Scotland peatlands
Spirits & Liqueurs Scotch

Exploring Scotch Whisky’s Effect on Peatland Preservation

Peat wetlands contain a massive share of the world’s carbon. What do we really risk by using it for whisky production?

In recent years, the conversation around peatland conservation has grown in urgency. These ecosystems were thrust into the global spotlight in November 2021 at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), where environmental scientists and representatives from governments around the globe recommended adopting policies that would halt over-extraction of peat resources and incentivize protecting and preserving peatlands globally.

While important in Scotch whisky production, peat—a wetland soil made of partially decomposed organic debris—isn’t only used in whisky-making. Peat is extracted primarily for fuel or horticultural uses, and has historically been used for cooking, heating, and to generate electricity. According to Pew Trusts, an estimated 15% of global peatlands have been drained or destroyed for land development or agriculture use, resulting in a major release of greenhouse gasses that they once stored.

Peat has also become indelibly tied to the Scotch whisky industry. Despite there being significantly fewer peated than unpeated Scotch whiskies produced, many consumers heavily associate scotch with peaty, smoky profiles that are often seen as distinguishing it from other whiskeys.

Those flavors are achieved through a process in which malted barley absorbs the compounds released by peat fires used to dry it. It’s a technique that adds distinctive character and aromas, and embodies much of the perceived terroir of scotch. The production method is utilized throughout Scotland, though is particularly prevalent in Islay, where peatlands have historically acted as an abundant fuel source for millennia.

But as climate change intensifies, the importance of maintaining healthy peatlands is growing. While these wetlands only cover 3% of the world’s landmass, peatlands store more than 30% of the world’s soil carbon—twice as much carbon as all the forests on Earth. Protecting and restoring them ensures a greater carbon capture than can be achieved by merely planting more trees.

“Globally, [peatlands] store as much carbon as there is in the atmosphere, so we would not want all that carbon to be released and double up the CO2 already there,” says peatlands researcher Angela Gallego-Sala, a professor in ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles at the University of Exeter. “In the U.K. alone, there are about 3 billion [metric tons] of carbon stored in peatlands…about the same as all the forests in France, Germany, and the U.K. combined.”

According to a 2014 assessment of horticultural peat use in the U.K., about a third of malt whiskies produced in Scotland incorporate peat, accounting for about 6% of the peat extracted in the country. “The peat used in whisky is largely extracted from two areas: the Isle of Islay off the west coast, and Aberdeenshire in the northeast of the country,” says Gallego-Sala. “A particular problem is that they extract it from lowland raised bogs that are particularly rich in plant diversity and particularly rare.”

So it’s worth asking: Should Scotch whisky producers be doing more to preserve peatlands? Should they aim to significantly reduce their use of peat, or even stop using it altogether? And, if so, what does that mean for the identity of the spirit?

Who’s Responsible for Peat Preservation?

“Peat that’s being harvested for scotch is a minority of how peat is being used,” says whisky educator Tracie Franklin, a head distiller apprentice at the Nearest and Jack Advancement Initiative and a former ambassador for Glenfiddich. “It’s not the Scotch whisky industry that is necessarily causing the majority of the damage.”’

Many in the scotch industry are still working proactively to reduce their reliance on the natural resource they’re so intrinsically entwined with. Leading the way is the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), which works in partnership with Scotland’s National Peatland Plan to educate producers on ways they can implement more sustainable practices in an effort to make sure the industry reaches net-zero carbon emissions by 2035. These approaches include increasing efficiency in the use of peat, such as milling rather than removing large blocks of it, as well as exploring peat alternatives and devoting funds to restoration.

“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 Ruth Piggin, the director of industry and sustainability at the SWA. “The industry uses a very small amount of peat from a handful of sites in Scotland, solely for giving the barley a distinctive smoky flavor profile during the malting process. Of course, due to peat’s important role in natural carbon storage, future use and our role in protecting and restoring this important natural resource is part of our sector’s sustainability strategy.”

Clifton Bain, the director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature U.K. Peatland Programme, would like to see the scotch industry take a more drastic approach to peatland conservation. “I want distilleries to use the peat from sites that are already degraded, like when a new road is cut through,” he told New Scientist. “There’s been a myth around the industry that you have to take peat from certain places only, because they’ve got a unique flavor.”

For Annabel Thomas, the founder of Nc’nean Distillery, running a sustainable brand means not using any peat at all. While peaty, smoky flavors might be what most people commonly associate with scotch, the majority of scotch is unpeated. “There are absolutely loads of unpeated single malts,” says Thomas, who makes unpeated scotch, partially because “it’s not sustainable to dig up and burn peat bogs.”

The Future of Peated Whisky

Last fall, Beam Suntory, the company that oversees large scotch brands like Laphroaig, Bowmore, and Teacher’s, launched a new program focused on preserving and reinvigorating peatlands. Called the Peatland Water Sanctuary Initiative, the $4 million investment will go toward restoring and conserving 1,300 hectares of peatlands by 2030, “enough to produce the same amount of peat that Beam Suntory harvests every year,” with a goal to have restored enough peatlands by 2040 to total twice the volume of peat the company uses to make its scotch whiskies. Similarly, last year Johnnie Walker joined forces with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) to work towards regenerating peat and supporting rare plants and wildlife. In addition to moving all its distilleries to renewable energy and using at least 60% recycled glass for its main bottles by 2030, the brand pledged to restore around 88 hectares of heavily degraded peatland in Scotland.

One way to cut the Scotch whisky industry’s reliance on peat is to rethink the ways in which the natural resource is utilized. That might include harnessing various technologies to better understand how peat imparts flavor and how certain temperatures affect barley’s ability to absorb them, says Franklin. She hopes to see producers experiment with novel techniques, like possibly finishing whiskies in peated barrels, and exploring ways those same flavors could be achieved while reducing environmental impact.

“There’s a lot of different ways that you can adjust the way that peat is used so you can use less of it,” says Franklin. “With a lot of the technology in their malting process, [producers] have already created ways to lower the amount of peat that they need to get the same amount of phenols in the barley, so that’s been really helpful. And as we’re looking further into the future, we’re only going to be able to do a better job of producing that smoky flavor, hopefully with less of the actual peat.”

Despite claiming a relatively undersized share of total peat usage globally, as consumers increasingly consider the environmental impact of their purchasing habits and wetlands remain in danger, scotch producers have taken notice. “There clearly does need to be some progress on how peated scotch deals with peat as one of its ingredients,” says Thomas, “and I hope for everyone’s sake they can find a sustainable solution without losing the taste profile that so many people love.”