For peat's sake: From cocktails to carbon capture
- Jo Laidlaw
- 6 July 2021
Much of the very earth in Scotland's islands is made up of peat, and there's much more to the story than smoky whisky, as we discover
What covers three per cent of the world's surface, yet holds a third of the earth's soil carbon? What heats the home, cleans the water, flavours the whisky and – somewhat controversially – makes the garden grow? It's peat, an enduring (and often misunderstood) aspect of the land and life of the north and west of Scotland.
For centuries, island and coastal communities have hand-cut peats to heat their homes and croft houses, carefully managing what's both a scarce commodity and a communal resource. It's less common to cut your own peats these days – it's back-breaking work and takes lots of time for the peats to dry – and many islanders have embraced cleaner, greener or just plain easier forms of energy. That said, you can still spot the distinctive lines of the old peat banks, piles of drying peat and the distinct aroma of a peat fire as you travel around.
There are also lessons to be learned from the islanders' collective experience and expertise. Peatlands actually cover around 20 per cent of Scotland's total land area and we're only just beginning to recognise the role they play in tackling climate change. Healthy peatlands lock in carbon as well as providing an important habitat for wildlife. Much of the country's drinking water is filtered by peat before it reaches streams and reservoirs, and peat plays an integral role in managing flood risk. Yet many peatlands nationally have either been poorly managed or ignored for decades, which led to the launch of Scotland's first ever National Peatland Plan in 2015.
Peat doesn't come without controversy around who can use it, who can burn it and how it should be managed. The flip-side of being such a superb carbon store means huge amounts of carbon are released when it burns, and the practice of burning peat bogs to encourage new heather growth to feed grouse for shooting provokes a good deal of debate. Peat extraction hasn't been as widespread in Scotland as in other countries, where industrialised removal for fuel and products such as garden compost has led to deeper issues. Nonetheless, a careful balance needs to be struck between tradition, pragmatism and protection of this vital resource.
Ever since there's been fire, humans have used smoke to preserve food. Home-smoking is having a moment right now and you can easily buy peat pellets to have a go yourself. But if that sounds too much like hard work, smoked salmon – another potent symbol of Scotland – is available everywhere. Peat-smoked salmon, however, is an altogether rarer beast indeed. It's easy for the delicate flavour of the fish to be overwhelmed by the strong aroma of peat smoke but the Hebridean Smokehouse, based on Uist, has the balance cracked. It offers a choice of peat-smoked salmon and scallops, as well as salmon smoked over more traditional beech or oak whisky barrels.
Nowhere, however, is peat more celebrated than in whisky making. The lure of the peaty dram brings travellers from far and wide to the islands in general, and Islay in particular. What many don't fully appreciate is that peat isn't an ingredient in 'peaty' whisky – at least not directly.
Single malt whisky can only ever come from one single distillery, and single malt can only be made from barley. The grain is steeped in water until it starts to germinate, then after a few days it's spread out to dry over a heat source. The distiller makes a key choice here, as one option for this heat source is a smouldering peat fire. The heat stops the germination process and, meanwhile, the barley grains absorb the flavour profile of the smoke.
The dried barley is then ground into mash and mixed with hot water, allowing the peaty flavours to infuse into the clear Scottish water. The mixture is then cooled, fermented and distilled before being left to mature and develop its unmistakeable flavour – expect sweetness, salt and seaweed to feature as much as the famous smoke. Remember, too, that while the Islay whiskies in particular have a reputation for big-hitting peatiness, there are lots of different levels of flavour to explore both among the Islay malts and those from other islands.
Finally, there are now other ways to experiment if you have a taste for smoke in a glass. Look out for Tongue In Peat tomato juice – it's made in Glasgow using Islay peat to smoke the tomatoes before juicing and makes an unusual take on the Bloody Mary. Or if gin is your thing, Glasgow's Illicit Still smoke juniper berries over peat smoke to create its Blacklist gin, which is perfect for a Smoky Martini. Slainte!