Using peat to smoke-dry barley for whiskey dates back to the earliest days of Scotch. For years, peat smoke defined Scotch, differentiating it from its Irish predecessor. It’s not that the Irish didn’t use peat; it was a significant energy source for the region and the primary heat source for pot stills. However, peat smoke only became a flavor factor when used to dry barley.
Scotch styles began differentiating by geography; peat smoke was a signature attribute of Islay and Island whiskies, although it appears in other regions in specialty expressions. As experimentation increased, especially in the late 20th century, even Irish whiskey distilleries danced with peat smoke. Ultimately, peated whiskey’s distinctively intense style engenders a love-it-or-hate-it response. The list is extensive, with Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Bruichladdich/Port Charlotte, and Talisker among the most popular single-malts, with Johnny Walker, Compass Box, Black Bottle, among high-peated-malt blends. Although far less common, several peated Irish whiskeys exhibit similar flavor patterns. The Connemara and Teeling’s Blackpitts import peated barley from Scotland, and, more recently, Waterford Whiskey began producing their Fenniscourt and Ballybannon expressions, each made with 100% Irish-grown and peated barley.
Fast-forward to modern-day whisky, and you’ll find that peat is a broad-stroke brush that, while still defining Islay Scotch, has also become one of many “colors” in modern whiskey’s flavor palette and is frequently re-imagined by widespread experimentation. To fully appreciate the extent of peat’s reach, we need to rebrand “peat” as “smoke.” To that end, some distillers have attempted to replace peat with alternative smoke components, a trend particularly prevalent in American single malts.
American distilleries started making “Scotch alternative” whiskeys in the 1990s, which have come into their own over the past ten years. Several producers make authentic”peated” whiskeys, sometimes importing the peat-dried barley from Scotland. Others discovered alternative methods to impart smoke, showcasing the ingenuity of America’s modern whiskey sensibilities.
One of the best examples of an American peated malt is Westland’s Peated American single malt whiskey. Westland’s unique approach is to blend in peated malt, fine-tuning the peat levels to meet specific profile goals. You certainly can’t argue with their methods- multiple double gold medals and “Whiskey of the Year” awards prove their success. Other American single malt distilleries using peated barley include McCarthys, Balcones, and Fifty Stone.
Other American whiskey-makers have taken alternative approaches to smoke. Although Fifty Stone uses peated barley in the mix, they also use locally-sourced seaweed to impart unique smoke flavors. Whiskey Del Bac Dorado and Santa Fe’s Colkegan each use mesquite-smoked barley, while Corsair smokes their barley with hickory for their Wildfire single malt. Not to be out-smoked, Andalusia Whiskey’s Stryker single malt combines three different species- oak, mesquite, and apple- to smoke its barleys.
Whatever its source or methodology, smoke is crucial to many whiskey arsenals. While peat/smoke in whiskey unquestionably produces intense flavors and equally strong opinions, the only likely change will be greater experimentation resulting in a broader variety, which means only one thing- more goodness for us peated and smoked whiskey lovers!