A Distillery Returns to the Past and Brings Peat Back to Speyside Whisky

Knockdhu, producer of anCnoc single-malt Scotch, has gone forward by reviving an old tradition

The Knockdhu distillery in Speyside, producer of anCnoc single malts.

Twelve years ago, the owners of the relatively small single-malt distillery in the Speyside village of Knock that produces anCnoc whisky, decided to go back to future. Or, as its unofficial motto has it, “Sometimes to go forward, you have to go back.”

Like many, if not most, single-malt distilleries in the Highlands, Knockdhu had gradually gotten away from the heavy flavors of peat, the smoky bog fuel which was once used to dry green malt barley to halt further germination, while also imparting a smoky flavor in the process. Instead, they concentrated on producing lighter-flavored, smoother Scotches and ceded the heavily peated spirits to Islay, whose whiskies sometimes smell like a wet woolen jacket worn to too many cigar festivals.

In 2004, Inver House, the distillery owners, decided it could have the best of both worlds and introduced a line of peated malts to complement its milder lineup of vintage and age-dated Scotches. Today, a list of the six anCnoc’s peaty brands sounds like partners in a firm of Scottish barristers: Cutter, Rutter, Rascan, Flaughter, Tushkar, and Peatlands.

The first five of those are names of traditional hand tools used to dig peat — a born-in-the-bogs biomass that is dried out before being used as a very smoky, slow-burning fuel. Even though alternate fuels, such as natural gas, are now generally used to stop further malt germination, some peat can still be added to the fire for flavoring.

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with anCnoc master distiller Gordon Bruce to sample a dram or two of his peaty brands over dinner and then again a few days later on a tour of the Knock distillery, which dates its origins back to 1892. Even though Bruce is every inch the quiet Scot, his humor is 100 percent wry.

“We are only one of two Scottish distilleries whose brand name and distillery name are different,” he explains. The name of the facility itself is Knockdhu, and the whisky once went under that name. The owners of the unrelated Knockando distillery in another part of Speyside, says Bruce, “got a wee bit miffed,” and a gentleman’s agreement was made in the 1990s to change the name of the brand (but not that of the distillery).

As Bruce notes, few distilleries make their own malt these days, although Knockdhu still retains its malting floor, a heavy, close-grilled surface where once malted barley was spread while the hot peat smoke seeped up from below. Instead, commercial malting firms today deliver dried malt that can have either none, or lots of, peated aromas.

“We specify a minimum phenol level in the malt of less than 35 parts per million, generally received here at 40 to 50 ppm,” Bruce says. “The phenol level varies greatly from load to load, very much down to how much peat smoke the maltster can get into the kiln when the moisture level of the green malt is high. The ability for phenol to absorb or adhere decreases as the malt dries.” 

If the phenol count is too high on maturation, Bruce says it’s easy to reduce with unpeated whisky by half of the original malt phenol level in “new make” spirit. “If you play tunes with your plant,” he says, “you may even manage to get this up to two thirds, although that plays havoc with plant throughput and efficiencies.”

For those of us who like truth in labeling, or are just numbers geeks, anCnoc puts the finished ppms on the label of each brand. Going from lowest peatiness to highest, Peatlands currently has 9.0 ppm, Rutter 11.0, Rascan 11.1, Flaughter 14.8, Tushkar 15.0 and Cutter 20.5. In tasting the Cutter with Bruce, I note that the peat seems to be more pronounced in the nose and less at the end of the taste.

Rutter and Flaughter were the first to be introduced into the U.S., initially in small quantities, in 2014, followed by Cutter earlier this year. Rascan will be next, with an introduction planned later this year.

The decision to go back to the future has been a successful one for anCnoc, both critically and commercially. “Peated malts are now about 25 per cent of our total production,” Bruce says, “and that’s growing.”