Should Scotch Whisky Lovers Learn to Live Without Peat?

Using peat releases a lot of carbon and hurts the environment. Perhaps it's time to take up gin.

An image of the Laphroaig Distillery
Laphroaig Distillery burns 1.5 tons of peat each day.

David Lefranc/Kipa/Sygma via Getty Image

The British Government is doing a public consultation about banning the sale of peat to gardeners in England and Wales. They set the context:

"Peatlands are an iconic feature of our landscapes. They are the UK’s largest stores of carbon. They also provide vital ecosystem services, such as supplying over a quarter of the UK’s drinking water, decreasing flood risk, and providing food and shelter for rare wildlife. When peat is extracted, the carbon stored inside the bog is released as carbon dioxide, contributing to climate change. Peat extraction also degrades the state of the peat mass which threatens biodiversity and the efficacy of their ecosystem services across a larger area. Peat is extracted in the UK for, primarily, horticultural purposes, with bagged retail growing media account for 70% of the peat sold in the UK. It serves other purposes, such as its role in whisky production, but these types of uses represent only a very small proportion of the total use of peat."

It's that role in whisky production that is the question here. I am a member of the William Deveraux memorial scotch club, where once a month we discuss whether what we are drinking tastes like iodine, coal tar, asphalt, or ash. Most of these strong flavors come from peat.

The peat used for whisky is horizontally scraped off the top of the peat bogs with tractors, because according to Whisky Advocate, "Peat taken from nearer the surface is preferred in Scotland. Those disheveled chunks full of dangly strands of dead grasses produce more smoke when burnt in the kiln than the more uniform black-brown slabs of peat dug up and dried from the deeper layers." So that probably mucks up the landscape even more than the stuff that is dug out vertically.

Peat is used to add flavor to the malt. Whisky Advocate notes: "Malting promotes germination, which converts the energy packed inside the grain, making it ready for fermentation into ethanol." They lay the malted barley on a grate over the kiln.

"Shovelfuls of aromatic, combustible peat are added to quell the flames; the objective is a thick rising cloud of pale gray peat smoke. The peat reek drapes layer upon smoky layer around the grain, the aromas absorbed onto the surface of the moist husks. At the Laphroaig Distillery maltings, they burn only peat in the kiln, 1.5 tons of the stuff every day."

Laphroaig happens to be one of the club's favorites; we even have a song about it. And it is apparently not as bad as the Whisky Advocate made it out to be. Laphroaig's representative tells Treehugger that they use considerably less peat, a total of 120 metric tons per year and that "the actual kiln drying process at Laphroaig is conducted using hot air, which itself is generated from hot water radiators – no coke or coal is burnt." They also note that they "harvest peat using a mechanical method, which mimics the vertical, hand-cutting style that was utilised up until very recent times – it doesn’t scrape the surface of the moss using a tractor, as suggested."

Laphroaig also tells Treehugger about their Peatlands Water Sanctuary Project, "where Beam Suntory has committed $4.4m to restore 1300 hectares of peatlands by 2030, which will ensure that an equivalent volume of peat is restored in Scotland to offset the peat that Beam Suntory uses, including at Laphroaig, to produce our single malt whiskies."

According to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), only a quarter of the industry's primary energy comes from non-fossil fuel sources. The SWA has made a promise to be net zero emissions by 2040, with its plan to "harness existing and new technologies such as anaerobic digestion, biomass, hydrogen, and high temperature heat pumps to move towards Net Zero."

No word there about what they will do about peat, although they do mention it in another section:

"We will extract peat responsibly and play an active role in conserving and restoring Scotland’s peatland by 2035. The Scotch Whisky industry represents just 1% of the total peat extracted in the UK. Yet we are determined to play a key role in restoring this vital carbon sink. We will develop a Peat Action Plan in 2021 that will outline how our industry will deliver environmental net gain, and we will support the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) UK Peatland Strategy 2040."  

At the time of publication, there is no sign of the Peat Action Plan.

The Whisky Advocate says, "There is no alternative to peat; neither for whisky drinkers nor planet Earth. To that end, the whisky industry needs to ensure it’s using as little peat as possible and doing its part to safeguard and restore our world’s miracle ecosystem."

Correction—March 23, 2022: This version has been updated to include comments from Laphroaig Distillery.

The Tobermory Distillery located on the Hebridean island of Mull, Scotland.

Lloyd Alter

There are distilleries that minimize their use of peat or actually offer whisky made without it, which has its own charms; evidently, the attraction to the peaty flavor is a relatively recent phenomenon. My own favorite distillery on the Isle of Mull makes Tobermory whisky for half the year—"Bright and colourful, our unpeated Tobermory single malt is packed full of vibrant fruit, spice and a subtle salty note, reflective of our harbour waters"—and a seriously peaty one, Ledaig, the other half. "Produced at our Hebridean Distillery for 6 months of the year, Ledaig, pnounced 'Letch-ick', is our smoky single malt. Heavily-peated (30 – 40ppm phenol), robust, and with sweet smoke and earthy notes."

Perhaps it is time to try to savor some unpeated scotch whisky, or maybe even develop a taste for low-carbon gin.

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