Not a member? - Register and login now.
All registered users can read our entire magazine archive.

Question about Scotch production (peat versus charcoal)

All your whisky related questions answered here.

Question about Scotch production (peat versus charcoal)

Postby blacksabb » Fri Mar 05, 2010 9:26 am

Hi everyone. I was reading a Scotch review on another site when I came across this bit of information from one reviewer:

"Scotch was meant to be made with charcoal anyway. The only reason distillers starting using peat was due to charcoal shortage during WWII."

Could you fill me in about this? Was Scotch originally produced by barley roasted over charcoal instead of peat? I'm sorry if I sound ignorant, it's just that I vaguely remember reading something about the use of charcoal in Scotch production previously. If that is the case, was charcoal superior to peat, as I remember reading how Scotch was better when produced with charcoal.

Thanks.
blacksabb
Silver Member
 
Posts: 256
Joined: Fri Jan 23, 2009 2:22 pm

Re: Question about Scotch production (peat versus charcoal)

Postby The Third Dram » Fri Mar 05, 2010 5:15 pm

Coincidentally, I just happen to be researching the history and specific characteristics of peat as used in the making of whisky for a chapter in a sequel to my first book on single malt Scotch. It's a fascinating subject!

I'm not at all sure just where the reviewer garnered that particular piece of information cited. But on the surface, it represents a falsehood. If I'm not mistaken, the use of coke, both to fire pot stills and to peat-reek barley during the malting process, only came to prominence when expanded mining of that resource permitted wider (and less expensive) availability. Prior to that time, peat, being a plentiful and cheap (though admittedly labour-intensive in terms of harvesting) commodity, was the fuel of choice. Don't forget that the decimation of the old-growth forests of Scotland had already made wood (and wood-derived charcoal) something of a precious resource. It would have the advantage of burning faster and more intensely than peat (a definite plus for illicit distillers 'on the run'), but its use would have more than likely been limited.

The transition from peat to coke first took hold in the Lowlands and central Highlands, and was largely concurrent with the industrialization of the whisky industry then occurring in those regions. More remote areas, such as the far north, the islands and, in particular, Islay, tended to retain the primary utilization of peat.

Nowadays, the tables would appear to have turned. And peat has therefore become a more prized fuel (not to mention taking into account the ecological aspects of its harvesting). Thus, the idea of using peat to heat pot stills (never mind the inefficiency element) is no longer a viable one. However, peat reeking of barley in the malting process remains a cornerstone of many of those smoky whiskies we love.

As to the relative qualitative issue as it relates to the aroma and taste of the whisky produced, one fuel is not necessarily intrinsically 'superior' to the other. It's simply a matter of exactly what profile a distiller is striving to achieve in their product.

If I remember correctly, some distilleries (such as Balvenie) even combine the heated air from both fuels (coke and peat) in their malting processes in order to achieve a less smoke-laden balance in their grist.

A footnote: Some individuals assert to this day that the utilization of peat as a fuel for firing pot stills actually resulted in a better whisky (than would be the case with coke) owing to a slower, more gentle heating cycle. And, of course, there are many who continue to espouse the superiority of direct firing of pot stills over steam coil heating systems (despite the added labour and maintenance costs).
User avatar
The Third Dram
Triple Gold Member
 
Posts: 2434
Joined: Wed Dec 31, 2008 8:38 pm

Re: Question about Scotch production (peat versus charcoal)

Postby kallaskander » Thu Mar 11, 2010 1:34 pm

Hi there,


"World War II once again brought a halt to whisky production, with barley diverted as a crucial food crop. Yet Winston Churchill correctly recognized the importance of Scotch whisky as a valuable source of foreign currency, stating, in 1944: "On no account reduce the amount of barley for whisky. This takes years to mature and is an invaluable export and dollar producer. Having regard to all our other difficulties about exports, it would be most improvident not to preserve this characteristic British element of ascendancy." Through Churchill's intercession, distillers were once again given an allotment of barley, and production could continue. In order to counter the coal shortage, Grant took to burning peat--which in turn added a distinctive flavor to the company's wartime production."

http://www.answers.com/topic/william-grant-sons-ltd

Afaik it was no only Glenfiddich that switched back to peat during that time.

Pre and post WW II glen Grants have sometimes notes of more peat than you would expect, Macallan too.

Greetings
kallaskander
kallaskander
Double Gold Member
 
Posts: 1119
Joined: Tue Jun 14, 2005 12:47 pm
Location: Heddesheim, Germany

Re: Question about Scotch production (peat versus charcoal)

Postby Willie JJ » Thu Mar 11, 2010 2:30 pm

The Third Dram wrote:I'm not at all sure just where the reviewer garnered that particular piece of information cited.

I think they made it up. It's just wrong.
User avatar
Willie JJ
Cask Strength Gold Member
 
Posts: 4593
Joined: Tue Nov 27, 2007 8:31 pm
Location: nr. Edinburgh

Re: Question about Scotch production (peat versus charcoal)

Postby The Third Dram » Fri Mar 12, 2010 8:03 pm

Thanks for that very interesting information on the WWII period, kallaskander! :thumbsup:
User avatar
The Third Dram
Triple Gold Member
 
Posts: 2434
Joined: Wed Dec 31, 2008 8:38 pm

Re: Question about Scotch production (peat versus charcoal)

Postby kallaskander » Fri Mar 12, 2010 10:36 pm

Hi there,

your`re welcome. I`ll see if I find more somewhere in my notes.

Greetings
kallaskander
kallaskander
Double Gold Member
 
Posts: 1119
Joined: Tue Jun 14, 2005 12:47 pm
Location: Heddesheim, Germany

Return to Questions & Answers

cron

Whisky gift and present finder