I'm wearing waterproof snow boots, and I feel like if I lose my footing I might be sucked into something similar to quicksand. Only I'm not in a 1950s sci-fi movie, and the quicksand is actually a fudgy, soil-like muck. It's a cold and drizzly Pacific Northwest day, and I'm with Matt Hofmann, the 27-year-old master distiller and cofounder of Westland Distillery. We're slogging through a peat bog near the Puget Sound, an hour and a half south of Seattle.
As we tramp along through this soggy 30-acre expanse by the cedar-and-pine-tree-lined Oyster Bay, our boots make a smacking sound with each step, like my dog's mouth when I give him peanut butter. Hofmann almost takes a tumble at one point, and I snap a photo of him right after he steadies himself, rosy-cheeked through his enormous ginger beard. He's generally quite measured and focused, so it's great to see him laughing. Hofmann, the man responsible for America's first locally peated single-malt whiskey, is in his element.
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Peat is partly decomposed plant material—mosses, shrubs and so on. It's more porous than soil, but it holds together. Scottish peat harvesters cut it out in blocks with spades; then distillers burn it to smoke the malted barley used for making whiskey. Hofmann says: "It's not like we're taking the moss and burning it. We use the stuff underneath the moss that's decaying. A peat bog is waterlogged, oxygen-starved and acidic—all this decay happens really slowly."