consumer pick that up? I think they pick up the quality, I think they pick up the complexity, they might not be able to pick up the individual flavour components like a trained panel can. But I think they get the overall quality, the overall complexity and if we were to get rid of these these differences between the the distilleries, say, "we'll just get our peat from one source" then you're losing some of that complexity, you're beginning to lose some of that difference. Of course, you could do it and it wouldn't make a lot of difference at first.

[VIC] With time, yeah.

[GORDON] Over time and the mindset behind that is we can we can [VIC] just do whatever we want, anywhere

[GORDON] It would ruin it in the end, we'd get blander and blander spirits. [VIC] So, we think there's differences in different peats but not a huge impact in the overall scheme of things in the final expression.

[GORDON] And that's true of most parts of the Scotch whisky making process. Barley variety, still shape, how you organise and manage the receivers, the cuts.

[VIC] They're all impacting.

[GORDON] They're all impacting and it's keeping those individual differences separate, not letting them all become the same, that keeps the different distilleries producing different flavours of whisky and keeps that diversity of whisky which we need for the blending process.

[VIC] Good, sorted that one out as well.

[GORDON] Done!

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