Goodbye moss, hello mesquite: new ways with whisky

Stephen Paul and his wife Elaine were barbecuing in their backyard in Tucson, Arizona when they hit upon an idea for a smoky malt that was different. “We were sipping Scotch whisky and cooking with mesquite wood scraps from our custom furniture business,” says Paul, “and Elaine suddenly asked, ‘Instead of drying the malt over a peat fire, like they do in Scotland, why not dry it over a fire of velvet mesquite?’”

The feathery-leafed mesquite tree is a common sight in the deserts of Arizona. And it’s what Paul, a carpenter and life-long desert-dweller, had worked with for 30 years. “It grows very twisted, but that gives you a beautiful wood with lots of flaws and knots and cracks that you can employ to your advantage to come up with a really beautiful grain,” he says. “And its smoke is also well known for imparting a real flavour to what you cook. On a winter’s evening in Tucson, the smell of mesquite wood fires fills the air. It’s really evocative of this place.”

Armed with a five-gallon pot still, Paul embarked on a crash course in distilling. And when he couldn’t find a commercial maltster with the knowledge and inclination to work with mesquite, he bought a meat smoker and learnt how to do it himself.

It was trial and error. “Let’s just say I made a lot of bad malt and a lot of bad whiskey before I made any good stuff,” he says. But the “mesquite” single malt Paul makes today, Del Bac Dorado, is delicious. It has a twilight, campfire smokiness that is a far cry from medicinal Islay peat. It is toasted marshmallows, dry-roasted nuts and ashy, glowing embers. “It’s a whiskey,” says Paul, “that tastes of where I live.”

© Photography by Thomas Albdorf, set design by Tina Hausmann

Smoke is one of the most powerful tools a ­distiller has to give a whisky a sense of place. Yet, more often than some whisky makers might admit, that sense of place is not quite what it seems. The majority of the world’s peated whiskies — whether they come from the US, India, Australia or Japan — are made with malt smoked with Scottish peat. When you savour that temple-y smoke in your favourite Japanese malt, for example, what you’re tasting is the combustion of thousands of years of Scottish sphagnum moss.

Peat bogs exist in many parts of the world, so why do so many distillers still import peated malt? Economies of scale is one reason. Lack of malting expertise is another. The art of drying — or kilning — malted barley over a slow-burning, peat fire is one that the Scots have been honing for centuries.

Other distillers make peated malts in climates that don’t support peat or barley, which leaves no option but to import — and which rather begs the question: why make a single malt at all?

Peat bogs grow at a rate of roughly one millimetre a year, so the sustainability of these arrangements is obviously questionable. (Beam Suntory, which owns Islay malts Laphroaig and Bowmore, and the smoky Japanese malt Hakushu, is one company now trying to offset its peat use with conservation and restoration schemes.) It also makes a mockery of the idea of provenance.

© Photography by Thomas Albdorf, set design by Tina Hausmann

That’s why a growing number of craft distillers like Whiskey Del Bac are abandoning Scottish peat in favour of more local types of smoke, using traditional fuels such as nettles, manuka and even sheep dung to give their whiskies a taste of home.

Archie Rose distillery in Sydney, Australia used to import all its peated malt from Scotland. “But it always sat uneasy with me that we were dragging it halfway round the world,” says master distiller Dave Withers. “The malt really suffered for it, and it made no sense from a sustainability point of view. I wanted to make a malt that really represented what it is to be Australian.”

He doubled down on native barley varieties and, inspired by Sydney’s BBQ scene, started kilning his malt with Australian hardwoods. The first of those experiments, Archie Rose Red Gum Smoked Single Malt, hit the market last month. Smoked with local red gum eucalyptus and aged in Australian Apera (fortified wine) casks, it is deep in colour and ­flavour, with a pronounced smokiness that oscillating between savoury and sweet.

It tastes of hot-smoked salmon, black olive, ­charcoal, prunes and ­camphor. There are hints of jasmine and Parma violet.

The next Archie Rose release, due later this year, will be a single malt smoked with Stringybark, also known as Mountain Ash. “The smoke is much fuller and richer — almost sticky,” says Withers. A malt smoked with Ironbark, another type of eucalyptus, is also on the way.

Meanwhile, Thomson Whisky in New ­Zealand smokes its single malt with local manuka, a variety of wood often used in New Zealand for smoking meat, fish and cheese. It gives the pale-gold malt notes of sweet spice — clove, cinnamon — before mellowing into a soft puff of ash.

In the US, Balcones distillery in Waco, Texas makes a blue corn whiskey, smoked with Texan scrub oak, which is a towering inferno. And Fifty Stone, from Maine Craft Distilling, is smoked with local peat and seaweed.

In Scandinavia, small distilleries are experimenting with local alternatives to imported peat. The tiny Fary Lochan distillery in Farre, a hamlet in southern Denmark, smokes its single malt with nettles picked from surrounding woods.

“The idea came from our grandparents who are from the island of Funen, which is famous for making cheese that is smoked with fresh nettles,” explains Fary Lochan’s Thomas Smidt-Kjærby. The Fary Lochan single malt that I tried was more defined by the sweet, spicy taste of the cask than it was by smoke. Yet there was a turfy, slightly peppery smoke ­peeping through.

Sweden’s Mackmyra distillery strives to be local on many fronts — it uses local barley, local peat and even ages some of its whiskies in spicy Swedish oak. For its Svensk Rök (“Swedish Smoke”) single malt, the distillery tried a variety of materials in addition to peat in a bid to find a reek that was “typically Swedish”.

“Our peat is quite earthy and musty, so from the start we wanted to add another clear woody aroma, reminding us of our great woodlands and campfires,” says Mackmyra blender Lii Johnson. He tried fir trees and fruit trees before finally settling on a blend of peat and juniper wood, which has an aromatic, resinous character reminiscent of church incense.

The Danish distillery Stauning kilns its Smoke Single Malt with a mix of heather and Danish peat. It’s a softer, more intimate smoke that conjures the inside of expensive leather handbags, warm gerbils and potpourri.

Peat, just like grapes or oak, exhibits regional variation. In 2023, Seattle’s Westland distillery will release its first single malt smoked with Washington peat — a delicacy, claims master distiller ­Matt Hoffman, with a very different taste to Islay bogs.

“When people think of peat, they think of Islay, which looks almost like a desert. There are no shrubs or trees, just miles of moss, which is what gives Islay peat its phenolic taste,” he says. “That’s very much not what we see in Washington state. There are trees everywhere, and our 40-acre bog is home to a host of different mosses and plants — ­Labrador tea, wild cranberries, crab apples, bog cedars. It’s a very different look and feel.”

The smoke this peat produces, he says, combines more classic Islay iodine with dried leafy notes of “root bark tea”. “There’s a roasty, vegetal side to it more like mezcal, and an earthiness a bit like Burgundy. It pulls you in more gently, rather than blasting out of the glass.”

The Icelandic craft distillery Eimverk smokes its single malt Flóki with sheep dung, a combustible which historically was widely used in Iceland for heating homes, cooking and smoking food. “It gives the whisky a little fresher, earthy taste, if you can say so,” says distillery manager Eva Maria Sigurbjörnsdóttir. “Our new make [unaged malt spirit] has a lot of earthy flavours, hay and grass, so the dung smoke kind of adds to that.”

I am expecting something rustic, to say the least. But Flóki Barrel 18 is as fragrant as a sun-warmed haystack. With time in the glass, there is a more farmyardy — but not unpleasant — whiff of sweet silage and lanolin.

Eimverk, it should be noted, doesn’t use just any old shit. All its dung is sourced from two like-minded farms and air-dried first for at least two years. “Horse dung has a much stronger smell, so it was not so regularly used [as fuel in the past],” says Sigurbjörnsdóttir. “And my father Bjössi, who used to run a smokehouse, would never use goat dung. The smell from them is much worse.”

Like virtually all the distilleries I spoke to, Eimverk eschews imported grain. Most of the Icelandic barley it uses is grown on its own farm. “Using Icelandic varieties was definitely more difficult than importing barley, but this gives us this unique Flóki taste,” says Sigurbjörnsdóttir. “And it also gives farmers a new income potential, as we pay more for the barley than when it is used as feed.”

What strikes me about all these distillers is how engaged they are by their surroundings. They wax lyrical about the climate, geography, food and local flora and fauna. I’m shown pictures of ancient sheep folds, desert cacti and rare red barley, and told stories of cooking over fire and gathering nettles in the mist. They have a sense of terroir that you more often find in wine.

Which doesn’t necessarily make them better distillers. But in a globalised world, it certainly makes them more interesting.

Alice Lascelles is an FT contributing editor and writes the drinks column for FT How To Spend It. Follow Alice on Twitter @Alice Lascelles

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