What is Peat?
Peat has been used for centuries in the whisky-making process. Dried-out peat bogs scarred by trenches are common on Islay, the isle of Scotland most famed for the peaty whisky expressions.
Peat is naturally made from mosses and plants that have decomposed over tens of thousands of years. It requires a lack of oxygen (usually due to a wet, waterlogged environment) combined with acidic conditions. When the Peat is dug up and dried, it becomes combustible, like wood.
How is Peat used in the Whisky making process?
Peat in this form is burned in kilns, with the resulting smoke used to dry the malting barley.
Why is using Peat a problem?
Peat is a fossil fuel, in the truest sense of the word. Burning this to create smoke is a CO2 emitting process that isn't ideal.
Peatlands also absorb and hold large amounts of carbon. It has been estimated that peat bogs in the UK contain 20 times as much carbon as all the forests (or around three billion tons). That's not insignificant!
It also takes a long time to form. It can take around 300 years for Peat to develop into a useable substance for whisky production. So, 2.7 million hectares sounds a lot, but it's finite. With sustainability in mind, it will regenerate, but only if appropriately managed.
What can the whisky industry do?
Some whisky brands have started to take action, such as Lagavulin. In 2016, Lagavulin's parent company Diageo funded a peat restoration project of over 700 acres on Islay as part of the Lagavulin 200th Anniversary Legacy Fund.
"We make every effort to use this resource as responsibly as possible," Diageo's head of corporate relations said. "It would be very exciting if the industry could collectively assist in a major peatland restoration initiative,".
But, more innovative solutions are being trialled throughout the world, as this isn't just a "scotch" problem.
For example, Belgrove is a small distillery on the northeast coast of Tasmania. The distillery, which was converted from an old cobbled horse stable, is noisier than most distilleries.
The added noise is "Because of the chip oil burner," says Mr Bignell, the distilleries founder, "I love being creative. It's what drives my experimentation in the distillery."
Belgrove uses biofuel made from waste chip shop cooking oil. They grow their own grain, and the spent mash is fed to the sheep at the end of the process.
Using Peat from the family farm, Mr Bignell employs several unusual peating techniques to get more out of this precious resource.
"Much of the smoking is done in a modified industrial clothes dryer. I malt the grain in it, then smoke the green malt without moving it to another vessel."
He explains that the wet grain tumbles through the smoke, and to increase the smoke level, he often re-wets it.
"Re-wetting the grain part through the process produces much more smoke," he says.
Mr Bignell also crushes dry malted grain and dampens it. Smoke is then passed up through the damp grain bed.
"Crushing the grain first means it absorbs a lot more smoke from the same amount of peat."
Another technique Mr Bignell uses is to smoke the inside of a barrel before filling it with spirit.
"A lot of smoke is lost during fermentation and distillation. By smoking a wet barrel, I found much more is retained than when you pass it through a still. Though, it results in a very different taste profile," he comments.
Mr Bignell has also found a way to eliminate the use of Peat completely - by burning sheep dung readily available on his farm.
So, although this can probably be labelled as the 'experimental' side of whisky smoking techniques, it shows what is possible.
Should we outright stop using Peat?
But restoration and being as sustainable as possible is one thing, but what about flat our refusing to use Peat?
Nc'nean distillery sits above the sea, looking across to the coloured houses of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull. Nc'nean's founder, Annabel Thomas, said, "We want to change the way the world thinks about Scottish whisky, to create delicious spirits that exist in harmony with nature - putting planet, people and profit on an equal footing."
Nc'nean was founded on a family farm on the west coast of Scotland in 2017, with the first consumer whisky being launched in 2020. Annabel Thomas has never considered using Peat. She says, "Extracting Peat to burn is not sustainable. Peatlands have been created over a very long time. They are a great carbon sink and house enormous biodiversity. When cut and burned, it impacts both the biodiversity of the peat bog and releases carbon back into the atmosphere."
It is undeniable, and even Ms Thomas agrees, that using Peat in the whisky process makes a huge difference in the flavour profile of a whisky. Still, Peat isn't to everyone's liking.
Some people prefer whisky without Peat, seeking out sweeter, richer, and less 'TCP' or 'Sticking plaster' notes often associated with peated drams.
What does the science say?
Angela Gallego-Sala is a professor of ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles at the University of Exeter. She studies peatlands across the world.
She says: "Globally, the whisky industry uses a tiny amount of peat - but the issue goes beyond carbon."
To extract peat bricks, you have to drain the whole peatland. Which causes issues far beyond the destruction of the Peat bog.
"You affect not just the area of extraction but the whole peatland," she says. "You break the ecosystem. You lose the biodiversity, the water cycling, the carbon cycling."
So, can whisky lovers learn to live without Peat? Should they?
Prof Gallego-Sala adds: "These ecosystems are resilient. They can bounce back, but we don't have much time to act. Protecting peatlands is an easier way to ensure we reach net zero."
At Nc'Nean, Ms Thomas is hopeful for the future. "I hope the whisky industry will move quickly to more sustainable practices - replacing fossil fuels to power the distilleries and addressing unsustainable agricultural practices."
So, I think it's hard to provide a definitive answer to "should we stop using Peat". It's a complex area of pros and cons. The pros are that Peat regenerates, is in abundance, and if extracted sustainably and sensibly, won't be lost. However, given we are in the midst of a climate emergency, removing any natural carbon absorption capacity seems wrong.
What do you think? We'd love to hear your thoughts and opinions below!