It's all in the Peat
Angus squinted at a big pile of peat next to the distillery. He gave a knowing nod. He was a connoisseur. “That is some good peat that is in that peat there!” I smiled at the Gaelic grammar pattern in his speech. They all speak like that on Islay. Even the ones who speak English and say they have little or no Gaelic.
Bog plants -- sphagnum, heather, machair, gorse, and broom -- all grow in a thick tangle over the low hills and wet boggy land in between. They fight to grow on top of their dead ancestors, pushing them down into the frigid low-oxygen mud. Over thousands of years the old compressed plants decay just a bit, enough to turn themselves into a thick brown clayey stuff with the consistency of Plasticine. A lot of the old fiber and carbon is still in there. That is peat.
Sometimes, long ago, some our own ancient Celtic ancestors came onto some bad accident or violence, and expired in these bogs. Their bodies sunk and shriveled and mummified, preserved by the low-oxygen peat. Peat cutters still find them occasionally.
The peat filters the water that runs through it, cleansing the water and making it soft, but leaving a trace peaty smell. That water is used to make whiskey. Peat can be cut, stacked, dried out a wee bit, then burned in a fire or stove. It has so much fiber and carbon left in it that it gives off a lot of heat. It is soft coal. In remote places in Ireland and Scotland they still cut, stack, and then burn this stuff in their fireplaces and stoves. Islay is one of those places.
Angus knows pretty much everything about Islay. He has been a taxi driver on the island for 30 years. He is still a taxi driver, at least in winter. In summer, though, much of his time is spent giving private tours to tourists.
Angus picked up a lump of peat and smelled it. “Aye, that'll burn up smashin, that will. A lot of heat in that peat.” He grinned at his own rhyme, then got thoughtful again. “You know,” he said, “that reminds me aboot somethin' that happened a few years back.” I sat down on a rough hewn stone wall and got ready to hear a good story.
A few years before, Angus had had a client, a Japanese man, on the “whiskey tour” round all the distilleries on Islay. Islay is only 25 miles long, but it has eight single-malt whiskey distilleries. Single-malt whiskeys are whiskeys that have not been blended into a consistent, uniform, predictable flavor. The have distinct flavors, and are prized by whiskey connoisseurs. Islay is renowned for its dark, somewhat peaty-flavored, single malts. But in fact Islay has a range of whiskeys, some are only a wee bit peaty, some are wee bit more peaty, and some are dark and smokey. On one end of the scale is the delicate, light gold Bunnahabhain (pronounced: BOON-ah-haveen – bottom or mouth of river). On the other end of the scale is the dark heavily-peated whiskey called Port Charlotte, one of the whiskeys made by the Bruichladdich distillery (BROO-chlad-dee, or BROO-chlad-deek, which means brae or hillside by the shore).
Angus puffed on his pipe, then said, “And after he he was trying a dram o' every whiskey on Islay, that is exactly what this Japanese gentleman said was his favorite. The Port Charlotte. He said he loved the peaty whiskey.
“So I told him that I could probably make it better for him. I picked up a bit of peat from a peat pile, just like this, and I lit it with my lighter, just like this, and then I held it up to him and told him, 'Inhale the smoke from this peat first, and then take a wee taste o' the whiskey.” Angus held the smoldering peat out to me, and I dutifully inhaled the peat smoke and then took a swig from the flask that Angus offered me. I must admit, it was a pretty peaty experience.
Angus continued, “Well, he did it just like that, and he loved it. But then he said that it was too bad that he would never be at the finding o' the peat back in Japan. I told him that that was no bother, I tore him a big hunk of peat off the pile, and told him to take it back tae Japan with him. He asked if we were stealing, but I told him it would never be missed, and besides, that wis ma uncle Ian's peat pile anyway.
“He could not say enough aboot that tour, and he gave me a huge tip, then he promised to come back again the next year.”
Angus stopped. He sat saying nothing, puffing his pipe and gazing over the heather. He had the timing of a good storyteller, and knew when to wait silently for his listener to prompt him. I sighed, knowing I would have to play along with this old ritual if I wanted to hear the end of the story. “So,” I obediently asked, “did he call you for a tour the next year?”
Angus grinned. “Oh Aye, he did just that. He called and said he wanted to bring a party of his business partners over from Japan, and he wanted me to do exactly the same tour as I had done for him.” Angus paused for a few beats. “Exactly the same aside from just one thing. He said he would not be at the wanting of me to give them all bits o' yon peat to take back.
“I asked him, 'Och! why ever not?' He said it had caused him a wee bit of trouble at the airport. They had searched his bag and found the peat. When they were all at the asking of him what it was, he could not be remembering what it was called. He told them that this fine Scottish fellow had told him to light it, and then be inhaling the smoke.
“He said that they then made him sit in a tiny wee room for six hours while they took the stuff away, and had it analyzed in a laboratory. Finally they told him that it was not a drug after all, and he was free to go, but they had to confiscate the stuff. He could not take it intae Japan because it might just be in the way of an agricultural product. But the were no going to arrest him for that either, because they could not tell if it was a live plant or just some kind of fossil. And besides, they were all tired of trying to figure it out, so could he just go away and never bother them again?”
Angus was silent and thoughtful for a while. Finally, he said, “You know, they are very clever those Japanese. They learn to make everything we have in the western world. The make a fine lager beer. They make beef better than the Americans. They play baseball. Now they even make a single malt! I've tried it, ye know? He brought some for me when he came back. It was not that bad, but no exactly to my taste either. The Japanese fellows all loved it it though. I'll bet you one thing: give those Japanese enough time and they'll figure a way to make the peat as well!”