Terroir Through Peat

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Terroir Through Peat

Peat the source of the smoky, peaty phenolic compounds common in Islay and Highland whiskies are imparted during the malting process. Extracting sugar from barley is achieved by steeping the grain into water to trigger during which enzymes such as diastase (amylase) germination is initiated and which bursts open the cell walls. This creates dextrin, which is nothing other than starch in a soluble form, which in turn then creates maltose, a malt sugar. The maltster must then stop this process through the application of heat before all of the starch is split and the grain begins to consume the sugar.

Prior to electrification, and in the absense of sufficient wood peat fires were used to halt germination, as well as heat homes. This is one of the best possible arguements for terroir within the world of whisky. Given that grain is often sourced far and wide, malted in industrial sites rather than on floor maltings and that distilleries often ship their new make offsite for maturation it’s hard to argue for Terroir within the wider process.

What is Peat?

The peat that is used today for whisky production is a form of proto coal comprised of the undecomposed plant matter often over 6000 years old. At that time, bogs formed in various places in Scotland. Plants grew under a soil that did not decompose as soon as they died. In some areas of the northern hemisphere - like Scotland - numerous plants died but were not decomposed. Moors made it possible for plant residues to be pressed into peat under the exclusion of air and under high pressure for centuries.

Given long enough this peat would eventually become coal, but even now can be cut, dried and burned.

What is Terroir?

The notion of terroir, derived from the Latin word terra meaning earth or land implies a sense of place within a wine. There is no English equivalent for this word. Wine makers point to the soil, climate, terrain and tradition all factors which influence the final taste of a wine. It was originally used to distinguish the wine making practices of old world wine, steeped in tradition, from new world wine though these ideas and viewpoints are now converging.

How Would Peat Influence Terroir

If Bowmore stopped using Islay peat, instead opting to draw peat from Tomintoul Moor in the Speyside, the resulting whisky would be different. That you can smell these regional differences whould well be terroir.

Why Are These Peats Different?

While both peats are made of decayed plants, regional considerations still impart differences. In Islay different plants grow compared to Speyside, and since each of these has characteristic properties, they also come into the peat. The peat of the St. Fergus region in the east of Scotland has more woody parts due to undecomposed trees. The slightly western Tomintoul moor, on the other hand, has a lower proportion of wood, but more mosses.

In contrast, less guaiacol was found in the peat of Tomintoul, but more carbohydrates a consequence of the large moss component. Orkney peat from Hobbister Hill has more heather than the bogs on Islay. A special feature of coastal bogs like those on Islay or other areas of Scotland is the proximity to the sea. This can lead to an higher proportion of algae material in the peat.

What is the consequence?

The consequence of this is that there is a clear regional fingerprint in single malt. Even were Bowmore distillery to source its peat from the other side of the island this could well change the whisky produced. Terroir. Perhaps.

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