Do We Really Need Peated Vodka?

Once synonymous with Islay Scotch, peat is making its way into gin, rum, American whiskey and more.

The diverse, coastal terroir of peat wetlands, which cover a vast one-fifth of Scotland, has long been the secret weapon of single-malt Scotch producers. Decaying vegetation that is burned to dry the malted barley before the distillation process, peat can impart flavors ranging from smoky and briny to woody and floral. But as the craft spirits revolution has ushered in an ethos of freewheeling experimentation, the historic Scotch component has been adopted outside its traditional homeland and adapted to spirits ranging from American whiskey to gin and rum—even vodka. 

“I first started seeing peat-smoked spirits outside of Scotch when I took over the spirits selection at New York’s Frankly Wines circa 2011,” recalls Nick Venditti, an advisor at specialty spirits importer PM Spirits. “Since we specifically searched for slightly oddball spirits, I started my foray into spirits-buying [by] digging deep into stuff that was out of the ordinary.”

Venditti says his initial encounter with peat outside of Scotch was, naturally, through other single malts like Ireland’s Connemara Peated Irish Single Malt Whiskey and various releases from Lost Spirits out of Los Angeles, the more controversial of which seemed primarily designed to grab headlines. The latter calls on Canadian “New World” peat to craft its Leviathan II single-malt American whiskey, which clocks in at a whopping 110ppm (that’s phenol parts per million, a metric indicative of the amount of peat used, though not necessarily the taste. For reference, Ardbeg often uses a malt peated to 50ppm, while the Bruichladdich’s infamous Octomore 6.3 measures at 258ppm.)

For other producers of American single malt whiskey, however, incorporating various levels of peat seemed more like a natural exercise in bridging Old World and New World styles together. Most notable among these is Seattle’s Westland Distillery, whose master distiller Matt Hofmann was the first to utilize American peat in the standout 2014 Westland Peated American Single Malt—a feat of its own, given the lack of industry knowledge surrounding peat varieties outside of Scotland.

Bourbons soon followed with the 2017 release of the Peated Bourbon from Kings Country Distillery—touting a mash bill of 25 percent peated malt (15ppm) and 75 percent New York organic corn. Though eyebrows were raised, the bottling didn’t break any rules as peat is not considered an additive, but rather a step in the distillation process. Colin Spoelman, Kings County co-founder and head distiller, explains that he wasn’t interested in recreating smoke-bomb Scotches like Ardbeg or Laphroaig, but rather exploring the intersection of transatlantic distilling traditions.

“The peat is useful because it adds sophistication and complexity to what would otherwise be considered young distillate,” says Spoelman. “Bourbon, and especially malted barley-based whiskey, can taste overly sweet and straightforward when very young. Peat is familiar and when used judiciously, adds dryness, smoke and a medicinal quality that can counterbalance the sugars and ethanol-heavy fruitiness from young malt or young corn whiskey.”

While peated American whiskies are a reasonably easy sell, clear-spirits makers looking to follow suit must make a greater departure from tradition. Such is the case at London’s Bloomsbury Distillery, whose award-winning, peat barley-based vodka borders on the absurd. (Vodka is, by definition, a flavorless spirit). Ireland-born distiller Alan McQuillan, who grew up around peat fires, says he wanted to “re-dress an experience that’s been the sole preserve of whiskies for centuries.” Inspired by those childhood memories, he booked a trip to Scotland’s Bruichladdich in anticipation of the Bloomsbury Peated Vodka.

“Perfecting the process took months but led to a unique, hard to define spirit—we weren’t even sure we should call it ‘vodka’ but knew that it would be a way to help consumers engage it in a fresh manner,” explains McQuillan. The resulting spirit offers no initial aroma, opening up slowly to savory peat smoke and a dry finish, all of which make this bottle an excellent candidate for a Dirty Martini.

Unable to use malted barley as a base, producers of rum and gin opt for a more roundabout approach, finishing their spirits in peat-whiskey casks. In Seattle, Copperworks Distilling repurposed a peated whiskey barrel from their neighbors at Westland Distillery for a 2014 limited release bottling called Peat Barrel Gin. A similar process was employed for the 2018 XO Peat Smoke rum from Barbados’ Mount Gay Rum—master blender Allen Smith journeyed to Islay, Scotland in search of peat barrels that would give a new character to his aromatic rum.

“Peat is an interesting flavor component that nothing else quite compares to,” explains Copperworks’ co-founder and president Jason Parker. “It both penetrates and modifies other flavors. Compare this to flavors, like fruits, wines and botanicals, which generally compliment flavors more than modify them.”

With the positive reception and media buzz surrounding these and other peat-smoked spirits, Venditti says he anticipates further experimentation with peats sourced from beyond Scotland; from areas with similar climates such as America’s Pacific Northwest or Eastern Europe. “I think both small- and large-scale spirits producers are seeing the appeal of adding smoky characteristics to their spirits and adding peat smoke is a relatively easy and recognizable way to do so.” He adds that some distillers might tap into non-coastal varieties, which could lend the same smoky traits without the salinity and medicinal notes characteristic of Islay Scotch.  

Some purists may bemoan these enterprises—Lost Spirits went so far as to name their heavily-peated malt whiskey “Abomination”—but the success of Copperworks’ gin and Mount Gay’s rum, among others, only reveals a growing fascination with the legacy of Scotch and the cultural significance of peat. 

“A lot of what we drink is more culturally-driven than flavor-driven—more than we’d like to admit—and peat has a strong cultural hold in whiskey, so why not these hybrids?” says Spoelman. “The good ones will last and the bad ones may fall away, but isn’t that true of any novelty?”

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Dan Q. Dao is a Houston-born, NYC-based writer covering spirits, travel, and culture for Food & Wine, GQ, Munchies and Paper Magazine among others. He has bartended at Middle Branch and Seaborne in New York.