Opinion: We must build a sustainable plan for peat — the future of Scotch whisky depends on it

Opinion: We must build a sustainable plan for peat — the future of Scotch whisky depends on it

If the climate emergency isn't enough to make whisky drinkers demand a sustainable plan for peat, then the uncertain future of Scotland's smoky spirit should quickly light the tinder

Thoughts from... 20 Feb 2024 | Interviews | By Christopher Coates

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At a recent event hosted by Laphroaig, I had the chance to hear distillery manager Barry MacAffer, an Islay native, speak about his memories of peat being burned in home fireplaces on the island. He told us how the fragrant aroma of ‘peat reek’ permeated his childhood and, later, his working life while tending the maltings’ kiln, coming home each day smelling of sweet smoke. While sipping a dram of the inimitable Laphroaig 10 Years Old, I had a chance to reflect on my own memories of peated whisky.

 

Nearly 15 years ago, it was a taste of Lagavulin The Distillers Edition and, days later, my purchase of a bottle of Talisker, that made me fall in love with single malt Scotch whisky, setting me on a path that led to my chosen career. Then, around nine years ago, I was dismayed to learn that, having only been offered drams of light and fruity Speyside and Highland single malts previously, my (then new) girlfriend hadn’t found much to love about Scotch. A nip of Ardbeg Corryvreckan changed all that, and now she’s a dyed-in-the-wool peat fanatic and whisky nerd. You can imagine my relief!

 

These are just a couple of small, personal stories about the role of peat in the grand and ongoing story of whisky, but I think they are indicative of why smoky Scotch spirit holds a special place in the hearts of whisky lovers around the world. Barry’s story is a nod to the role of peat turf as both a traditional domestic fuel source and a core ingredient of both Scotch and Irish whisky stretching back centuries. My own anecdotes relate to the ‘love it or hate it’ flavour peat imparts to whisky, which fuels the ‘cult of peat’ populated by proud ‘peat heads’. From whichever angle you look at it, it's undeniable that peat forms a core part of Scotch whisky's history, flavour, and culture — and this is why its use in whisky production must be both protected and responsibly managed.

 

Peat burning in the kiln at Laphroaig.

While the holy hexagon of water, barley, yeast, copper, oak and time forms the first sentence of the first lesson titled 'what is whisky', the importance of turf-smoked grain can't be overlooked. Scotch whisky must taste of its raw materials by law, and no ingredient makes its presence known more on the palate than peat. Turf-smoked barley offers the purest and most permanent expression of Scotch's historic flavour — perhaps the last vestige of a time when proto-whisky's character was augmented by botanical flavourings imparted by maceration, toddy preparation, and, of course, the malting process.

 

What's more, Peat is arguably the only ingredient, aside from water, that has not substantially changed since whisky emerged as a distinct and identifiable drink. Barley varieties have been engineered, yeasts have been optimised, and cask types have shifted in response to economic factors and changing tastes, but peat has remained unchanged. For this reason, the peated whiskies of today are the closest we can come to tasting those of the past. (Unless one has the privilege to crack open 19th-century bottles, like those 'found' at Blair Castle, of course.)

 

This is only natural. It took thousands of years for Scotland’s peat banks to form, at a rate of just a millimetre per year. What are a few centuries to a peat bog? Little, if we’re only talking about time’s impact on the flavour of peaty spirits, but it’s a long time indeed for the bogs, when those centuries are characterised by drainage, mismanagement, burning, and exploitation without restoration. It's estimated that 80 per cent of the UK's peatlands are damaged — meaning they are emitting carbon, rather than sequestering it — despite being recognised as ecologically significant. The lion's share of the responsibility lies with Scotland, where around 60 per cent of the UK's peatland is located. You may be surprised to learn that 20 per cent of Scotland's total land area is peatland and, coincidentally, a staggering 20 per cent of the country's annual carbon emissions is estimated to come from damaged peatland!

 

It’s undeniable that peat is a problematic ingredient. It’s functionally non-renewable (at least on the timescale of human lives) and is extracted from delicate environments home to rare flora and fauna, while bogs act as vital carbon sink, representing the largest and most efficient land-based store of carbon. (Peatland is capable of storing 10 times the amount of carbon on average than any other land-based ecosystem.) Thus, as distillers and governments focus on sustainability in an effort to reach net-zero carbon emissions, the extraction and burning of peat is firmly in the crosshairs of politicians, activists, scientists, distillers, and regulators. This is why it's so important that peatland is managed responsibly and restored wherever possible, with the support of distillers and grain suppliers, so the relatively small amount of extraction required for the production of Scotch whisky can continue long into the future.

Stacked peat at Hobbister Moor, Orkney.

Back in September 2021, Whisky Magazine published an article by Felipe Schrieberg exploring the dilemma of peat use (‘The Problem with Peat’, Issue #178) and today it remains one of the most-viewed articles on this website. Since then, some important things have happened. In February 2023, the Scottish government’s National Planning Framework 4 was published, with Policy 5 outlining new conditions relating to developments on peatland. Its wording is a win for Scotch whisky, as it enshrines the industry’s special status as a peat user. However, just four days later, the Scottish government launched its consultation on ending the sale of peat in Scotland. The results were published in December 2023 and can be found here. The prevailing sentiment of respondents was in favour of a ban on the sale of peat in Scotland, with a proposed exemption for the Scotch whisky industry expressed by the industry and whisky consumers. How exactly this will translate into Government policy remains to be seen, but my impression is that the future of peat use by Scotch whisky distillers is not guaranteed. 

 

Elsewhere, the outlook is slightly more positive. Not long ago, Peatland ACTION, the national programme offering funding to support peatland restoration, reported that it had set over 43,000 hectares of peatland on the road to recovery, aided by £250 million in Government funding set to be delivered through to the end of the decade. But the pace needs to quicken. What's been achieved so far is only a fraction of the 250,000ha the programme hopes to have restored by 2030.

Peat being fed into the kiln at Boortmalt Glenesk.

Lastly, in summer 2023, the Scotch Whisky Association finally released a long-awaited document titled ‘The Commitment To Responsible Peat Use’ (CRPU), which outlines its members’ intentions to not only meet their obligations as peat users as outlined in government policy but to exceed them. Though arguably more limited in scope than was suggested by the name of the 'Peat Action Plan' that was originally promised, the document nevertheless sets new expectations for member-owned extraction sites (although there are very few of these). Of particular importance is the SWA's stated intention to work with third parties across the peat supply chain, with a commitment made to publishing a 'Framework for Best Practice in Peat Extraction' in 2025. The adoption of this Framework by third-party (non-member) peat suppliers is a stated 'strategic aim' of the SWA going forward, but the CRPU does not go so far as saying members won't be permitted to buy from suppliers not adopting it. We'll have to wait and see if this Framework will have real teeth.

 

Further action outlined in the CRPU is industry-wide work on optimising the malting process in partnership with the Scotch Whisky Research Institute and the Maltsters Association of Great Britain, with a view to maximising flavour while minimising the amount of peat required. This is broadly in line with what distillers have been doing themselves for some time, as such efficiencies are good for both their carbon footprint and the bottom line. Finally, the SWA has committed to issuing an annual report on the industry's work concerning the CPRU, offering some degree of accountability for the CRPU and the SWA's Peat Supply Chain Working Group.

 

I strongly advise all whisky lovers to read the CRPU, as it will be the backbone of the industry’s much-needed future plan for peat. I can only hope it will provide the impetus required to bring about lasting change, hold third-party suppliers to account, discourage extraction from the most ecologically significant sites, and secure the taste of peaty spirit for future generations of Scotch whisky drinkers. Anything less will risk Scotch whisky's legacy and blow smoke in the eyes of peatheads, myself included.

 

An abridged version of this column appeared in Whisky Magazine issue #193. If you want to learn more about peat's relationship with whisky, check out this recently published book by peatland scientist Mike Billet.

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