Twenty years ago, long before the bourbon boom, interest in Scotch whisky was quietly picking up after a long slump, and one of the staunchest outposts for the category, a resource for enthusiasts and a budding contingent of hobbyists, was New York City’s Park Avenue Liquor. Co-owner Jonathan Goldstein had been fielding a certain question from his customers for a while before he decided to do something about it.
“People would come in and ask, ‘What’s the most heavily peated? What's got the most smoke?’—even back then you would call them peat freaks,” Goldstein recalls. “And you could show them X, Y, or Z, but there was really nothing that was off the charts [in terms of peat level].” The most heavily peated single malts at the time included Caol Ila, Lagavulin, Bowmore, and Laphroaig, which at 40 to 50 PPM (phenol parts per million) were as peaty as it got. So Goldstein turned to John Glaser, a former Park Avenue client who had set up the blending company Compass Box in London a few years before, to commission a custom peated whisky for the shop.
Glaser started with blends that were around 30 PPM, about the peat level of Talisker. “I was sending [Goldstein] things that would’ve been slightly peatier than that, and every time I sent him something, he’d be like, ‘I want it peatier,’” says Glaser. “So I finally sent him this thing that was just Caol Ila and a peated Ardmore at cask strength.” It was by far the most heavily peated whisky Glaser had made to date. “I wrote on the label, ‘This one's a monster. I hope you like it.’”
Goldstein, and his customers, did. Originally exclusive to Park Avenue Liquor, Compass Box Monster sold out, and Glaser re-released it as a widely available offering, dubbing it The Peat Monster—kicking off a trend that would eventually reshape Scotch whisky.
Shots Fired, the Peat Arms Race Begins
The tastes of Goldstein’s customers—their thirst for bigger and bigger peat—proved prescient. Around the time Compass Box launched The Peat Monster in 2003, Islay’s Bruichladdich Distillery was laying down early runs of a super-heavily peated whisky that would be called Octomore.
Bruichladdich had only just reopened, after years of closure, in 2001. Though the company had initially gotten its peated malted barley from Port Ellen maltings, which supplied just about every distillery on Islay, financial constraints led it to switch to Baird’s Maltings in Inverness. The change was fortuitous: Baird’s, like most malting operations, could supply barley malted to a range of specific PPMs by combining a single heavily peated malt in different proportions with unpeated malt.
Bruichladdich’s master distiller at the time, Jim McEwan, saw an opportunity. What if he distilled just the heavily peated malt to make a super-smoky whisky? The catch was that Baird’s hit different phenol levels in every batch, the peating process being somewhat imprecise—meaning if a distiller worked with that malt alone, they would end up with an inconsistently peated whisky from run to run. McEwan didn’t care.
“Jim used to say that we do it at Bruichladdich because no other distillery’s got the balls to do it,” says Adam Hannett, the current head distiller. “No one else has got that will to go and do something that was so, at that time, quite unusual. … It’s just the most labor-intensive whisky that you've ever come across, because every batch, every distillation, has basically got the potential to end up anywhere.”
It worked well for a distillery that was in the process of self-discovery and creativity. “It was very much about pushing the boundaries and seeing how much peat we’d get” in the whisky, says Hannett. The first batch of Octomore, whose barley was peated to 131 PPM, debuted in 2008, with annual releases following, each with a different peat level. The reception among consumers was positive, even though Octomore was only five years old—far younger than other premium single malts—and the peat profile was more intense than anything else on the market. “We were establishing what Octomore could be,” Hannett adds. “And people were coming along on the journey with us.”
Charting a New Course for Peated Whisky
At the same time that Bruichladdich was restarting, 20 miles away Ardbeg Distillery was doing the same thing. It took a few years for the long-neglected facility, purchased by The Glenmorangie Co. in the late 1990s, to get up and running with regularity, but by 2009 it was re-established and turning out compelling releases for a growing legion of fans. Always heavily peated to around 55 PPM, Ardbeg had rarely been released as a single malt before this era, more commonly being used as a blending component, so—like Bruichladdich—the distillery had plenty of leeway to develop a name for itself.
Dr. Bill Lumsden, currently the director of distilling, whisky creation, and whisky stocks at Ardbeg, oversaw the distillery’s revival and devised its many experimental and innovative releases, including one that seemed designed to go head-to-head with Octomore: Ardbeg Supernova. Peated to 100 PPM and first launched in 2009, the limited-edition Supernova sold out quickly, with fans worldwide clamoring for a bottle. Subsequent editions in 2010, 2014, 2015, and 2019 met the same reception.
“While it wasn’t necessarily my style of Ardbeg, I knew fine that a lot of Ardbeg aficionados wanted to taste whisky as heavily peated as we could make it,” says Lumsden. “We saw signs of the clamor for heavily peated malt growing and growing and growing.”
Both Lumsden and Hannett are adamant that their distilleries’ pursuit of peatiness wasn’t a competition: Each wanted to push the boundaries independent of what anyone else was doing. But given the timing, and marketing claims, of both brands, comparison was inevitable. “Who could come up with the most heavily peated thing… It was almost like a gimmick,” Goldstein remembers.
It was during this period that “PPM,” “phenols,” and other terminology about peat became widely used among consumers; before then, such vocabulary was limited to the malting house and the distillery. But as more whiskies launched touting their peaty credentials, consumers gravitated toward an objective way to compare and contrast them. “That number [PPM], although it could be sometimes misleading, was a way to see who's got the most peated whisky or who's going to really make your tastebuds burn when they drink it,” says Goldstein.
Bruichladdich started putting the PPM on Octomore bottles from day one. “That had never been done before,” says Hannett. “Just saying ‘peated whisky’ is not really doing justice to what it was, so we were keen to communicate a bit more about that.”
Glaser compares the rising use of PPM among whisky drinkers to beer nerds who latched onto BTUs during the early days of craft brewing, when IPAs were first taking hold. “It was kind of an easy transition,” he says. “PPMs is like the whisky equivalent for the level of peat flavor.” Compass Box didn’t talk about PPM in the early days of The Peat Monster, but eventually that changed. “Now it’s all taken for granted, if you’re into Scotch whisky and you like smoky whiskies, peaty whiskies, you know what PPM means,” Glaser adds.
Reaching the Peat Plateau—And What Comes Next
Though both Supernova and Octomore had been distilled in the early 2000s, by the time they hit the market, heavily peated blended scotches were everywhere. After The Peat Monster’s debut, other blending houses came out with competitive products, including Peat Chimney from Wemyss Malts in 2005, Ian Macleod Distillers’ Smokehead in 2006, and Big Peat (which eventually spawned a variety of special age-stated and holiday spinoffs) from Douglas Laing & Co. in 2009. Even Johnnie Walker hopped on the trend, launching Double Black, a smokier version of Johnnie Walker Black, in 2011. Since blenders work with whiskies that are already aged, they were able to respond more quickly to the trend for ever-heavier peat—though none could approach the levels that Octomore soon achieved.
As Bruichladdich’s relationship with Baird’s deepened, McEwan pushed the maltings to attempt ever-higher peat levels, topping out in 2017 with the launch of Octomore 08.3, made with malt peated to a whopping 309 PPM. It was the highest peat level so far achieved by Bruichladdich or anyone else—though a drinker comparing 08.3 with a different iteration of Octomore might have a hard time telling the PPMs apart, since differences in production and maturation can dramatically impact the phenol content—and your perception of it—in the final whisky. (Distilleries overwhelmingly choose to cite the PPM of the malted barley used as the base ingredient rather than measuring and sharing the PPM of the finished product.)
Nowadays, the peat arms race has reached a détente. Though Octomore’s annual release always hits well above 80 PPM, it has little competition in the super-heavily peated space. But like any post-conflict battlefield, the evidence of the peat wars is everywhere, starting with consumer expectations of flavor in a whisky touted as “peaty.” In short: The PPMs of yesteryear no longer suffice.
“[With] something like Peat Monster, or half a dozen that out there with those kinds of names, you are setting an expectation,” says Glaser. “If people have experienced Ardbeg and Laphroaig and Octomore, and they now hear about something called Peat Monster—well, their expectation is going to be, ‘It’s going to top all those others I've ever had.’”
A decade and a half after Peat Monster’s debut, Compass Box reformulated the liquid; it now includes a blend of Caol Ila and Laphroaig, with a dash of Highland blended malt. “We have evolved the recipe by primarily turning up the peat level, while trying to maintain balance and a sense of richness and deliciousness,” says Glaser. “We’ve got a conundrum: We have this name that we love… but because the world has changed around us, it probably doesn’t live up to some of these people’s expectations.”
Overall, there is something of a peat plateau across smoky scotch. While the likes of Bowmore (25 to 30 PPM) and Lagavulin (35 PPM) still stoke the fires of many peatheads, they’re closer to the baseline nowadays; Port Charlotte (Bruichladdich’s less heavily peated line, at 40 PPM), Laphroaig (40 to 50 PPM), Kilchoman (50 PPM), and the core expressions of Ardbeg (55 PPM) fill out a spectrum with more offerings than ever before.
And consumers are less intimidated by peat than they were two decades ago. “It’s become more commonplace to have smoke with your whisky,” says Goldstein. Even distilleries that have long eschewed smoky flavors, such as Glenfiddich, Balvenie, and Tomatin, have added peated whiskies to their core lineups. International and American distillers, too, are making peated whiskies—including peated bourbon and rye—to cater to consumer cravings.
Is there more runway for peat? Perhaps—but no one, not even Bruichladdich, seems anxious to push it farther at the moment. “I don’t know what the limit is—maybe it is 309 [PPM],” says Hannett. “Maybe we’ve touched the sky and that’s it, we’ll never get there again. If that’s what it is, then that’s fine.”
Lumsden has observed signs of changing consumer tastes that could manifest in peated whisky down the road. “People are almost going full circle,” he says, drawing a parallel with himself, in that he once preferred very strong and intense flavors. “I’ve moved back around in my old age to actually preferring things that are a lot more subtle and elegant and gentle in terms of taste. And I’m interested to see whiskies coming out [from Islay distilleries] that are much less heavily peated.” But, he says, the heavily peated stuff will never disappear; in fact, in mid-October 2022, Ardbeg announced the launch of the limited-edition Hypernova, peated to 170 PPM. “We're always going to be making things like that for the hardcore peat freaks.”