Greetings from your resident booze bibliophile.
I love spirits of all sorts and books about spirits of all sorts. My drive to learn all that I can about the beverage alcohol industry and its history has led me to complete over 450 books on the topic. Most of my focus has been on the American beverage alcohol industry; I’ve admittedly not done much book diving on world whiskies that involve peat.
My knowledge of peated whisky is far less than my knowledge of bourbon and rye. To be honest, peat has always been intimidating and a bit scary to me. I make my profession as a licensed mental health counselor helping people overcome and face their fears. I decided it was time to face my own fear of peat by learning all that I can about the mythical material. To better educate myself on peat, I grabbed a book titled “Peat and Whisky: The Unbreakable Bond” by Mike Billett.
Have you ever really thought about peat other than its use in whisky? What is it? What’s the history of peat? Is it used for things other than making bold whisky? Author Mike Billett definitely talks whisky, but goes into an exhaustive history of peat. Billett is a lover of whisky, but first he’s a scientist who studies peat, both for whisky and not.
What is peat? When plants die, especially in cold, wet places like wetlands, the decomposition of carbon-rich plant tissue is slowed down to a point where the dead organic matter begins to accumulate. Given time and the right waterlogged conditions in wetlands, about 1 millimeter of new organic matter will accumulate each year. We typically think of peat bogs as existing only in Scotland, but they exist on all seven continents. Peatlands cover around 400 million hectares of the Earth’s surface. The biggest concentrations of peat exist in Northern Europe, Canada, and Russia.
The significance of peat in Scotland begins with the fact the much of Scotland has been deforested for a very long time. Peat bogs cover roughly 20% of the land in Scotland, so it was readily available when lumber was not. Peat served as an early fuel source for Scots, both in the whisky distilleries and energy in general. When heat was needed in Scotland, peat was the early source for burning. There are differences in the makeup of peat based on depth. Deeper layers of peat are more decomposed and make better fuel sources for industry. Peat nearer the surface remains more fibrous and makes a better flavoring agent for whisky.
When malted barley needed to be dried with heat, peat was the available fuel source. The early use of peat for stopping germination of barley had very little to do with aroma and taste, but simple necessity. Scotland didn’t have the trees to burn, but they had peat. Furthermore, peat was used as the fuel source for firing their stills. Scottish distilleries were reliant on peat to heat their stills and malt their barley.
The reliance on peat as a fuel source to fire the stills continued until coal and oil become common, both of which are more energy efficient fuel sources. When the transition to coal came about as a means to fire the stills, many distilleries also used coal to malt their barley, rather than peat. Due to the early reliance on peat as a fuel source, many distilleries produced peated whisky. When other fuel sources became available, many distilleries stopped producing peated whisky.
Whisky lovers are familiar with the flavor and aroma of peat in our whisky. However, Billett walks us through his tasting notes on peat in its raw form. What our senses know of peat only exists after it has been burned. Raw peat is dull in appearance, with a black-brown and fibrous look. When holding peat in your hand, you’ll see that it’s stratified. On the nose, it has no odor. In the mouth, it’s rough, grainy, or slightly gritty. Raw peat is relatively without taste. The pungent substance we know only exists after burning.
Billett details the history of famous peat bogs from Scotland and other countries, both past and present. He details what made each peat bog unique and which distilleries had access. Location of peat accumulation is significant because we know that the makeup of the peat differs from bog to bog, especially in different climatic regions. When burning peat, different bogs and regions will produce different detectable flavor and aroma compounds. However, Billett notes that over extended periods of aging in wood, the detectable differences lessen.
Terroir is a debate currently raging among whisky lovers. Does terroir exist in whisky? Billett argues that when talking about identifying whisky based on a specific region, we really mean provenance. What does it mean for a whisky to have provenance tied to a place? With wine, we typically refer to specific grapes grown in specific soil with a specific climate. Tying whisky to a specific place is difficult, as grain is often not local. Peat is often not local. Lumber for barrels is often not local. However, Billett argues that we should focus more on the provenance of single distillery, rather than the land itself. Specific distilleries certainly have characteristics in production that make their whisky identifiable.
As 20% of Scotland is covered in peatlands, much of Scotland’s water is filtered through peat as well. In an effort to make whisky with more peat character, many believe that using peated water in the process helps. On the surface, this makes sense. However, as stated previously, the bold character of peat we want in whisky is only unlocked upon burning. Peat-filtered water does not add peat character to your favorite whisky. However, Scotland does believe that peat-filtered water makes excellent water for distilling.
Much of American whiskey history adores the limestone filtered water of Kentucky and Tennessee. Limestone water is hard water, due to calcium deposits. Scottish distillers tend to prefer soft water. Water filtered with peat is soft water with a slight acidity. While Americans tend to use harder water, part of the sour mash process involves makes the mash more acidic, rather than basic.
When talking peated whisky, distilleries have begun touting the concentration of peat. We talk about phenols parts per million. However, Billett takes issue with how phenols ppm is used with the industry. Almost exclusively, distillers are referring to the phenol concentration found in the grain prior to mashing and distillation. This is important to note, as up to 80% of the phenol concentration does not carry through distillation. Your favorite bottle of peated Scotch likely isn’t telling you the phenol ppm in the actual whisky, but what existed in the grain.
Peat takes a long time to regenerate. Will we ever run out? At one time, peat was thought of as a fossil fuel. The thinking has since changed, and it no longer carries that designation. However, Scotland now puts a lot of effort into preservation of peatlands and better management. As a point of reference, the whisky industry only accounts for 3% of all peat consumption in Scotland on an annual basis.
In an effort to preserve peatlands, Scotland has targeted the use of peat as gardening moss. You’ve likely used peat moss in your garden at some point, but that will likely be coming to an end. Why is it so important to preserve peatlands? First, there are numerous forms of life that rely on the peatlands as their home. Second, peatlands absorb massive amounts of carbon. As global warming continues, peatlands are a major source of removing carbon from the air. As peatlands get depleted, the lack of carbon reduction will only exacerbate global warming. At this time, environmentalists have not turned their attention on the whisky industry, but is it coming? Time will tell.
If peat has been something foreign and scary to you, learning about it helps. Billett’s book takes a deep dive at the history of peat as a it relates to whisky, but takes readers on an overall deep journey into peat. Peat has an unbreakable bond with whisky, but there is more to the history of peat than whisky alone. If you’re interested in the exhaustive history of peat, Billett’s book is one that you need in your library.
When reviewing a peat on peat, it’s necessary to review a whisky involving peat. However, I’m taking it in a different direction. The bottle I’m reviewing is an unpeated single malt that has been influenced by peat. I’d like to introduce you to Balcones 2023 Pilgrimage After Peat Texas Single Malt Whisky.
Before we get to the review, let’s talk details.
Distilled in Waco, TX
Age: 4 years and 1 month
Distilled on Scottish pot stills
Barrel size: 53 gallons
Cooperage: used barrels from Independent Stave Company
Fermentation Length: 7 days
Proof: 130 (65% ABV)
Mashbill: 100% malted Golden Promise barley from Simpson’s in Scotland
Balcones Pilgrimage is an annual release in which every offering is somehow different from the previous. The previous Pilgrimage involved aging in sauternes casks. Pilgrimage After Peat is the distillation of an unpeated malt mash that was run after the distillation of heavily peated single malt whisky in a copper pot still. This particular bottling is an experience in residual phenols ranging from one to four days after the peated distillation. As you’d expect, the influence of residual phenols lessens as each day passes.
Here’s the breakdown of the final blend:
2 barrels of 1st day after peated distillation
2 barrels of 2nd day after peated distillation
1 barrel of 3rd day after peated distillation
3 barrels of 4th day after peated distillation
Let’s get to the good stuff…
I’m tasting in the Artisan glass from Pretentious Glass in Knoxville, TN. Each piece of glass from Pretentious Glass is handblown. It’s made using a technique called Messastampo. It’s a thick and heavy glass and comes with beauty.
Balcones 2023 Pilgrimage After Peat Texas Single Malt Whisky – Review
On the nose: I’m immediately met with the aroma of fresh fudge. A few months ago, I vacationed in Mackinaw City, Michigan and got to experience the local plethora of fudge shops. I’m immediately reminded of the sublime aroma emanating from those shops. The next note to come to mind is grapefruit zest. I often detect citrus zest in malt whisky, but it’s typically orange or lemon zest. This offering is unmistakably grapefruit zest. I’m picking up orchard fruits on the nose. I feel like it’s more crisp pear than apple. The pear note is bright and crisp. Hiding in there is a twinge of honey. Perhaps it’s due to the peat residuals, but I also detect molasses. The slight aroma of molasses rounds out the nose. The overall nose is truly complex and intriguing.
In the mouth: I enjoy when aspects of the nose match the palate. Upon tasting, I’m immediately met with a rush of grapefruit zest. Again, it’s unmistakably grapefruit zest. I enjoy orange and lemon zest, but give me this grapefruit zest every day. The next note I pick up is ripe banana. I enjoy a yellow banana with a few brown spots on the peel. I’m immediately taken to my perfect banana. I have to sit and think for a second on what else I’m tasting. It’s peach, but not a fresh peach. I’d describe it as canned peaches that are packed with juice. The sweetness of the canned peached is a nice balance to the tartness from the grapefruit zest.
The remaining tasting notes make me work a bit harder. I’m picking up root beer, but more of the all-natural bottles of root beer. It’s not a super sweet root beer, but one that you buy in a boutique food store or the organic section of your grocery store. Finally, hiding in there is a subtle note of honey. The honey note isn’t potent, but it’s definitely there. The assortment of flavors present as balance. None seems to overpower the other. Each sip feels creamy and oily in the mouth. This mouthfeel is indeed fantastic.
On the finish, I’m picking up more of the peach. However, the peach now feels a little more like fresh peaches picked from the tree than canned peaches. The grapefruit zest note definitely carries to the end. Again, the dance between the peaches and grapefruit zest is beautiful. On the finish, I get a hint of black tea. The last thing I notice is a twinge of charcoal or smokiness. I’m assuming the slight charcoal smoky note is a result of the residual phenols. I love how this whisky tastes, so I’m thankful that the finish is bigger than Texas. Indeed, this finish goes on for days.
As I wrap up my thoughts on Balcones 2023 Pilgrimage After Peat Texas Single Malt Whisky, I have a lot to take in. This whisky is absolutely beautiful. Balcones has a reputation for making quality American single malt and this is no exception. In the past several years, I’ve tried numerous American single malts. I’ve tried multiple expressions from the upper echelon of American single malt distillers, as well as lesser known players that haven’t quite figured it out yet.
This bottle is arguably my favorite American single malt to date. Without doubt, it’s the best American single malt I’ve tried in the past year. It’s balanced on every front. I’m struggling to find many flaws with it. If you’re looking for a whisky to be heavily influenced by peat, this isn’t it. I love that the peat influence is light. When it comes to a rating for this whisky, I don’t know that a perfect 10 exists. However, I’m giving this a rating of 8 out 10. I don’t take my rating lightly. This is a superb whisky that has earned a high rating. If you’re interested in experiencing just how good an American single malt can be, this is one you’ll want to track down.