What Does 'Peaty' Mean?

Soapy, sulfuric, medicinal and seaweedy or smoky, rich, fruity and spicy? Single-malt Scotch is not for the faint of heart — these spirits are packed with a variety of strong flavors one doesn't encounter every day. Unless, of course, you drink Scotch every day (which is fine). But what does peat taste like and how does it make its way into your glass of whisky?

Peat is a mossy accumulation of compressed decaying plant material, and peaty is a word used to describe the wide range of flavors its combustion provides depending on how and where it's harvested. A common belief is that Scotch is made in stills heated by peat moss fires, and it used to be. Just not anymore, what with the advent of coal and electricity. Here's where the peat fire comes in: it provides the heat that fuels the drying and germination or "malting" of the barley Scotch is distilled from, and the resulting heavily aromatic smoke infuses the barley. The more peat used to malt the barley, the smokier the Scotch will be.

These flavors include the above characteristics, plus cerealy, dark, grassy, herbal, nutty, citrusy, creamy, saline and a number of others. So next time you say "this Scotch tastes peaty," open up your palate, hold the Scotch in for a moment, swallow, gently draw some air over your tongue and be a little more specific. You just might impress someone.

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