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Issue 44 - Smoking out the spirit of Islay

Whisky Magazine Issue 44
November 2004


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Smoking out the spirit of Islay

Andrew Jefford's Peat Smoke and Spirit is the best whisky book published this year. In this extract, he writes about trhe constitution of peat itself

So what are they exactly, these dark sods which Norrie has been cutting for 44 years, and his Uncle John Campbell cut for a lifetime before that, and which Islay's farmers have been cutting to keep themselves warm and cook food with for the last 5,000 years?

Dead plants. Not just any plants, though; these are the plants of an irredeemably wet place, a place from which the water cannot drain. Visitors to Islay are sometimes surprised to hear its peat bogs described as ‘moss'. Surprised – because the intractable, unwalkable, boot-filling bogs don't look at all like the vivid green carpets and soft poufs of woodland moss you can find on a forest stroll. True; but examine those bogs more closely, and you will see that much of their mass is made up of coralline Sphagnum capillifolium and its many relatives: a strange, rootless community of plants commonly called bog moss. Sphagnum is sponge-like; its tiny, orange-yellow ‘leaves' are in fact nothing but water flasks. The chlorophyll in them is squeezed in to slender strands between rain-gorged cells. This is why sphagnum can absorb eight times its own weight in water; this is why a blanket bog itself is not terra firma at all, but a kind of soup. During the First World War, dried sphagnum moss was used as a dressing for wounds: in addition to its remarkable absorbent capacities, it is also a deodorant and anti-putrescent. Were one sphagnum plant to grow in isolation, it would rapidly collapse under the weight of the water it...

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