Scotland’s whisky industry is preparing to launch a new plan to protect precious peatland, finds Sandra Dick

The pristine white walls of Lagavulin Distillery cling to the rocky edge of one of southern Islay’s bays, while its brick smokestack and the bright red life buoys roped to its wooden pier bring a pop of colour to muted island shades.

Its characteristic malt whisky has been produced there for 200 years. Made from just barley, water and yeast, it’s the magical fourth "ingredient" – the result of thousands of years of dreich weather, decayed island moss, flowers and grasses – that makes Lagavulin and Islay’s other peaty malts recognised the world over.

Left to smoulder so its grey-purple reek can gently infuse the barley, Islay’s rich peat is key to its powerful whiskies’ intense "love it or hate it" smokiness.

Over coming weeks Burns celebrations will see countless drams poured in a nationwide toast to the bard.

Many – like Lagavulin – will be infused with that pungent peaty edge, taking drinkers on a sensory journey to wind-lashed west coast islands, roaring fires, machair flowers and acres of wild moors.

Peat’s distinct contribution has helped Scots raise a glass to a multi-billion-pound global whisky business.

Now, as awareness grows over the vital carbon capture role Scotland’s precious peatlands can play in the fight against the climate crisis, the whisky industry is preparing to return nature’s very generous favour.

Later this year the Scotch Whisky Association will unveil its new Scotch Whisky Environmental Strategy, showcasing efforts by the industry to help tackle climate change and laying down targets for the future.

At its heart will be an innovative peat action plan focused on how the industry can become more efficient in its use of peat and outlining support for the restoration of Scotland’s precious peatland.

“Over the last decade the industry has made good progress towards sustainability targets, but Scotch whisky producers are keen to do more to help tackle climate change,” says SWA Director of Industry Dagmar Droogsma.

“The industry uses a very small amount of peat from a handful of sites in Scotland, solely for giving the barley a distinctive smoky flavour profile during the malting process.

“Due to peat’s important role in natural carbon storage, future use is part of the review.”

Scotland's peatland stores more than 1,500 million tonnes of carbon, equivalent to 140 years' worth of Scotland's total annual greenhouse gas emissions. Peatland also enhances biodiversity and improves water quality.

Left undisturbed, it acts as a natural CO2 sponge, absorbing around four times more than the equivalent area of forest. Once drained, however, the dry, exposed peat will release carbon back into the atmosphere.

Although the entire Scotch whisky industry’s use of peat equates to less than 1% of the total peat extracted in the UK annually – Islay’s peat use is less than half of that – concern has grown over industrial harvesting of peat, a limited resource which would take thousands of years to fully replace.

While there has been no suggestion that the sector’s peat supplies are at risk, the Scottish Government wants to restore 250,000 hectares of peatland by 2030, and plans to reduce and eventually phase out the use of horticultural peat, which accounts for 90% of peat extraction in Scotland.

Planning policy also has a presumption against new commercial peat extraction permissions, raising questions over where supplies for maltings may be sourced should existing peat sites become seriously depleted.

“While not all distilleries make peated whisky, for those that do or plan to, peat use will certainly be a consideration as they develop individual action plans around sustainability,” adds Ms Droogsma.

“Current activity from across the industry includes collaboration with environmental NGOs to promote peat restoration activity, in recognition of its importance for Scotland’s wildlife.

“Elsewhere, money is raised for the restoration of peatlands in areas that have become iconic for peated whisky, such as Islay.”

On Islay, not far from the Lagavulin distillery, are the RSPB’s Loch Gruinart and The Oa nature reserves, wild havens for rare birds and insects but where years of peat harvesting means that instead of capturing carbon, the drained bogs and dried peat leach carbon into the atmosphere.

A recent £600,000 investment from Lagavulin, however, has led to the restoration of 280 hectares of its peatland – roughly the size of 280 international rugby pitches.

Nearly 1600 metres of drains have been unblocked, and 154 new dams constructed.

Dried out peat across 200ha of land at Srath Mor at Gruinart, and a further 80ha of land on The Oa have been "rewetted", enabling the peat bog to once again trap carbon and attract wildlife.

Meanwhile, the water level at Loch Gruinart is said to have risen quickly to provide fresh habitat for invertebrates such as black darter dragonflies. Sphagnum moss has also begun to return – important for the capture of carbon.

According to a spokesman for Diageo, which owns Lagavulin, the work is one of a range of environmental innovations including £100m in on-site renewable energy plants, water efficiency measures and innovations such as seawater cooling at Caol Ila Distillery on Islay and Talisker Distillery on Skye to reduce reliance on freshwater from local lochs and dams.

“Our business uses relatively small amounts of peat to produce peated malt barley for our distilleries and others in the whisky industry,” he adds.

“We fully recognise the important role peat bog ecosystems play in terms of biodiversity and climate change, and we are committed to working with partners to ensure we manage resources as sustainably as possible for the future.”

However, burning and drainage of moorland for grouse shooting, overgrazing by livestock and deer, forestry plantations, extraction for horticultural use and development have left around 70% of Scotland’s blanket bog and 90% of raised bog area damaged.

“It’s a finite resource,” points out Emma Goodyer, programme manager of IUCN UK Peatland Programme. “The amount of peat extracted [for whisky production] may be low, but the extraction process creates a wider footprint of damage.

“Once you cut in to extract the peat, you remove vegetation from the surface. To cut it effectively you have to drain off the water.

“That loss of vegetation and damage is a wider footprint than just the area cutting the peat – it damages a large area.”

She adds that whisky producers could consider using peat from alternative sources – an idea which would send a shiver down spines of whisky lovers who believe peat from certain locations imbibes a particular flavour to their dram.

“Wind farms create an inevitable loss of peat and there’s an opportunity to explore using that instead of digging up local bogs. However, some producers will not want to do that because there’s a belief that local peat imparts and particular flavour that is unique.”

While peat use is one area of research being worked on at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, however, Ms Droogsma points out that there is no artificial or natural alternative to the distinct presence that peat brings to our national drink.

“Current Scotch whisky production guidelines state that Scotch can only be made from three ingredients – cereals, water and yeast. The addition of any flavouring or compounds that would seek to replicate the flavours that peated malt brings to whisky is not legal under current guidelines.

“We believe a more productive focus is on the restoration and responsible management of peat use, something which the industry is very engaged on.”

Case study: Highland Park

Layer upon layer of compacted vegetation – described as the DNA of Orkney – makes up the 9000-year-old Hobbister Moor.

Peat intended for Highland Park distillery, just seven miles away in Kirkwall, is harvested by hand in April, dried during summer and set to smoulder so its heathery reek can infuse the malting barley.

In a process largely unchanged for 150 years, distillery staff turn the malt by hand every eight hours, every day, maintaining the airflow and moisture needed to absorb the right amount of aromatic smoke.

Tinkering with the time-served process could go horribly wrong. However, Highland Park staff found tiny adjustments to the schedule at which the barley is malted meant they could reduce the amount of peat needed to achieve the right balance of phenols – the chemical that gives that characteristic smoky flavour.

A spokesperson for Highland Park, said: “We are continuously researching and implementing new ways to make more efficient use of our peat.

“Highland Park is known for a balance of flavour between a gentle peat smoke and the sweetness and spice that comes from oak casks that are seasoned with sherry before being used to mature Highland Park.

“These are exceptionally fine casks, so getting that balance right is incredibly important.”