Boney Arsed Bog-men, peaty whisky and turf fires

By Sam MacDonald on Mon 12th Jun 2017

Sam MacDonald

Peat smoke is one of the few defining features of the regional nuances of Scottish Whisky versus its Irish counterpart. Call it terroir, or call it an acquired taste, it is one feature which dramatically affects the flavour in our whisk(e)y.

Piles of turf

Only 28 miles separate Bushmills from Laphraoig, yet few liquid categories are as different in their flavour profile.

This blog has mentioned already how this defining difference of peat is a feature of modern times. Peat smoke has been a unifying characteristic in the flavour of our distillate. You might even say that peat is a flavour of Dal Riada; one that identifies sub-categories within the identity of our region’s spirit.

In Patrick McCabe’s novel, ‘The Butcher Boy’, the central character Francie Brady claimed that the correctional institution he was sent to was okay, apart from the fact that there were too many ‘boney-arsed bogmen about’. Bog-men or bog-hoppers are people from the countryside, often identified by their characteristic gait, a walking style which incorporates a bounce to their step. Irish poet John O’Donaghue once lamented that this style of walking was slowly being lost because we had all adopted a ‘corridor walk.’

Why? I suppose people don’t roam cross-country and have instead grown accustomed to pavement and concrete.

Something similar has happened to distillation. Homogenisation became the status-quo. We are losing our walk because of it and, I would argue, we are underestimating the potential of peat-smoke as a defining feature of our distillate; a feature that offers infinite flavour patterns on our spirit.

Potentially whisk(e)y offers few deviations because of the financial and logistical strains of maturation. Why risk three years of maturation for Donegal turf-smoked malt?

Potentially a resurgence in Poteen (póitín) spirit will provide the future hero of bog or peat-smoke. I, for one, take no issue with young spirit and can envisage opportunities for true craft distilleries.Poteen was often sold as a spirit similar to Vodka. However, I believe it is more similar to Mescal, another spirit with no pretensions to homoginisation of its identity as a raw spirit with regional variations. One example is Bán “Barrelled & Buried” Póitín (see image below), an experimental take on how earth might positively influence flavour.

Dal Riada’s world of Peat

But back to the bog, which is simply a landscape made of decomposed vegetation. Peat is like young coal. When burned, its smell is a complex cacophony of local notes which vary greatly depending on the area the turf logs originate from. These complex regions rely on water, acting like massive sponges which benefit a huge diversity of flora and fauna.

We have raised bogs and blanket bogs, mineothropic and ombotropic. The former type gains its precious moisture from the atmosphere and underground rivers which flow through it, the latter relies entirely on precipitation. These are hugely delicate and important habitats for a broad range of life-forms, not just the elusive bog-man!

Scotland and Ireland’s Blanket Raised & Blanket Bog

Islay is the world’s most famous location for ‘peated’ whisky. On average, Port Ellen – the island’s primary malting floor – burns 2,000 tonnes of peat per year for the purposes of distillation. According to the figures gathered by Andrew Jefford in his book ‘Peat Smoke and Spirit’, at that rate there is enough peat to sustain the factory for 5,000 years.

However, it is not that simple. Canadian researchers, who are now recognised as the most advanced in Bogland Preservation with projects such as ‘Bois-des-Bel’ in Quebec, have discovered that the primary concern should not necessarily be with the extraction of peat, but rather in the flora covering it.

Sphagnum-moss

Sphagnum-moss is species of flora which is shared amongst all the peat-lands of the Northern Hemisphere. This dense vegetation acts as water filter primarily, but arguably it facilitates a far more significant purpose. It protects the bog by filtering the rain, which then protects the lakes and wells, which in turn allows for distillation, which then brightens our spirits against that rain which started everything off in the first place.

Call me an environmentalist, but I fear a world with a drought for drams!

Discover the Spirit of Whisky

Book your comprehensive whisky tour of the North Coast of Ireland & the island of Islay.

Book Now