Turf or Peat?

By Sam MacDonald on Fri 3rd Feb 2017

Sam MacDonald

The whisk(e)y of Dal Riada, I believe, is not distinguished by national borders but rather by ‘terroir’. For this small but powerful region encompassing the north coast of Ireland and the western isles of Scotland pre-dated the concept of nation states and was bonded together by a common language (Gaelic), family and other social links, trade, cultural practices, and tastes.

To determine the flavour of Dal Riada’s spirit and thus legitimise the world’s most important whisk(e)y region, I aim to identify the various characteristics that, historically, would have been present in the liquid.

The first is peat or turf smoke, which should be considered as one of the most consistent elements of our spirit.

I hardly need to tell most readers that the job of a Revenue officer was once filled with danger, threat and violence. In the late 18th and early 19th century, violence in remote regions of Scotland and Ireland was more akin to (and a precursor of) the mayhem that happened on the streets of Chicago a century later during liquor Prohibition.

Possibly the most famous of all those early Excise men was Aeneas Coffey who would later go on to patent his Coffey Still, a device that revolutionized the distilling industry; see reference (Kerr, n.d.)]. Coffey was shot because of his efforts to thwart a band of illegal distillers whilst he was working in Donegal. Some would argue that this act inspired his invention for the homogenisation of all spirits. It certainly highlights the perils of being a ‘Gauger’ in the realm of Dal Riada.

In the Glens of Antrim on the North Coast of Ireland, the river Dun is said to have got its name from the colour of fairy blood flowing in its water because of a curse. The other, more plausible, suggestion is that it is coloured by the peat bogs in hills above the glens. Yet whether it was made from water tainted by fairy blood or by peat, illegally manufactured whisk(e)y had to be disguised against the Excise men who roamed the glens, hills and islands looking for the tell-tale smoke and other signs of illicit distillling. So it was said in the 1800s that it was often impossible to tell the difference between the ‘Scotch’ coming from the Inner Hebrides and the poteen coming from the North Coast of Ireland in an exchange of liquids that persisted through previous centuries. Both were peaty to taste and that was favoured strongly by the locals who drank it.

Though the peat-smoke attribute is now attached solely to the whiskies of Scotland’s western isles, traditionally it was also a flavour in Ireland’s north coast distillate. In an 1801 Statistical Survey of Ireland’s west coast, Hely Dutton described the ‘degraded palettes’ of the indigenous people who enjoyed ‘the detestable taste of smoke’ on their spirit. While most distilleries in Ireland and Scotland had moved to coal-dried barley, the maltsers of Dal Riada preferred ‘hogo’ or peat smoke to flavour of their whisk(e)y. The people of the area are said to have enjoyed ‘the corduroy’ of the spirit, which ‘cut the throat’ as it went down. Travel writer Caesar Otway, however, noted in 1839 that poteen in the northern-most part of Ireland is ‘superior in sweetness, salubriety and gusto, to all that machinery, science and capital can produce in the legalized way.’ I would argue that these comments are not mutually exclusive, because the spirit of Dal Riada can both cut and soothe the throat in the same way that liquid spirit both wets and dries the palette.

An 1823 report on illicit distillation noted that along with whisk(e)y, malted barley was also being transported across the Sea of Moyle which spans the eleven miles from mainland Scotland to Ireland and beyond to the Inner Hebridies. So the interchange of these materials in Port Ellen, Derry or Ballycastle suggests that base ingredients for distillation were often shared. Therefore flavours that are now popularly considered to be particular to west coast Scotland would to have been prevalent in Ireland as well.

So whether you call it peat, turf or smoke, throughout Dal Riada, it’s our thing!

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