I have thus far been trying to avoid giving the standard technical notes on how whisky is made, primarily because there are lots of very good sites out there that do a better job than I ever could explaining how the barley is malted, fermented and distilled. At some point I will most likely bang on about maturation because it is where most of the flavor occurs and in my view the most romantic part of the process. This being said, the most basic distinction in whisky flavors, whether a spirit is smoky/ peaty or not, is an established character before the spirit enters the cask. The strong indication of peat in many west coast whiskies is a symbol of national identity.
When you tell the story of Scotland it’s impossible to exclude the influence of political, economic and social conditions. For a nation of people who pride themselves on a national dish that highlights the hardships of a subsistence lifestyle it’s not surprising that a strong and caustic flavor peaty whisky would be a symbol of endurance. Whisky is not only emblematic of Scottish society and historical parallels to hardship but in it’s dichotomy as both a luxury and a commodity both exclusive and accessible.
I recently saw the movie ‘The Angels Share’ which is a Scottish film about a young Glaswegian from counsel housing who uses whisky as a way out of his spiraling social situation. The movie highlights the cultural separations that still exist in Scotland today.
When I moved to Italy after university I was talking with an old family friend about our experiences in Scotland. Gary had worked on an aerospace project in Scotland with an international team. He told me a story about how, for the completion of the project, a formal dinner was organized. The English were in their suits and the Scots had their kilts, battle jackets and cravats. Everyone was dressed to the nines and was on their best manners. The atmosphere was celebratory and good humored all around until the main course was served; haggis. There was a great show of enthusiasm from the locals noticeable only by contrast to their English colleagues. The symbolism, he told me, was that the Scots where making the English eat the stuff that kept them from starving in the years of oppression.
Peat is a labor-intensive fuel source found in abundance in the north west of Scotland and the Iles and is traditionally used to dry the barley during the later stages of malting. Peat, which must be cut out of the ground and dried before it can be burned, is made of composted natural matter and gives off a nocuous and distinct aroma.
Barley that has been exposed to peat smoke will carry that flavor even through distillation.
‘Scotch Whisky, after it has been distilled, contains not only ethyl alcohol and water but certain secondary constituents. The exact nature of these is not fully understood, but it is believed they include some of the essential oils from the malted barley and other cereals and substances that derive from peat.’
- Scotch Whisky Association, Questions & Answers 2011
The smokiness or peaty flavor of a particular whisky is measured in Phenols Per Million (PPM). Whiskies you would consider well peated, such as Laphroaig and Lagavulin are on average 40PPM. A few distilleries have released largely novelty bottlings of extra peated whisky namely the Bruichladdich Octomore 5.1 at 169PPM. Bowmore Distillery, one of less than ten distilleries in Scotland that malt their own barley, so as to encourage a full peat flavor, soaks the barley in peat-stained water from the river Laggan before allowing it to germinate.
Just like making the English eat haggis as a symbol of historic hardships, peated whiskies represent a fundamental regional and national pride.