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The Influence of Orkney Peat

by Gavin D Smith, 2010

Part I

With Islay single malts being so popular these days, the word 'peat,' as well as its flavour, seems to be on everyone's lips.

Essentially, peat is vegetable matter decomposed by water and partially carbonised by chemical change over thousands of years, often forming bogs or mosses. The type of peat created depends on the plant material from which it is derived, principally grass or heather, and on whether its location is inland or coastal.

In traditional whisky-making practice, the role of peat was as fuel in the malt kiln, where the germinating malt was dried to prevent it from consuming the starch subsequently transformed into fermentable sugars during the mashing process.

As well as serving the purpose of providing heat to dry the malting barley, peat also impregnated the grain with a characteristic aroma and flavour, which carried through all the subsequent production and maturation sequences to influence the spirit when it was finally consumed.

   Although Islay single malts are celebrated as the peatiest in Scotland, away from the 'whisky island,' peat also plays a major part in the character of a number of other single malts, and none more so than Highland Park, situated in the Orkney Islands, which lie to the north of the Scottish mainland.

The Kirkwall distillery is one of just a handful in Scotland which continues to malt a percentage of its barley requirement in traditional floor maltings.

The locally-cut Hobbister Hill peat which it uses along with coke during the kilning process is notably heathery in composition, having also absorbed salt spray from the sea over many centuries. This is said to account for the heathery note often discerned in Highland Park.

Although most distilleries were using a mixture of coal or coke and peat for kilning purposes even during the latter part of the 19th century, when he visited Orkney while researching his epic volume The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom (1887), Alfred Barnard wrote that ""The celebrated Orkney peats are the only fuel used in drying, with the exception of a little heather..."

According to Gerry Tosh, Head of Brand Education for Highland Park, the distillery currently harvests some 350 tonnes of peat per annum, which dries to 250 tonnes, and Tosh notes that "Mainland Orkney peat is pretty much all the same, though studies have shown that peat from the other islands of Orkney have slightly different character due to varying wood content."

In addition to Highland Park, Alfred Barnard visited Orkney's two other distilleries, namely Stromness and the recently-opened Scapa. Both used local peat in their malting process, as one would expect, but reading further in Barnard's book reveals that Orkney peat was also exported to the east coast of the Scottish mainland, where it was used in five distilleries.

Writing of Auchtermuchty in Fife, Barnard states that the malt kiln is "...heated with Orkney peats," while at Ballechin, in Highland Perthshire, "All the peat brought from Inverness-shire and the Orkneys, the peat mosses on the estate being almost inaccessible."

Interestingly, the Ballechin name has been revived by Signatory Vintage Scotch Whisky Co Ltd for a heavily-peated variant of its Edradour single malt, distilled just a few miles from the former Ballechin distillery.

The kilns at Bon Accord distillery in Aberdeen were "...heated with peats from Orkney," and although it closed in 1910, at the time of Barnard's visit, Bon Accord was one of three working distilleries working in the city of Aberdeen, and was described by Barnard as " of the largest Highland Malt Distilleries in Scotland."

Like Bon Accord, Auchtermuchty and Ballechin are long lost, but two surviving Speyside distilleries were also using Orkney peat when Barnard's was writing, and many more are recorded as doing so at a later date.

Strathisla - known in Barnard's time as Milton distillery - is located on the outskirts of the town of Keith, and has claims to be one of the oldest in Scotland, being establishment in 1786. Barnard wrote after visiting Strathisla that "Peat is chiefly used in drying the Malt which partly comes from Bogbain Moss, the remainder being shipped from Orkney. We saw some stacks of this fuel 60 feet long and 30 feet high."

Miltonduff distillery is situated a few miles from Elgin and Barnard observed that "...only Orkney peats are used for drying the malt. The Orkney peats are said to be the finest in the kingdom. In the adjoining sheds we saw two ship-loads of this valuable fuel, which Mr Stuart had just imported from Edday [Eday], in Orkney, for the following winter's use."

Distillery proprietor William Stuart also had an interest in Highland Park from 1868 until 1895, which may go some way to explaining how he knew that Orkney peat was presumably of high quality, and in Barnard's comment we discover just where in the Orkney Islands that peat was being harvested.

Go to PART II.


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