The reason my site is called “Can’t see the wood for the whisky” is because I wanted a space that incorporates my interest in horticulture (see nature, climate, sustainability…) and my love of whisky.
I came into both around the same time, about 8 years ago. Horticulture became my day job and whisky, my drink of choice. As time has gone by the relationship between the two becomes ever stronger and as stated, you can’t have one (whisky), without the other (horticulture).
One of the topics that challenges me personally is Peat.
So I stand before you now, and state “My name is Claire, and I love peated whisky”.
This statement makes me a hypocrite, because in my day job I am very much for ceasing the usage of Peat, but my word I love a dirty, filthy peated whisky.
My original purpose for this article was to break it into two separate posts and examine Peat from a horticultural perspective and a whisky industry perspective. In my research however, I ended up heading down rabbit holes that all lead to the same place, especially within the whisky sector.
Everybody is talking (writing), but there is little demonstrable practical action right now. So, this will be a mixture of opinion (mine) and website links to various projections of “We will”. I wanted this to be factual and offering guidance, but I sort of can’t, because right now the pertinent information I was looking for simply hasn’t been made available….yet.
Peat: what is it, why is it important?
If you don’t already know, then either you’re a climate change denier, don’t care or simply haven’t got to that point of wanting to know.
Here is a good explanation from Garden Organic:
Peat comes from peat bogs, it is an accumulation of partially decayed organic matter. Because it is stored under water, it doesn’t release carbon as it decays. Peat bogs are the largest and most efficient carbon store on earth (10 times more carbon per hectare than any other ecosystem, including forests) and they are an important defence against climate change.
Peat | www.gardenorganic.org.uk
The more you read into it, the more you find that peat is a really important part of the ecosystem and our future survival.
From a horticultural perspective:
Peat has been used for approx. 40+ years as a growing medium. Mixed into compost it holds water well, adds no nutritional value (so directed nutrition can be added) and when dry is extremely light, making it cheap to transport.
The total amount of UK peat for horticulture is around 25%, the rest generally comes from Ireland and Eastern Europe. Recently Bord Na Mona, have announced that they will be ceasing peat harvesting. This is a very positive move, however on reading the PR a couple of other companies will continue to provide peat for horticulture.
Bord na Móna announce formal end to all peat harvesting on its lands | Bord na Móna (bordnamona.ie)
My take on peat usage in horticulture is this; For hobbyists its not required. There are companies supplying good alternatives using a variety of materials. The hit and miss of these products is far more “hit” than “miss” these days.
However, some growers may state that the new materials are not quite good enough for their requirements. I will disagree. Some companies are fully unpeated and doing a roaring (pre covid) trade.
Secondly, I would also ask if compost is even required on the scale which we currently use it. If you’re buying plants, they generally already come in nutrition heavy compost to help get the plant started. If you’re growing from seed, then you may require some compost, but not much.
Think on this; how often have you walked through woods, meadows, forests and seen teams of people every year out there adding bags of compost to the woodland floor? You don’t. Nature takes care of this with leaf drop, soil inhabitants and wildlife. Compost is NOT needed.
In your gardens you are constantly working against nature and have to bring items in to create a faux natural environment. If managed properly, aligned with nature, you’d never need to buy compost again (but that’s a piece for my hort based pages).
Peat from a whisky perspective:
Those of us who enjoy a peated whisky are enjoying a by-product of a historically necessary practise. Peat has been and, in some areas, still is, a material used for burning to create a heat source. In whisky that heat source was for heating the Pot-stills. It was and still is for some distilleries used as part of the process of drying malted barley.
Peat from different areas can give varying flavours to the malted grain, and this then is transferred into the whisky. I personally prefer a sweet, coastal peat, to an inland more herbal peat.
I could sit here and wax lyrical about peated whisky, but that’s not the purpose of the article.
The bottom line is this: peat is no longer a necessity within the production of whisky. It’s not required to heat the stills, its not required to dry the barley. Those things can still happen without peat. Peat is now a preferred luxury.
So, the same as plants can grow without peat, so too can whisky be made.
Now, I can hear the cries “Oh but the whisky industry is *only* +/-1% of total peat usage, leave us alone, and focus on the bigger users!!” and I get it, my tastebuds agree with you. But it’s still peat.
I spent quite some time over the past two weeks emailing distilleries, global whisky brands, the SWA (Scotch Whisky Association), even malting companies to try and find out if someone would be willing to answer some questions about peat use in whisky.
In fact only one company responded regarding sustainability, and one lovely weather forecasting Mr Brodie gave me some great background information.
Is there an acknowledgement of the climate issue, would there be a response?
Well, yes there is. Both the SWA and Diageo for example have highlighted the usage of peat, and how it aligns with the overall global actions from the UN (United Nations) Sustainable Development Goals. Many are talking about Net Zero emmsions. Well, if you are using peat, you’re not quite hitting that.
This link goes to the SWA Insights page and gives some great info on the plans for the future:
Scotch Whisky Sustainability (scotch-whisky.org.uk)
This link focuses specifically on peat and Scotland’s landscapes:
Scotch Whisky: Caring for the Land (scotch-whisky.org.uk)
This is also part of the SEPA (Scottish Environment Protection Agency) action plan:
Scotch whisky sector plan | Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA)
Diageo have released the Society 2030 programme which incorporates all manner of responsibilities, from people, to water to land.
Our Role In Society | Our Priorities | Diageo In Society
The biggest negative for me is the timeline. 2030/2035/2040/2050. All these numbers are far away and much damage can be done in that time. Personally I rather see steps taken now towards this.
The one company that did respond said they are waiting on the Peat Action Plan, which is yet to be published.
Can anything be used in place of peat for flavour? Well yes and no. We already char barrels for a smoky effect and some distilleries are experimenting by using other materials within the drying process for flavour. Mackmyra are well known for the use of Juniper. I know its not peat, I know it won’t give that particular profile, but…planet or peated whisky?
Both in horticulture and whisky, the issue is being talked about and planned for. But we are still waiting for that plan for peat in whisky.
So, with all this in mind, how do I feel about peat? My conscience struggles, I’ll be honest. I think where I can easily do without, I will. So, in my day job, no peat. I’ve been doing this for a while anyway.
The process Bord Na Mona has taken is logical and effective. People have been part of the equation and have been retrained to work in the company in the sustainable sector.
Regards whisky? Well I feel comfort in the fact that *something* is happening, I will feel more comfort when I see it happening.
What I don’t want is for all the chat, to remain just chat. Eventually a government will make an order, and rather than a planned phased reduction, which will keep people in jobs, and support distilleries, the process will just be stopped. With such an abrupt seizure, businesses will be lost. Best to plan ahead and adjust on your own terms, than on enforced terms.
As an addition to the research, I asked whisky Twitter its thoughts:
The use of peat in the whisky industry is now more of a choice (flavour) than a necessity (burning for fuel). As we all know (or should), peat is vital to the planet for biodiversity and Co2 sequestering. How would you feel if the use of peat was stopped in the Whisky industry?
Not a problem hate peat – 16.3%
Wd miss it but understand – 42.9%
No Peat? Whats the point? – 35.5%
Other (please comment) – 5.3%
245 votes·Final results
Will I still drink peated whisky? Yes, but I will reduce how much. I may only be one person, but every small action, from every single person, can create a big impact.
23 01 2021
Note: The picture at the top of this piece was taken by me, at Keston Common, Kent. It’s a peat bog that is now an SSSI, and was used regularly by Charles Darwin for his studies.