Meet the People Who Make Peated Whisky Possible

Whether you love or hate peated whisky, there is no doubting the immense industry behind it. Peat itself is densely compressed, decayed vegetation that looks like clumps or bricks of mud. So how does that translate to smoke flavor? The scotch industry has it all figured out, with these four professions playing key roles in delivering peat from the bog to the bottle.

The Peat Cutter

This seasonal position on a remote Hebridean island requires strength and stamina, coupled with a tolerance for dirty, repetitive tasks. Cutting turf from the earth into bricks for drying is accomplished outdoors regardless of weather conditions, often ranging from wet and windy to blazing hot. Competence with highly specialized tools is required. Working conditions may include mud, snakes, and biting insects.

As soon as I was strong enough, I was helping my Dad to cut peat, and I hated it!” recalls John Campbell, the distillery manager at Laphroaig. Like generations of families on Islay, the Campbells cut peat as fuel to heat their home. “Many a great summer’s night was ruined by having to go to peats; there were snakes, there were midges, it was just the pits.” Retrospectively, it proved to be a valuable introduction and the teenaged Campbell learned that he could earn good money working over the summer vacation. “At the end of the week, you were rich; you had £30 [$45 in summer ’83]. The harder you worked, the more money you got,” said Campbell. He learned the skill from Ian Brown, who cut peat on the island since 1957 and who cut the peat for Laphroaig. Campbell was a peat cutter during the summers of 1983 to 1986, but later as Laphroaig distillery manager, Campbell and Brown would meet to discuss the maintenance and drainage of the bog, the effect of the season’s weather, and to lay out their plans for the year. Sadly, Ian Brown passed away suddenly in May 2018. Though over 80 years old, he dedicated more than 60 years to the peat industry. “It’s just really sad, and the end of an era,” says Campbell sorrowfully.

John Campbell began his career at Laphroaig cutting peat as a teenager, eventually rising to distillery manager. (Photo by Martin Hunter)

However the profession of peat cutting lives on, with two or three employees harvesting the peat for Laphroaig from the Glenmachrie bog, about five miles from the distillery. Given the working conditions, there is only really one choice of footwear. “Wellies,” establishes Campbell, “It’s just got to be wellies, even if it’s 75 degrees.” The tools of the trade are the peat spade or turfer, the peat cutter, and a fork for spreading out the cut peat. A peat cutter is a very personal tool that is customized to the individual. “Take a cow’s horn, boil it in water, screw it to the top of your peat cutter’s shaft and then hold it as it’s cooling so that it forms to the shape of your hand,” explains Campbell. Peat cutting is a time-honored rural craft that takes real stamina. “Your back is sore, your hamstrings at the back of the legs, and your arms too,” says Campbell with a grimace. Cut peat is dry enough to stand up by June or July, when the peat cutters stack them into formations called windows or rooks to lift them off the ground and enable them to dry out further. By August, it’s time to gather the peat and fill up the barn.

Most peat is harvested by machine using a mechanized peat cutter hitched to a tractor. Laphroaig is the only distillery to use traditionally hand-cut Islay peat to malt its barley. “There’s more moisture in it, so ultimately you get more flavor,” says Campbell. “You need to burn less peat to get the same peat reek and we need to ensure we get the best from our peatlands.” They harvest 130 to 140 tons between April and June each year and floor-malt their barley to 50 phenol parts per million (ppm), the measurement that denotes the level of smoky character in the malt. Floor malting accounts for 20 percent of the malt in Laphroaig whiskies, with the remainder supplied by Port Ellen maltings at 40 ppm.

By breaking open peat, an experienced eye can tell whether it is ready for the fire: no need for any technical gadgets. “There’s not been much progression here in the last 800 years,” concludes Campbell. “Even our two Ferguson tractors that collect the peat are from the 1950s, just because they’re so light and easy. You can turn them on once a year, there’s not much to go wrong.” The perfect peat forms a crust on the outside, but its true purpose is to retain enough moisture inside to generate lots of peat smoke when it is thrown on the fire in the maltings.

The Maltman

This position requires superior organizational and multitasking skills, as well as brawn and commitment. Due to 24-hour shift work, new employees should expect to work nights and weekends. An eight-hour shift requires working constantly and independently to receive deliveries, shovel peat, monitor the peat fire, and turn the malt.

The Bowmore kiln has a furnace at both ends so two fires are lit at the same time. The malt team delivers two kilns of malted barley a week for 42 weeks, working eight-hour shifts around the clock, meaning they light 168 fires a year, turning 21 tons of green malt loaded 18 inches deep across the perforated floor. Each year they hand turn 1,800 tons of malt to achieve peat levels of 25-30 ppm. This is sufficient for a third of their production, with the remaining two-thirds supplied by commercial malt peated to the same level. Training to be a maltman at Bowmore takes three weeks. “I was taught by Eddie MacAffer, who was maltman when I started,” states David Turner, the Bowmore Distillery manager, talking about his predecessor who retired in 2016 after 50 years working at the distillery.

David Turner, distillery manager at Bowmore, says wind and weather can affect peated whisky. (Photo by Martin Hunter)

Once the furnace is lit, the maltman notes when it was topped up and the condition of the fire every hour. Peat caff, broken up peat left over from previous years, is used to keep the fire smothered and ensure more smoke is generated whenever any flames threaten to burn through. The peat smoke is there for flavor only, not to dry the malt, so a visible fire with crackling sparks and roaring flames is out: it’s an unsuitable job for a pyromaniac.

To assist him, the maltman needs only two tools: the shovel and the grape. Peat is shoveled on and the grape is used to level out the peat caff to maintain a heavy blanket over the heart of the fire. In between tending the fire there’s no time to rest, Turner attests, having worked 15 years in the malt barn during his 28-year career at Bowmore, “You’re up looking at the malt floors, turning it every four hours, taking in deliveries of malt and barley, or attending to the weekly cleaning schedules. It’s a labor-intensive job, but your body gets into a rhythm. It keeps you fit! After the silent season, you feel it on the back of your legs and your shoulders again, but you get used to it after another week.”

Three miles down the road toward Gartbreck, Bowmore rents a peat moss from the local estate, where a contractor machine-cuts the peat they need. “He cuts around 350 perches [roughly two acres] a year for us,” says Turner. The machine dries the peat out more than hand-cut peat, producing a slightly different smoke. Every seven to ten days the maltman picks up three tons of peat by tractor and trailer, which is enough for two lots of fires. “Getting the right mixture of peat is quite an art,” Turner explains. “When you get a bit of experience, if it’s windy and the peats are dry and burning well, you know to take four scoops of dry peat to every one scoop of peat caff to get the mixture right.”

As their peat is stored outside, Bowmore’s malt team keeps a close eye on the erratic Islay weather. “If you have a really wet winter, the peats can be quite soggy, though they should get a good skin on them if you dry them properly,” Turner reports. Windy days can also affect the peating levels, though it depends on what direction the wind is coming from. Some days it can draw the fire and other days not, and the peat smoke lingers for longer; Turner can react and lengthen the peat fire’s duration from 18 to 21 hours if required. “We would rather have too much peat smoke than not enough,” admits Turner, “But Bowmore’s character changes if it gets too much peat.”

Turner explains that commercial malt and floor-malted barley have always been blended together to make their whisky. That was until two years ago, he reveals, when they started to lay down small batches made solely from floor-malted Odyssey barley. While drinkers anticipate tasting authentic floor-malted Bowmore in the future, we need to first learn more about how the peat smoke character is preserved during distillation itself.

The Distiller

The safe and effective use of a copper pot still to create alcohol spirit requires diverse skills ranging from fermentation and microbiology to mechanical engineering. During peak production, 24-hour on call is standard. In addition to management, performance is subject to review by thousands of highly critical whisky drinkers.

Bunnahabhain Distillery began making peated Islay whisky when it was founded in 1883, utilizing peat from a nearby peat bank and even shipping some by sea to their neighbors at Caol Ila Distillery. In 1963, however, Bunnahabhain stopped making peated whisky: that hiatus lasted 40 years. Cutty Sark had become a runaway success in the U.S., and Bunnahabhain, then owned by the same company, was needed to produce unpeated whisky to supply the blend. Regular production of peated Bunnahabhain spirit only resumed in 2003 under the ownership of Burn Stewart, although there was an earlier attempt under different owners to make peated whisky for the blended whisky Black Bottle in 1997. “The company wanted to make peated whisky one week and unpeated the next week,” remembers Andrew Brown, distillery manager at Bunnahabhain. “We made very good peated whiskies, but it didn’t work. When we stopped making the peated spirit, we carried the phenolic flavors into the unpeated spirit for the first week.”

When switching between producing peated and unpeated whisky, Bunnahabhain distillery manager Andrew Brown conducts fastidious cleaning. (Photo by Martin Hunter)

These days Brown oversees two blocks of peated whisky production per year, totaling 18 weeks out of their 42-week production schedule, meaning each year Bunnahabhain makes 600,000 liters of peated whisky and 1.4 million liters of unpeated. A fastidious cleaning of every piece of equipment from the mill to the inside of the spirit stills helped solve the challenges of the switchover from peated to unpeated spirit. Brown has made further adjustments to keep the unpeated spirit smoke free, “We don’t keep the sparge when we go from peated to unpeated,” he says, talking about the fourth water added to the mash tun, which is normally kept and used as the first water of the next mash. “When we stop doing peated, we only put three waters onto the last mash, and all the waters go for fermentation.” Similarly, peated and unpeated feints, a portion of the lower alcohol spirit run that does not make the distiller’s cut, are retained in separate tanks for priming the wash still at the start of the next production run.

Bunnahabhain uses Concerto malt peated to 35 to 45 ppm from Port Ellen maltings and other suppliers, whereas the unpeated malt is graded as 0.5 to 2 ppm. The two styles are further differentiated by using different yeast strains and custom spirit cuts: unpeated spirit is collected from 72 to 74% alcohol down to 64%; peated spirit is collected from 70 to 72% down to 61.5%. “For the unpeated Bunnahabhain, we’re trying to get a nice, light, estery spirit with very little feints trace, or any of those waxy flavors coming over,” explains Brown. “When we do peated runs, we want to get lower into the alcohols where the phenolic and the smoky flavors come into the spirit, while still trying to retain that light fruitiness.”

When Bunnahabhain is making peated spirit, the distillery air brims with smokiness, especially in the mash house. “When we’re mashing in, you get a smell of peat smoke, though the strongest smell is when we’re throwing the draff out the mash tun,” says Brown, referring to the residue that goes to feed livestock. Bunnahabhain fills their peated new-make spirit into 40 percent first-fill bourbon casks, with the remainder going into new oak casks and sherry casks. These different cask influences are evident on the latest peated release, Bunnahabhain Toiteach A Dhà. “You’ve got the flavor of the sherry, the smoky influence from the peat, with a typical Bunnahabhain character, and for me, it has a spicy note on the palate,” says Brown.

The Blender

This position requires the ability to create new whiskies and precisely replicate existing ones by selecting from among thousands of aging casks using only sensory analysis. The position offers an unrivaled creative opportunity for a highly motivated individual to continue a legacy of bringing to bottle the highest quality whiskies.

When Adam Hannett, Bruichladdich’s head distiller, pours someone their first-ever glass of Octomore whisky, he gives them three reasons why they are not going to like it. “It’s too young, as it’s only 5 years old, it’s too strong, because it’s 63% alcohol, and it’s too peaty, because the phenol content is 167 ppm,” he says, “Now have a drink.” At this point, he wins them over, as this is an elegant and subtle malt whisky that confounds every preconception. “You start to talk about the distillation, the texture, and about why it’s not about how heavily peated it is.”

Adam Hannett Explains How PPM is More Complicated Than It Appears

Adam Hannett, head distiller at Bruichladdich, balances smoke with distillery character. (Photo by Martin Hunter)

When Bruichladdich Distillery reopened in 2001, they set out to make peated whiskies again, but in an unconventional manner. Hannett’s predecessor Jim McEwan decided, somewhat radically, not to change the lower spirit cut point during their purposefully slow distillation of Octomore and Port Charlotte, unlike most other distilleries. The switch to feints happens at the same strength as Bruichladdich’s unpeated spirit. They may peat as high as they dare, but they deliberately don’t distill to capture the maximum smoky flavors, so much of it passes into the feints. I know what you’re thinking: this is like owning a NASCAR race car but only using it to drive your grandmother to the corner store, but the high ppm still ensures a great deal of smoke comes through in a concentrated peak. “We don’t want to have a whisky that’s just incredibly peaty,” reasons Hannett. “We want to have the same distillery character, that elegance and lightness in the spirit, and find out where the peat smoke fits in.”

“There’s definitely a relationship between ppm and flavor,” confirms Hannett. “You don’t get a lot of smoke when you go back and nose the cask of the first distillation of Octomore from 2002. The sherry cask brings balance to the flavor; rich dark fruit and dates, with the phenols coming through with a lovely, dry, heathery woodsmoke on the finish. For us, it’s a different take on smoke and what people think about peaty whisky.”

Bruichladdich sends their barley to Baird’s maltings, near Inverness, where it is malted using peat from the north of Scotland. Given the vagaries of burning peat, you might wonder how the maltings delivers a specific ppm to meet each distillery’s request. Here’s the secret: the peat smoke fire produces a high but unpredictable ppm level and the maltings blend in unpeated malt to dilute it down to the customer’s requirements. Bruichladdich simply had the idea to ask for the unadulterated heavily peated malt, regardless of the ppm. The technique is confidential but involves keeping the malt moist and burning peat for longer without generating too much heat. The drier the green malt gets, the less peat smoke it can adsorb. Given their commitment to Islay barley and terroir, Bruichladdich is actively trying to close the loop by building their own maltings on-site and switching over to Islay peat.

Octomore 8.3 had the highest phenol ppm to date, which Hannett created from malt peated to 309 ppm. “I remember tasting it and it felt like the room got darker, like there were clouds gathering over the top, with flashes of lightning coming through,” he says dramatically, “I thought we might have reached our limit but with blending, it’s about putting your own stamp on something. Blending is about my perception of those casks and what I think is best thing to do with them. A lot of the skill in blending is repeating the same thing all the time with different ingredients, whereas my job at Bruichladdich is to accentuate the flavor and get the best out of every batch. I’m lucky because every cask we have is on Islay: I can get up off my chair and be in front of any one of those casks within ten minutes.”

Islay’s peated whiskies are world famous, but that combination of earth, fire, water, grain, and oak would not be so highly regarded were it not for the skills of the island’s peat cutters, maltmen, distillers, and blenders nurturing that peaty character from shovel to sip on its journey from bog to bottle.

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