Fans of Islay whisky should brace themselves for a stormy future. We’ve got our hands on some research that will strike terror into the hearts of peat heads: peat on Islay will run out by 2021.
During a recent environmental impact survey, conducted for a company investigating the feasibility of building a new distillery on Islay, information was literally dug up that showed that the peat reserves on the island are significantly less plentiful than expected.
The report wasn’t looking into the state of peat on the island, instead focusing on the water table at the site of the new distillery, but test cores and a geophysics survey revealed more than the surveyors expected. The last in-depth analysis of Islay’s peat beds was back in the 1980s, and it seems that mistakes were made. The 1980s’ reports made assumptions about the distribution of peat across the island, extrapolating from a few core samples. Unfortunately, this led to serious overestimation, thanks to until-now-undetected structures beneath the peat beds to the north of Port Ellen.
The new survey showed that much of the material identified as peat during the earlier surveys is – instead – coal. Islay lies on the Loch Gruinart Fault, an extension of the Great Glen Fault that divides Scotland along Loch Ness, and while this usually only shows itself in minor earth tremors, underneath the surface there has been more going on. As the fault has moved over the millennia, layers of coal have slowly pushed themselves upwards into the peat bogs, and due to the similar structure of peat and coal when examined by ground-penetrating radar, this was not detected in the original 1980s’ surveys.
We’ve worked with the geology team at the Heriot-Watt University to put together a more accurate map of peat distribution across Islay, and have found that instead of reserves of thousands of years being present, at current usage rates the island will run out within the next decade.
A former Bruichladdich employee, who asked not to be named, said: ‘I knew this would happen. Us and Bunnahabhain were very smart to go down the unpeated route, because there’s been talk about excessive peat use for years now, particularly on the south of the island. Whisky lovers who want peat will have to look elsewhere – maybe that’s no bad thing?’
Whisky writer Martine Nouet, who lives on Islay, said: ‘I had heard rumors that peat extraction would be subject to a quota as there was a serious risk of seeing peat bogs extinct in the next 10 years. I saw Mickey Heads [of Ardbeg] a few weeks ago and he hinted at a new release of a NAS Kildalton which would gradually replace Ardbeg 10. “There is a real peat supply problem,” he sighed. “I really did not think the situation was so serious. Should I stop burning peat in my open fire?”‘
We contacted each distillery on Islay to find out what they are doing to solve this seemingly insurmountable problem:
These two distilleries, unsurprisingly, are not especially concerned at the news. Bruichladdich may have to rethink its Port Charlotte and Octomore bottlings, but as far as its regular releases go, it will be business as usual, as it will for Bunnahabhain.
What does a distillery known for its heavily peated whisky do? Release an unpeated whisky, that’s what. Keep an eye out for Glan Muir (‘clean ocean/sea’), which will mark a radical departure for Laphroaig. We have managed to obtain an early test shot of the new bottle – and Beam Suntory are crossing their fingers that Laphroaig devotees will approve of this move to an unpeated, fresher style. We’ll have to wait and see.
A difficult decision for Bowmore, but they have the answer. Thankfully, with their limited-edition Devil’s Cask bottlings proving so popular, they plan to mask the lack of peat by simply cranking up the sherry-cask influence. A spokesman said: ‘The peat issue is a problem, sure, but everyone is sherry mad these days. In some ways, it’s a blessing.’
Islay’s newest distillery is in a difficult position, especially given their preference for using local peat. Kilchoman plan to continue their successful UK Land Rover tours to Europe – with the team foraging for peat in unexpected locations across Scotland and further afield as they drive between tasting venues.
You’d expect Dr Bill Lumsden to have a few tricks up his sleeve, and he hasn’t disappointed. After two years beavering away in his LVMH laboratory, he claims to have perfected a technique others have tried in the past: peated water. When we contacted him, he said: ‘The news wasn’t a shock to me, so we’ve created this amazing peaty water, which we will use instead of Loch Uigeadail. We’ve tried it, and it works so much better than that dodgy stuff other distilleries used in the 1970s. No one will know the difference.’
Fortunately, Diageo has the financial muscle to make big changes. Their approach to the crisis is rather radical: they have already made enquiries to purchase Ailsa Craig, an island that sits between Islay and the mainland, about 10 miles west of Girvan in the outer Firth of Clyde. There has been talk of Ailsa Craig becoming a seabird sanctuary, but Diageo look set to snap up the uninhabited site, which could yield enough peat to keep both Caol Ila and Lagavulin going for decades. A Diageo spokesman has quashed rumours of an alleged puffin cull should they purchase the 100-hectare island.
This is, without doubt, the most dramatic news to hit the Scottish whisky industry in decades. The one consolation for Islay distilleries is that they do at least have some time to work on a solution. But it seems clear that the days of heavily peated Islay whiskies are numbered. A sobering day for us all.
(Happy April Fool’s Day!)
Image of Ailsa Craig by Paul Hart, used under CC-BY-2.0 license