Peat, Water, and Whiskey: Scotland

Scotland – especially the northern part – is pretty high up there in the latitude department. Most of the country lies between 56 and 58 degrees north, which puts it closer to the North Pole than much of Canada. To use an American comparison, Scotland is located in roughly the same zone as southeast Alaska. This didn’t really hit me until I arrived there and noticed that the sun was still up at 9pm.

As a result of its geography, Scotland is somewhat barren; this is, of course, consistent with the character of many somewhat-shy-of-polar regions. While there are trees along the banks low-lying rivers and lining the boundaries of farms, there are next to no native trees on the mountainsides (there are plantations of commercially harvested pine). There’s not much fruit or vegetable farming, very little mining, and not a lot of color outside of people’s front yard flower gardens – particularly in the Hebrides, where I recently spent some time.

What there is instead is “moor” – a acidic biome consisting of grasses, mosses, and peat. Peat is the layer of decaying vegetation that comprises the top couple of meters of a hefty chunk of the Scotland, as well as parts of England and Ireland. It has been used as a heat source for thousands of years and is still relied upon for warming homes and cooking in some of the rural regions of Scotland.

There is also water – lots of it. Salt water, fresh water, and brackish water reserves are everywhere, and there’s a fair bit of H2O falling from the sky as well. The country is surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, yes; but what is more remarkable is the degree to which these bodies of water penetrate the land through inlets, bays, estuaries, and tidal zones. There are numerous rivers that criss-cross the country, and most of them at some point merge with sea water to create this nation’s famous “lochs.”

Water and peat happen to be two of the ingredients necessary for producing Scotch – a beverage I loathe but now know more about than any non-drinker should. Scotland is immensely proud of its native product, so avoiding it is difficult. In addition, I was traveling with my father, an obsessive single malt hound, so, like it or not, I had a Scotch immersion experience.

For those of you who don’t know, Scotch is a form of whiskey – specifically, a whiskey made in Scotland according to certain parameters. Whiskey is basically distilled beer, which is to say that its first steps involve malting barley, adding water and yeast to it, and letting it ferment. To transform the beer into whiskey, it is necessary to distill it, concentrating it and raising the alcohol level. After that, the concoction ages for anywhere between three and twenty years. For whiskey to be called Scotch, it has to be aged in oak barrels (generally sourced from the American bourbon industry, ironically) for at least three years, be at least 80 proof, and be made in Scotland from Scottish ingredients (water and barley).

The hidden ingredient in the process is, of course, peat. No, there isn’t peat in the whiskey, nor is it in the water. Peat is typically the heat source used to dry the barley during the malting process. Depending on how long the grain is exposed to the peat smoke, it may take on a subtle or powerful “peaty” flavor that carries through into the final product.

I spent about five minutes in a peat-heated, thatched roof cottage on the northern slope of the Isle of Skye. In that short amount of time, my body was permeated with its pungent, organic odor, giving me a pretty clear picture of what must happen to wet barley.  I also let go of any romantic ideas I may have held about living in thatched roof cottages. They are dark (they have no windows), moist, and stinky. No, thank you. If you do like that smell and taste, however, you don’t have to live in a thatched roof cottage either; fortunately, a highly profitable industry has emerged around bottling this essence for your consumption.

My indoctrination into this essence’s cult happened in the coastal city of Oban.  Without knowing anything about the place, I had scheduled it as the first stop on our trip.

It turned out to be the home Oban Scotch, the variety which was my father’s favorite prior to this trip (in the process of tasting numerous micro-distillery Scotches, he bumped Oban to position number three, following two obscure brands he will never be able to buy in the US).

The Oban distillery has been located in the same spot since 1780, and the small, now tourist-oriented city, literally grew up around it. Within six hours of touching down in Edinburgh, we were on a distillery tour, and my father was drinking $80-per-bottle Scotch straight from the cask. Yes, this beverage is a big economic force in this country.

I have to admit, I don’t get it. I don’t really understand the amount of care and feeding that goes into the production of any beverage, much less one that tastes like a moldy tundra dwelling.

But I do appreciate the fact that this little nation has turned the resources they have in droves into a roughly five-billion-dollar industry – the third biggest in the country, employing over 40,000 people.

In fact, it’s fair to say that they’ve turned their unique geography into liquid gold.

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