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Peat and circumstance: rethinking peat harvesting in the whisky industry

Publication: The Ileach

In the world of whisky production, a critical conversation is brewing as the industry seeks to balance tradition with environmental responsibility.

Photo by Dylan de Jonge on Unsplash

On the afternoon of Wednesday, 11 October, Beam Suntory and Ardtalla Estate made a joint presentation in Port Ellen’s Ramsay Hall prior to submitting parallel planning applications to harvest peat from Ballivicar Moss and Machrie Moss.

Following a recent statement from Diageo, indicating that their Port Ellen Maltings would soon find itself in the position of supplying only its own distilleries (Lagavulin, Caol Ila and the soon-to-be-opened Port Ellen Distillery) with malted barley, several of the island’s other distilleries are now searching for alternative peat sources on the island.

Planning permission was obtained for peat-cutting at Ardtalla Estate-owned Ballivicar Moss in the 1980s, but following a subsequent downturn in the whisky market, the project was never enacted.

However, according to Natasha Wilson, UK & Ireland Corporate Communications Manager at Beam Suntory, it’s not all ‘bad news’. Natasha told the Ileach, “Beam Suntory take environmental issues very seriously, and Suntory have provided almost £4 million to foster peat restoration across Scotland.”

This means that, although the amount of harvested peat is likely to increase, site preparation and working of the peats will be managed in such a way as to improve the ecology of the moss and its carbon storage properties. Beam Suntory is also working on means to reduce its annual use while maintaining the quality of its whiskies.

In order to protect the surface vegetation, peat will be harvested by an extrusion method that takes the peat from below the surface, modelled on traditional hand-digging of peat banks.

Scotch Whisky Association regulations dictate that Scotch whisky can be produced using only water, yeast and cereal (in Islay’s case predominantly barley). The use of any artificial means of replicating flavours and/or phenols is not permitted. Natasha did say that at one point, there had been experimentation with using coffee grounds, but those had proved unsuccessful.

SWA figures contend that, annually, the whisky industry uses negligible amounts of peat, with less than half contributed by harvesting on Islay. These joint planning applications recognise that it is a resource that must be conserved to safeguard the prosperity of the island’s distilleries on which many local jobs depend.

Malcolm Younger, director of Islesman and consultant leading the planning application process, and who attended the above event, said:

“We have worked closely with environmental experts to ensure that our plans have the lowest possible impact.

Our planning applications aim to strike a balance between the long-term economic sustainability of our island community and climate change mitigation, and we fully appreciate the importance of getting this right. We now look forward to meeting with more members of the community at our next public exhibition, listening to feedback and answering any questions.”

Councillor Dougie McFadzean attended the 11 October afternoon session and told the Ileach:

“The harvesting of peat, particularly for commercial purposes, is an area of great sensitivity to Islay and beyond, and very careful consideration must be given to the ecological impact of such an enterprise.

It is ever more complicated by the fact that Islay has been selected by the Scottish Government as one of the islands for the Carbon Neutral Islands project, where we are striving to be net zero by 2040.

While I do understand the need for peat in Islay’s unique whisky identity, I do have reservations about opening up new peat banks.

“There must be a line drawn to protect Islay, its identity and the uniqueness of its produce and landscape, and I fear that we are becoming overly industrialised and losing some of what makes Islay such a very special place. I am yet to be convinced that increasing the scale of harvesting peat on Islay is a good thing, or indeed necessary. I would very much welcome the thoughts of people living on Islay and will do my best to represent your opinions.”

A further presentation was held in Ramsay Hall on Thursday, 26 October.