The Race to Make the Peatiest Scotch Whisky

The Race to Make the Peatiest Scotch Whisky

20 years ago, far before theBourbon boom, Interest in ScotchAfter a long slump, whisky was slowly recovering after one of its best years. theThe most solid outposts the category, a resource for enthusiasts and a budding contingent of hobbyists, was New York City’s Park Avenue Liquor. Jonathan Goldstein, co-owner, had been asking his customers a question for some time before he finally decided to answer it. toDo something about it.

“People would come in and ask, ‘What’s the most heavily peated? What’s got the most smoke?’—even back then you would call them peat freaks,” Goldstein recalls. “And you could show them X, Y, or Z, but there was really nothing that was off the charts [in terms of peat level].” TheMost heavily peated single malts theTime included Caol Ila and Lagavulin as well as Bowmore and Laphroaig. to50 PPM (phenol parts-per-million) was as peaty and sweet as it gets. So Goldstein turned toJohn Glaser was a Park Avenue client and had previously set up. theCompass Box, a London-based blending company, was founded a few years earlier. toFor a unique peated whisky, commission one the shop.

Glaser began with blends of around 30 PPM. theTalisker’s peat level “I was sending [Goldstein] things that would’ve been slightly peatier than that, and every time I sent him something, he’d be like, ‘I want it peatier,’”Glaser. “So I finally sent him this thing that was just Caol Ila and a peated Ardmore at cask strength.”It was the best. theThe most heavily peated whisky Glaser has ever made to date. “I wrote on the label, ‘This one’s a monster. I hope you like it.’”

Goldstein did it, as did his customers. Original version exclusive toPark Avenue Liquor, Compass Box Monster sold and Glaser reissued it as a widely-available offering. The Peat Monster—kicking off a trend that would eventually reshape Scotch whisky. 

Shots fired the Peat Arms RaceIt all begins

The tastes of Goldstein’s customers—their thirst for bigger and bigger peat—proved prescient. Around the time Compass Box launched The Peat Monster in 2003, Islay’s Bruichladdich Distillery was laying down early runs of a super-heavily peated whisky that would be called Octomore. 

After many years of closure, Bruichladdich only reopened in 2001. Despite theThe company originally purchased peated malted barreley from Port Ellen maltings. They supply almost all of the Islay distilleries. However, financial constraints forced it to discontinue this arrangement. toSwitch to Baird’s Maltings in Inverness. The change was fortuitous: Baird’s, like most malting operations, could supply barley malted toYou can create a variety of PPMs by mixing a single, heavily peated malt with unpeated malt in different amounts. 

Bruichladdich’s master distiller at theJim McEwan saw an opportunity for time. What if McEwan distilled just theHeavy peated malt toYou can make a really smoky whisky. The catch was that Baird’s hit different phenol levels in every batch, the peating process being somewhat imprecise—meaning if a distiller worked with that malt alone, they would end up with an inconsistently peated whisky from run to run. McEwan didn’t care.

“Jim used to say that we do it at Bruichladdich because no other distillery’s got the balls to do it,” says Adam Hannett, the current head distiller. “No one else has got that will to go and do something that was so, at that time, quite unusual. … It’s just the most labor-intensive whisky that you’ve ever come across, because every batch, every distillation, has basically got the potential to end up anywhere.”

It was a good idea for a distillery in the midst of a fire. theProcess of self-discovery, creativity. “It was very much about pushing the boundaries and seeing how much peat we’d get”In theHannett says whisky TheFirst batch of Octomore barley, which was peated toThe 131 PPM was introduced in 2008 and there were annual releases with different peat levels. The reception among consumers was positive, even though Octomore was only five years old—far younger than other premium single malts—and theThe peat profile was stronger than any other on the market. “We were establishing what Octomore could be,” Hannett adds. “And people were coming along on the journey with us.”

Charting a New Path for Peated Whisky

At theBruichladdich was re-opening the distillery 20 miles away, while Ardbeg Distillery was also restarting. theSame thing. It took several years. theLong-deceased facility purchased by The Glenmorangie Co. in theThe late 1990s toget up and running with regularity. However, by 2009 it had been re-established and producing compelling releases to a growing fan base. Always heavily peated to around 55 PPM, Ardbeg had rarely been released as a single malt before this era, more commonly being used as a blending component, so—like Bruichladdich—theDistillery had lots of leeway toMake a name. 

Dr. Bill Lumsden currently theDirector of whisky creation and distilling at Ardbeg. the distillery’s revival and devised its many experimental and innovative releases, including one that seemed designed to go head-toArdbegSupernova. Peated to100 PPM, first launched in 2009. theSupernova limited edition sold quickly and fans around the world clamored for a bottle. Following editions in 2010, 2014, 2015, and 2019 were sold out quickly. theSame reception

“While it wasn’t necessarily my style of Ardbeg, I knew fine that a lot of Ardbeg aficionados wanted to taste whisky as heavily peated as we could make it,” says Lumsden. “We saw signs of the clamor for heavily peated malt growing and growing and growing.”

Both Lumsden and Hannett are adamant that their distilleries’ pursuit of peatiness wasn’t a competition: Each wanted toPush theThese boundaries are independent of the actions of others. But given theComparisons between the timing and marketing claims of both brands were inevitable. “Who could come up with the most heavily peated thing… It was almost like a gimmick,” Goldstein remembers.

It was during this time that “PPM,” “phenols,”Consumers now use a lot of terminology about peat, whereas before that, it was a restricted vocabulary. to theMalting house the distillery. As more whiskies were launched boasting their peaty qualities, consumers began to gravitate towards an objective way. toCompare and contrast. “That number [PPM], although it could be sometimes misleading, was a way to see who’s got the most peated whisky or who’s going to really make your tastebuds burn when they drink it,” says Goldstein. 

Bruichladdich started putting theOctomore bottles starting at 1% PPM “That had never been done before,” says Hannett. “Just saying ‘peated whisky’ is not really doing justice to what it was, so we were keen to communicate a bit more about that.”

Glaser compares theIncreased use of PPM by whisky drinkers toBeer nerds who snatched BTUs during beer festivals theEarly days of craft brewing when IPAs first took hold. “It was kind of an easy transition,”He said. “PPMs is like the whisky equivalent for the level of peat flavor.” Compass Box didn’t talk about PPM in theEarly days of ThePeat Monster, but that was eventually changed. “Now it’s all taken for granted, if you’re into Scotch whisky and you like smoky whiskies, peaty whiskies, you know what PPM means,”Glaser adds.

Reaching the Peat Plateau—And What Comes Next

Both Octomore and Supernova were distilled in theBy the early 2000s theThey hit the jackpot every time themarket, heavily-peated blended scotches were everywhere. After The Peat Monster’s debut, other blending houses came out with competitive products, including Peat Chimney from Wemyss Malts in 2005, Ian Macleod Distillers’ Smokehead in 2006, and Big Peat (which eventually spawned a variety of special age-stated and holiday spinoffs) from Douglas Laing & Co. in 2009. Johnnie Walker joined the fray theTrend, Double Black was launched in 2011, a smokier Johnnie Walker Black. Blenders work with whiskies already aged so they were able to respond more quickly to the trend for ever-heavier peat—though none could approach theOctomore was soon able to achieve the same levels. 

As Bruichladdich’s relationship with Baird’s deepened, McEwan pushed the maltings toTry to increase your peat level, topping off in 2017 theOctomore 083. Made with malt peated toIt was a staggering 309 PPM. It was the highest peat level so far achieved by Bruichladdich or anyone else—though a drinker comparing 08.3 with a different iteration of Octomore might have a hard time telling theDifferent PPMs can have a dramatic impact on the quality of your product. the phenol content—and your perception of it—in theFinal whisky. (Distilleries tend to choose final whisky. toCite thePPM of theUse malted barley as theInstead of measuring and sharing, base ingredient is preferred thePPM of the(Finished product.)

Nowadays, the peat arms race has reached a détente. Though Octomore’s annual release always hits well above 80 PPM, it has little competition in theSuper-heavily peated area. However, it is just like any post-conflict battlefield. theThere is evidence thePeat wars are all around, beginning with consumer expectations regarding the flavor in whisky. “peaty.”Let’s say it briefly: ThePPMs from yesteryear are no longer sufficient. 

“[With] something like Peat Monster, or half a dozen that out there with those kinds of names, you are setting an expectation,”Glaser. “If people have experienced Ardbeg and Laphroaig and Octomore, and they now hear about something called Peat Monster—well, their expectation is going to be, ‘It’s going to top all those others I’ve ever had.’” 

A decade and a half after Peat Monster’s debut, Compass Box reformulated theliquid. Now it includes a blend Caol Ila & Laphroaig with a touch of Highland blended Malt. “We have evolved the recipe by primarily turning up the peat level, while trying to maintain balance and a sense of richness and deliciousness,”Glaser. “We’ve got a conundrum: We have this name that we love… but because the world has changed around us, it probably doesn’t live up to some of these people’s expectations.”  

There is a certain amount of peat in smoky Scotch. Although theBowmore (25). toLagavulin (35 ppm) is still stoked (30 PPM) the fires of many peatheads, they’re closer to the baseline nowadays; Port Charlotte (Bruichladdich’s less heavily peated line, at 40 PPM), Laphroaig (40 to50 PPM), Kilchoman (50% PPM), and theArdbeg core expressions (55 PPM), complete a spectrum that offers more options than ever before. 

Peat is less intimidating to consumers today than it was 20 years ago. “It’s become more commonplace to have smoke with your whisky,” says Goldstein. Even distilleries that had long avoided smoky flavors like Balvenie, Glenfiddich and Tomatin have now added peated whiskies toThese are their core lineups. International and American distillers, too, are making peated whiskies—including peated bourbon and rye—toTake out toConsumer needs.

Is there more runway available for peat? Perhaps—but no one, not even Bruichladdich, seems anxious toIt can be pushed further the moment. “I don’t know what the limit is—maybe it is 309 [PPM],” says Hannett. “Maybe we’ve touched the sky and that’s it, we’ll never get there again. If that’s what it is, then that’s fine.” 

Lumsden observed changes in consumer preferences that could lead to peated whisky being reduced. the road. “People are almost going full circle,”He draws a parallel with himself by stating that he once preferred strong and intense flavours. “I’ve moved back around in my old age to actually preferring things that are a lot more subtle and elegant and gentle in terms of taste. And I’m interested to see whiskies coming out [from Islay distilleries] that are much less heavily peated.”He says however, theThe heavily peated stuff will not disappear. Ardbeg announced this fact in mid-October 2022 theLaunch of theHypernova limited edition, peated to 170 PPM. “We’re always going to be making things like that for the hardcore peat freaks.”

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Joseph Hubbard

Joseph Hubbard is a seasoned journalist passionate about uncovering stories and reporting on events that shape our world. With a strong background in journalism, he has dedicated his career to providing accurate, unbiased, and insightful news coverage to the public.

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