ALL SPIRITS TAKE time to produce. Some lie in glass carboys full of macerating herbs for months; others sit aging for decades in oak barrels; and bespoke brandies sitting in forgotten European cellars for nearly a century seem to only improve with age.

But to make a bottle of peaty Scotch whisky takes thousands of years.

It begins with a bog. A forest once home to the dinosaur ancestors of Nessie is ever-so-slowly encroached upon by a lake that never quite dries or a river that seeps and doesn’t obligingly recede, drowning the plants that at first find the water to be a life-giving bonanza but eventually die as the surface becomes choked with thick sphagnum moss. Too little oxygen turns the soil beneath acid, and what does lie there lies there for years and years, decaying at its own slow, interminable rate, creating a thick mat of dense, decaying vegetable matter called peat.

And peat, it turns out, burns beautifully.

This was important in a place where the native trees fled the onslaught of sheep and cattle, and all that was left for fuel was the earth itself. Undaunted, those Hebrideans eventually learned they could simply cut a slice out of the ground and use it to warm the feet that had just been standing on it. Out in the drained fens, the peat-cutters would walk their rows, sticking their L-shaped tairsgear into the earth with a determined squelch and then hauling the long rectangle out of the ground, tossing it into a heap to make an oddly mechanical-looking pile of organic matter. This peat would then be burned for fuel, to keep the crofts warm; to cook the porridge; and, of course, to dry the malted barley in the kilns so it could be macerated, fermented and then distilled into the local Scotch whisky.

The local laird perhaps would have expensive logs in his fire for important company or holidays, but in his more homey moments, with a hunting dog at his feet and the wind howling across the craggy heath, his hearth would be burning peat just like the poorest crofter’s. And the taste of that same peat would be in the cup he sipped from as he tippled the local usquebaugh, or whisky, as he sipped the distillation of his own land, the very definition of terroir.


Peat bogs are mysterious places, keeping their age-old secrets with silent complacency until local need literally digs them up. The soil burned to make your drink might have contained the strangely well-preserved bodies of medieval peasants, hordes of Norse gold or even strange mounds of butter made from the milk of Iron Age cows and stored there for some later meal that never happened. Whisky producers in the lower countries (England and Ireland) eventually would switch to burning coal or coke, that flinty, black rock of industrialization that created the film that coated Blake’s “dark satanic mills.” “Such whisky,” an opinionated laird or peat cutter might mutter, “is made from the fires of hell rather than from the good clean earth.”

The taste of such whiskies is ironically cleaner, smoother and less eye-watering than a peaty spirit such as Lagavulin or Laphroaig. The peatiest whisky these days, as measured in PPM (parts per million) of phenols in the barley after kilning, is the Octomore Scotch currently produced by Bruichladdich Distillery Company, an establishment dating back to the age of Victoria whose offerings sometimes can top out at over 200 PPM.

Peaty whisky can be off-putting to the uninitiated, the flavors of campfire and barnyard offending the palate and even bringing on a theatrical retching as the flavor of distilled rotting plants permeates the unwary palate. But take a sip of such whisky with a bite of steak, say, or even a rich piece of shimofuri sushi, and the fat in your mouth will soften the peaty tang to a rich, smoky luster.

And, while the most famous peaty whiskies in the world are from Scotland, whisky-enthusiastic countries such as Japan, India and New Zealand are producing peaty versions of their own spirit now. Here in Seattle, distilleries are putting peat into their locally produced Scotch-style American whiskey, as well. Westland Distillery adds a subtle bit of peated malt to its whiskey, and Copperworks Distilling Company uses malt from Skagit Valley Malting imbued with Washington peat from a lake bed in the Olympic Peninsula in its Peated Single Malt American Whiskey.

That seems only right for a place that shares much in terms of climate with Scotland; treats its most famous local cryptofauna as a celebrity; and where everyone is already wearing plaid, anyway.