To peat or not to peat–for some whisky lovers, that is at least a question, if not the question, when deciding what to drink. Peat can be a very divisive flavor component in the world of whisky. It is most commonly found in the single malt scotch category, although it’s also present in whisky from Japan, Ireland, and even the Pacific Northwest. As malted barley is heated to dry it out and stop the germination process, peat is burned to infuse the grain with smoke and flavor it. How peaty the whisky is depends on how long it’s been exposed to the smoke, measured in PPM (phenol parts per million). The higher the PPM, the smokier the whisky.
There is a wide range of smoky whisky to enjoy, from light and crisp to medicinal and heavy to one of the highest PPMs distilled in recent history. If you think you don’t like smoky whisky, perhaps you just haven’t tried the right one yet. Winter is the perfect season to enjoy a peaty dram, as the cold temperatures, limited sunlight, and dreary skies lend themselves to these flavors, especially when warming up by an equally smoky fire. Here’s a list of some recent entries into the smoky, peated whisky category to hunt down and savor all season long.
Octomore Masterclass 8.3 Edition
Why not start things out with a bang? The Octomore series from Islay distillery Bruichladdich is known for being among the most heavily peated whisky in the world. For some, this can be overkill, but the distillery manages to bring subtle flavor nuances into the mix as well. Yes, the whisky is forward, strong, and smoky, but it’s not a one trick pony. This year there are four Octomore expressions out, and the five-year-old 8.3 edition is said to be the most peated Octomore release thus far at 309 PPM–that’s really, really smoky. But the variety of casks used to age the whisky comes through on the palate as well, with over half first-fill bourbon barrels and the remainder being European oak casks formerly used for Pauillac, Ventoux, Rhone, and Burgundy wine. Octomore is a muscular whisky for the hardcore peat lovers.
FOR JUST A HINT OF SMOKE
The Balvenie Peat Week (2002 Vintage)
The Balvenie isn’t generally known for producing peated whisky because, well, the distillery just doesn’t do it, with a few exceptions like Peated Triple Cask. But this fall it released a new experiment in smoke called Peat Week. This was the brainchild of malt master David Stewart and former distillery manager Ian Miller, who came up with the concept in 2001 when they decided to distill some peated malt. Now the Balvenie devotes one week a year to infusing its barley with peat smoke–hence the name Peat Week–and may release future bottles of this style of whisky. It’s lightly smoky but doesn’t shy away from the flavor, with notes of toffee and vanilla that pop up from the long time the whisky spends in American oak.
FOR A CAMPFIRE FLAVOR
Laphroaig is one of the best-known distilleries on Islay, the Scottish island where most peated whisky comes from. You can find a bottle of Laphroaig in every bar and liquor store worth its salt. Cairdeas Quarter Cask, however, is a bit more difficult to find. This is an excellent release, with the flavor amplified by a second maturation period in quarter casks after over five years in first-fill bourbon barrels. The smaller casks allow more interaction between the whisky and wood because of the increased surface area per volume. The resulting liquid is light in color but full of flavor, with notes of campfire, toffee, and grass that aren’t overpowered by its potent cask strength proof (114.4).
FOR SOMETHING BOLD (BUT NOT TOO BOLD)
Compass Box No Name
Compass Box is devoted to transparency in whisky making, an industry that is sometimes inclined to spin tall tales about the liquid it’s selling you. Compass Box wants the consumer to know almost every detail about every drop of whisky inside every bottle it sources and releases. This includes No Name, which it calls its most heavily peated release to date. The whisky comes primarily from an unnamed distillery along Pier Road on Islay, along with juice from a distillery in Port Askaig, the village of Brora, and a smattering of malt finished in French oak casks. It’s a bold dram, but not a four alarm smoke fest, and doesn’t require total peat fandom to enjoy.
FOR A PEAT NEWBIE
Woodford Reserve Cherry Smoked Barley
This is an unusual offering for one main reason: It’s bourbon, not scotch. It also happens to be relatively light on the smoke, and here’s why. Cherry Smoked Barley is the twelfth release in Woodford Reserve’s Master’s Collection, each of which is unique in some special way that sets it apart from Woodford’s regular lineup. This edition uses cherry smoked malted barley along with regular malted barley, and also ups the percentage to 30 percent (most bourbon uses less than 10 percent malted barley in the mash bill). The liquid is still unmistakably Woodford Reserve bourbon, but notes of smoked nuts, brown sugar, and stone fruit augment the flavor. This is a perfect entry-level smoky whisky, great for those who like bourbon and generally shy away from anything peated.
FOR A SIP OF SOMETHING SMOOTH
Son of a Peat
Son of a Peat is an exclusive release available to members of Flaviar, an online spirits club with an annual fee of $210 that offers tasting boxes, access to special events, and private bottlings. This release is a blend of eight peated and unpeated whiskies from Islay, the Islands, and Speyside. It’s rich and smoky, of course, but it’s also a nice dram for those who aren’t quite ready to have their taste buds blasted out. Look for notes of sherry, orange, and baked apple lurking underneath the smoke, along with just a hint of salt.
FOR A CHALLENGE
Ardbeg An Oa
Ardbeg is another Islay distillery that is well known for making some truly smoky single malt. An Oa is the first release to join the permanent Ardbeg family in over 10 years. It’s named after the headlands at the tip of Islay that shelter the coast with their imposing, towering cliffs. The whisky is very smoky but perhaps not as much as the flagship Ardbeg 10. It’s aged in sherry casks, virgin oak, and ex-bourbon barrels, providing a rounded relationship with various types of wood to complement all that peat as it ages. Don’t let your experience (or lack of) dictate your willingness to try this whisky, but it’s definitely more for the smoke nerds.
FOR A HINT OF WEIRDNESS
The least expensive bottle of whisky in Diageo’s very pricey 2017 Special Releases collection is also the smokiest. Lagavulin is an Islay distillery that releases an excellent 16-year-old single malt as part of its core range. This cask strength 12-year-old has a bit lighter mouth feel and drinks quite easily despite its smoky nature. The whisky’s younger age statement means it’s crisp and a little fruity, but there is an interesting savory character going on as well that brings to mind blue cheese, an unusual but not unpleasant tasting note. There’s also a hint of salt and a little grapefruit to round things out, making this a nice mid-level peated whisky.
FOR SOMETHING EXTRAVAGANT
Port Ellen 37
This ultra-aged Port Ellen release is another entry in the 2017 Diageo Special Releases. It’s very rare, and thus very expensive. The Islay distillery was shuttered in 1983, so subsequent releases have come from stocks that have been sitting in Diageo’s warehouses. It was recently announced that the distillery will reopen in 2020 after a huge investment and rebuilding. Apparently, whisky is so popular now that even long dormant distilleries are coming back to life. This is a really nice whisky, and not over-oaked considering how old it is–the cool, temperate Islay climate is very forgiving when it comes to maturing whisky. There’s some mango and tropical fruit on the palate, along with a nice soft smokiness that has been tempered over time. If you can find this bottle (and afford it), go ahead and treat yourself.
Paul John Peated Select Cask
Officer’s Choice, a blended malt, is one of the best-selling whiskies in the world. If you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone, and you probably don’t live in India. There are some interesting distilleries making whisky there that are gaining recognition, such as Paul John in the Indian state of Goa. The distillery produces a range of whisky that includes a smoke bomb called Peated Select Cask. There are nice notes of sugar and dark chocolate throughout that complement the smoky character and keep things balanced. This release should help to further the reputation of India as a rising force in the whisky world.