By Tyler Pederson, Head Stillman, Westland Distillery
Peated whiskey is a longstanding tradition in the whiskey-making of the Old World, but here in America, it’s a relatively new idea. Frankly, single malt whiskey in and of itself is a new concept in this country. When we started Westland—focused solely on the production of single malt—our goal was not simply to replicate Scotch whisky in America, but contribute our own, uniquely American voice. To honor tradition but add something new and worthwhile at the same time.
Trouble was, the system in this country wasn’t set up to accommodate the production of styles like peated whiskey. While we live in one of the best barley-growing regions in the world, and nearby peat bogs are accessible, there was no one that was able (or willing) to malt it for us.
The largest malt houses weren’t interested in interrupting their large-scale operations for specialty malts like peated malt. The smaller, artisan malt houses were simply too few and far between, and those that did exist were focused on keeping up with increasing demand from breweries. Regardless, neither it turned out, had the experience, expertise or connections necessary to deliver quality peated malt. Since the existing grain economy wasn’t built for our dynamic needs, we set out to build our own economy.
The first step was finding peat. While many bogs in Washington State are protected wetlands, we were able to find a few that we could harvest from. One bog on the Olympic Peninsula has proven quite successful. The peat in this bog is markedly different from the peat used to smoke malt in Scotland. Peat bogs are comprised of flora and fauna that is compacted and starved of oxygen for thousands of years. Because what’s found in this bog is so different from that which is found in the bogs of Scotland, our peated malt will ultimately exhibit different flavors and aromas. The bog we harvest from is surrounded by towering Douglas Firs and is filled with aromatic plants like labrador tea, which has great herbal/citrusy notes. Discovering the nuances of flavor this peat will lend our malt—its terroir—is incredibly exciting.
With a source of peat secured, we had to figure out who could malt barley with it. For years, we’ve built relationships with farmers and breeders across the region. Those partnerships led us to Skagit Valley Malting Company (SVM). Drawing on their backgrounds as engineers, they custom-built a malthouse that’s remarkably flexible. They designed their facility to accommodate the grain rather than asking the grain to accommodate the facility. That said, even with modern, state-of-the-art equipment, smoking barley with peat isn’t all that easy. Again, there is little to no institutional knowledge of the process outside of Scotland and what knowledge there is in the Old World lives in the minds of individuals, not in pages of textbooks. So we began working with our friends at SVM to develop a New World process. We quickly realized that we couldn’t approach the problem the same way as the maltsters in Scotland. The machines are different, the peat is different. So we decided to pelletize the peat, delivering a uniform size, shape and moisture content. This allowed for more control over the smoking process, and an exacting method for infusing the phenols into the malt.
Now, more than five years into the project, we’re extremely optimistic about the early results. While our first bottling of whiskey using locally-harvested peat is still a couple years away, we’re close to realizing our original intention of making a whiskey that has a true sense of place.