After a short trip abroad last fall, I flew into O’Hare and wheeled my suitcase directly to the duty-free Scotch. The shop's small, sturdy clerk spoke in a legit Scottish burr, and his palate, finely calibrated to the nuances of his home country's malts, had so far survived the brats-and-beers onslaught of Chicagoan cuisine. He helped me find the shop’s largest bottle of Ardbeg, from Scotland's Islay region, and praised its earthiness and smokiness.
Beverage-journalism words such as earthy and smoky are often poetically opaque, but in the case of whiskies from Islay (pronounced AISLE-uh), they can be taken literally. Before these whiskies are fermented, barley is sprayed with water, which causes it to sprout and increase in sugar content, and then dried over the aromatic smoke of a peat fire. The process yields an intense (to some, repugnant) complex of flavors and aromas: clove, banana, and butterscotch, but also burning tires, Sharpies, Band-Aids, and synthetic insulin.
The diminutive, knowledgeable clerk—basically Gimli from Lord of the Rings in an O’Hare-issue waistcoat—told me that back when Ardbeg was first becoming commercially available, he’d see avid Scotch drinkers, used to the unpeated, floral malts produced in other parts of Scotland, spit it out in disgust. Tastes have changed: Islay's superbly gnarly Laphroaig, once beloved by only a few, is suffering a shortage of its definitive 10-year expression, and, according to Gimli, high demand in Asia has made it impossible for his shop to stock Lagavulin, Islay’s ritziest whisky.
Peated whisky's dramatic rise in popularity is annoying when you can't find your brand at the liquor store. But hearing Gimli’s anecdote about Lagavulin made me wonder whether a darker problem was on the horizon. Peat is not really a renewable resource—a peat bog takes thousands and thousands of years to form. And Scotland isn’t a big country; it’s about the size of South Carolina. How long, I wondered, could Scotland continue to burn its peat before it would all be gone? Were we in a fool’s paradise, an epoch of superb whisky that would end when the last spadeful of Scottish peat is dug up and flung into the furnaces?
Gimli was untroubled. “Oh, we’ve got enough for a few hundred years, I should think,” he trilled as he rang me up. “Nothing to worry about. Please come again!”
There was something suspiciously glib about this response. Despite the sensitivity of his palate and familiarity with the Scotch supply chain, I was pretty sure Gimli was extemporizing, trying to hustle me out the door. What was Gimli hiding?