I recently heard a bad joke that began, “Hey Peat, I want to introduce you to Malt. She’s single…” Malt whispers, “He’s smokin’ hot.” It goes on, and the punchline is even worse, so I’ll leave it there. As I’m sure you surmise, this corny joke serves to illustrate a key ingredient in peated single malt whiskeys.
Americans have been playing around with distilling single malt whiskey for a while now with both peated and non-peated barley malt. In the Northwest corner of the country, a handful of craft distillers are boldly stepping into the world of single malts with delicious results.
Demystifying Single Malt Whiskey
First, “single” in “single malt” simply means that the whiskey was distilled in a single distillery. “Malt” means that it is made purely from malted barley. But what gives that amber liquid in your glass its unique, smoky nose and taste? The combustible agent used in the malt-drying process. That could be peat or some type of aromatic wood.
Peat is decomposed plant matter—no, not from your backyard compost bin—from a peat bog that has been compressing and transforming the material for thousands of years. Much of the peat used in American-made whiskeys is imported from Scotland, a country that, it seems, is one big peat bog.
The barley-malting process is simply one of soaking barley so that it sprouts. Germination turns starches into sugar so the yeast can make alcohol. Smoke-drying the malted barley imparts complex flavors.
When peat burns, it produces a thick, pungent smoke—one of the secrets to a fine peated whiskey. The malted barley is dried over several hours as it’s exposed to the smoke, imparting aromas and flavor qualities not attainable in any other way. The length of time exposed to the smoke dictates the smokiness of the barley malt and that of the end product. Then, the whiskeys are typically aged in oak barrels for three years or longer before meeting the bottle, the barrel char adding to the complexity of the flavor profile.
Peat, as a smoking agent, is polarizing. People tend to love the aroma and taste or hate it; rarely is one indifferent on the topic.
Who’s Who in Northwest Peated Single Malt Whiskeys
The Single Malt Whiskey made at 3 Howls Distillery (3howls.com) in Seattle uses peated malt imported from the single malt whiskey motherland: Scotland. It’s a refined beverage with a complex flavor profile characterized by subtle hints of chocolate, vanilla and caramel beneath the pleasant smoke notes.
Another Seattle distillery, Westland Distillery (westlanddistillery.com), creates Peated American Single Malt Whiskey. It’s won numerous awards, including Double Gold at the NY International Spirits Competition 2018 and USA Peated Whiskey of the Year at the Berlin International Spirits Competition 2017. The nose suggests smoldering moss, nuts and orange peel, while the palate detects the bold smoke of a campfire with green herbs.
McCarthy’s Single Malt Whiskey (clearcreekdistillery.com) from Clear Creek Distillery in Oregon is crafted from peat-malted barley imported from Scotland and aged for three years in sherry casks made from Oregon oak. The nose will detect earthy notes from the peat coupled with seaweed, and sippers will enjoy the complexity of fruit mingled with a strong campfire smoke.
Not into Peat?
Peat-haters rejoice! If you’re one who is not a big fan of the nuanced, smoky, sometimes moldering aroma and taste of peat in your glass, you can find Northwest single malt whiskeys made with barley that’s malted and dried without peat smoke. Retail shelves are full of made-in-the-Northwest single malt whiskeys that are not peaty.
Instead of peat, some American distillers use other combustible materials, such as smoke from oak, cherry and other aromatic woods, to dry the malted barley, each producing a distinctive result.