Peated whiskies have seen a huge resurgence over the last two decades, with distilleries like Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Talisker, and Ardbeg producing heavily peated whiskies with robust taste profiles. Unsurprisingly, the core flavour profile of these whiskies is provided by the burning of peat during the kilning of the malt. The thick waves of peat smoke that wrap the malt at this stage provide the end product with a range of flavours from bacon fat to coal tar.
However, in recent years, attention has been called to the environmental impact of peat smoking, with activists calling on distilleries and their parent conglomerates to reduce their use of peat and lower their carbon emissions.
In this article, we’ll be taking a deep dive into what peat is, how it is used, and what its environmental impact is.
What exactly is peat?
Peat is composed of the remains of moss, grasses, reeds, and sedge that have been compressed and decomposed in a low-oxygen waterlogged environment. This process locks the carbon into peat.
Because of its high organic carbon content, peat has been used as a fuel by indigenous human populations for millions of years, but it has also become strongly associated with the output of certain distilleries. The best example of this is probably the Hebridean island of Islay and its complement of distillers, including Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Kilchoman, and Caol Ila.
Peat is generally found in boggy areas of countries with colder climates at higher latitudes, which is why it is such a common ingredient in the Scottish whisky-making process.
However, it isn’t only Scotland that produces peat and peated whisky. You can find peat being dug up in Sweden and Tasmania and being used to flavour whisky being produced in Japan and Canada. For those countries that can’t produce their own peat, one of the most common solutions is to simply import it from Scotland.
How is peat used in whisky production?
As we briefly mentioned, peat is used primarily during the kilning of the malt. During this process, the malted grain is spread out over a perforated floor in a drying room.
In the room underneath the perforated floor, peat is burned over an open fire. The peat serves a two-fold purpose. It helps to keep the heat down and it produces huge amounts of flavoursome smoke that adds those much sought after flavours to the end product.
The smoke from the peat fire infuses the malt with compounds known as phenols, guaiacols, and syringols.
Each of these compounds introduces a different flavour, with phenols introducing medicinal notes, guaiacols adding woody notes, and syringols adding sweety spicy notes.
This process uses up a huge amount of peat. The Laphroaig Distillery uses around 1.5 tons of peat every day. While that seems like a lot, it should be noted that the peat use of the entire Scotch whisky industry equates to less than 1 per cent of the total peat that is extracted in the UK annually.
What is the environmental impact of peat usage?
The problem with the usage of peat as a form of burnable fossil fuel is twofold.
Firstly, peatlands absorb and hold a huge amount of carbon.
The amount of carbon held by peatland in the UK alone is 20-times as much as it is held by all of its forests put together, around three billion tons of carbon.
Globally, peatlands hold as much as twice the amount of carbon held by forests and take up significantly less surface area. They also serve a wider purpose than just collecting carbon. Peatland also plays a vital role in filtering water, flood mitigation and is the habitat of dozens of endangered species.
Secondly, peat takes a long time to form, around 300 years. This means that peat is essentially a finite resource and the continuous extraction of peat exposes the unextracted peat to drainage and deterioration, preventing new peat from forming.
What is the impact of the whisky industry on the UK peatlands?
Actually, the whisky industry has a comparatively minor impact in comparison to other industries. The vast majority of peat is extracted and used by the horticultural industry or as fuel in fireplaces.
The commercial use of peat has already damaged 80 per cent of the peatlands in the UK. These peatlands can be preserved and restored to health, but carbon already lost in the air and water will take thousands of years to re-sequester.
However, unlike other industries, the whisky industry has no other alternative to peat and remains one of the higher-profile users of peat in the public consciousness.
When your advertising extolls the use of peat to produce the unique flavours of the product you’re selling, people will associate this with your brand and industry, regardless of how much is actually used.
Because of this, additional pressure has been placed on the whisky industry to either curb its use of peat, which just isn’t realistic for distilleries like Laphroaig or Ardbeg, or to be more active in the conservation and restoration of peatlands in the UK.
What conservation measures is the whisky industry taking?
Despite being one of the lowest consumers of peat, the whisky industry is taking a lead in both the conservation of peatlands in the UK and lowering the overall carbon output of the industry as a whole.
The Scotch Whisky Association is putting together a ‘Peat Action Plan” to be launched in 2021 that will see them play an active role in conserving and restoring Scotland’s peatland by 2035. They are also actively supporting the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) UK Peatland Strategy 2040.
The peat action plan is part of the wider Scotch Whisky Industry Sustainability Strategy 2040, which will see the industry in Scotland moving towards net-zero carbon emissions from both its distilleries and from the malt provided by its
Drinks conglomerate Diageo, which owns some of the best-regarded distilleries in the country, including Talisker, Lagavulin, Caol Ila and Mortlach, has already funded the restoration of around 700 acres of peatland on Islay as part of the Lagavulin 200th Anniversary Legacy Fund.
This peat restoration project again fits in with a larger set of the environmental sustainability goals set out by the company.
Diageo aims to make its entire portfolio of 28 single malt production facilities net-zero by 2030.
This process has already been started with the Oban distillery in Argyle and the Royal Lochnagar distillery in Aberdeenshire switching over to burning a biofuel created from vegetable oil residue by the end of 2021.
In addition to reducing carbon emissions by switching over to renewable biofuels, the company is actively working with its grain supplier in order to reduce its indirect emissions by as much as 50 per cent by 2030.
To combat the large amount of wastewater produced by the distillation process, the company is also looking to refine its production processes to reduce the amount of water used by around 30 per cent.
These industry actions are further supported by governmental action plans, with the UK government committing to a partnership with Peatland Action that will see 100,000 acres of peatland restored by 2020 at the cost of £10 million annually.
The sustainable future of the whisky industry
Despite being a small-scale user of peat, the whisky industry has committed significant resources to peat conservation targets.
This is because, due to the popularity of peated whiskies, the industry is linked to the use of peat to a level that far exceeds its actual usage.
Being seen to use peat responsibly and to be actively involved in sustainability projects gives distilleries a greater social licence to operate.
However, the simple fact remains that the incredibly long time it takes for peat to be created makes it a de facto finite resource.
While the UK isn’t in danger of running out of peat any time soon, conservation measures now, will significantly extend the life of peat-heavy distilleries like Talisker, Lagavulin, Caol Ila, and Ardbeg while sustaining the environment we all rely on.