Smoke Signals

Protecting the Essence of Scotch

Scotch distillers depend upon peat bogs but climate change could destroy them.

Courtesy Heather Greene

I recently found myself slowly sinking into the middle of a Scottish peat bog. I actually didn’t know that such a thing was possible.

It was one of those moments in life when you bump up against your own naïveté and realize you don’t have any of the right skills to get out of your current predicament. As it turns out, bogs can seriously pose a danger to walkers. I was knee-deep in it.

My outdoor adventure began with my persistent thirst for more whisky knowledge. As a drinks writer, I knew it was odd that I’d never made it to the Scottish island of Islay (pronounced eye-la), which is off the country’s west coast. Storms, fog, and one Icelandic volcano stopped me from getting there on three occasions. It’s a faraway little place, but packs a punch when it comes to Scotch. Eight distilleries, which are famous for making big, peaty, bold single malts, call the island home. By 2020, there will be at least two more.

So, I cashed in a bunch of frequent flyer miles, packed my boots, and headed off. Besides drinking whisky, at the top of my to-do list was plunging my hands into a peat bog. I wanted to dig deeper into what gave some of my favorite Scotch whiskies their unique and earthly character.

“Don’t think you can go running up those hills. You’ll sink,” warned a local cab driver. “Every year some crazy tourist gets caught up in those hills and we’ve got to rescue them.”

Despite his advice, I later hopped out of my rental car to explore a bog where I was told a family still harvested peat for heat. About a half hour later, along a stack of peat and a pit from which it was cut, I did, in fact, find myself further into a bog than I’d originally planned to hike. With sopping feet and a growing worry about how I’d get out before it started raining, I switched strategy and followed a squishy path of cow pats that pooled on “peat hags,” or mushroom-shaped clumps of grass, rather than gambling on crossing a puddle of dubious depth. My logic was that cows didn’t want to sink any more than I did.

While uncomfortable drying off in my car and smelling like decomposing matter, I realized that my approach to exploring Islay was as soft as the earth I’d just stepped into: I turned the place and even the people I wanted to meet into objects of study and fascination before I even arrived.

And yet after crazily fondling and sniffing a handful of mud on my ill-fated bog excursion, I only smelled peat on my stay a few more times: at the Bowmore and Laphroaig distilleries. Both facilities still malt and peat some of their barley on-site. Malting is the process by which grain is soaked to spark germination, and then dried to stop it from growing into a full-fledged plant. This breaks down the protein walls inside the grain so that the yeast can more easily consume all those tasty sugars inside the barley grain to produce alcohol. Scotch whiskies on Islay are renowned for burning peat to infuse a smoky flavor into the wet barley during the malting process. Those peaty, phenolic aromatics make it through the entire whisky-making process—including aging—and into your bottle of whisky. Distillers can tweak the amount of peat used—measured in parts per million (ppm)—to impart desired levels of peat into the finished whisky. My own first peat-whisky love was for cask-strength Bowmore, a distillery known for using a moderate amount of peat: not too much, not too little.

Peated Scotch delivers more a sense of the land from which it comes than any other style of whisky. Where else can one find that the smell of their whisky can be traced directly to a specific type of soil? Some will argue that I’m forgetting about the use of new oak barrels in American whiskey, which helps make bourbon bourbon. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about tracing a smell to the soil the way a fine Armagnac or Cognac celebrates the influence of grapes and land. For those who like to explore true terroir in their drinks, smoky Scotch does that reasonably well, and better than most other types of whiskies.

Islay’s wetlands and moors are magnificent. The incessant wet and cold encourages large peat bogs to form all over Scotland, including Islay, the southernmost island in the Hebrides. One liter of peat holds 150 grams of water. “It’s essentially a giant sponge,” says Matt Aitkenhead, a Scottish soil scientist. We met for drinks in a bar one afternoon. I identified him immediately by his “Soil Scientists know all the Dirt” T-shirt. He’s passionate about soil and downright evangelical about trying to get people around the world excited about dirt.

“Peat is the substance that binds the whole country together,” he tells me. “It is vital to holding in water. It gives life to bugs, spiders, and birds. It’s a binding agent and prevents soil erosion so that cities don’t wash away to sea.” Soil without organic matter, the presence of carbon, is essentially sand. In the top meter of Scotland’s soil, there are 3 billion tons of carbon. A section of Northern Scotland, called Flow Country contains peat so deep that a measuring rod a group of scientists was using broke off after more than 65 feet. It’s still stuck there. They affectionately call this section of the country “MAMBA,” for “Miles and Miles of Bugger All.”

Because peat bogs are essentially giant carbon sinks, Scotland is particularly vulnerable to climate change. A temperature increase threatens to release methane (greenhouse gasses) into the atmosphere and rainwater, since the hot weather causes the peat to decompose. If that happens a negative cycle is started, causing the death of more peat, which releases more greenhouse gases… and so on. Also, if peat isn’t there to store rainfall, towns—and distilleries—built along the edge of rivers and streams are at risk of flooding. As far as he and his colleagues are concerned, “climate change is already here.” Quoting former American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Aitkenhead reminds me, “A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”

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But to be clear, the use of peat in whisky production does not worry scientists like Aitkenhead. Harvesting peat is sustainable and a traditional process. Aside from climate change, the biggest worry is actually the creation of new grouse shooting estates that cover vast areas of Scotland. Estate lands, including peat, are burned to clear large swaths of vegetation for the hunters.

Distilleries have so much to lose when the land is compromised. A rise in temperature exposes them to increased CO2 levels that can find their way into the water source. And many distilleries sit at the mouth of a water source, exposing them to soil erosion. Distilleries are also located on some of the prettiest landscapes in Scotland—and tourists on the so-called Whisky Trail want to see that beauty. It behooves a tiny place like Islay to manage how the land is harnessed to make whisky so as not to scar the land and destroy that delicate balance. Aitkenhead explained that most of the distilleries he’s been in touch with are actually very conscientious on the environmental front.

On my last night on Islay, Mickey Heads, a distiller from Ardbeg and a lifelong island resident, took me around The OA, a wild section of Islay. The sunset was a dazzling explosion of color that shined beacons of orange and gold over a dark and soggy landscape dotted with sheep and empty crofts. It was obvious that peat was an ever-present part of his life; a substance to contend with early on, and one he made a living off of as an adult.

“Sometimes it would show up in the bathtub, [as] brown, peaty water,” he remembered with a laugh. “It’s not very good for keeping your clothes clean.” He pointed to where he thought deep stores of peat thrived, and lighter colored areas of grass where he said the peat was shallow. Heads explained that when he was a young man, he had worked for hours crouching on his knees in the peat, carving and stacking heavy wet loads. It was back-breaking laborious work. Today, fortunately, that job is mostly done by mechanical cutters.

“Getting on my knees was easier on my back,” he said. “And if you take a walk out there, you really need gators and a jacket,” he warned. “I know,” I answered, flicking pieces of caked mud off the bottom of my boot with a twig.