Peated whisky causes much division among drinkers. There are those who believe that only whisky that has been peated is good enough to fill their glasses, while others will run a mile simply on the uncorking of a bottle.
The unmistakable smoky aromas and flavours are produced by using malt that has been dried in kilns that use burning peat as their heat source, a practice from the days when peat was the most readily available fuel.
The resulting smoke infuses the malt with a range of flavours including obvious ones such as ash and charcoal, but also other phenols that are harder to pin down, with iodine or medicinal notes being commonly used to describe them.
Although the islands, and Islay in particular, are seen as the true home of peated whisky, the practice is widely used throughout Scotland and has spread to most other whisky-distilling countries.
To give you a taste for some of the best peated whiskies currently available, we’ve toured the globe in order to fill this list with a full range of peaty flavours, from those with subtle smoke to some full force, peat beasts.
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Laphroaig single malt whisky 10yr, 40%
This 10-year-old bottle is one of the most popular peaty purchases around, it’s easy to find in most supermarkets and possesses all the hallmarks of a classic “love it or hate it” Islay whisky. It’s heavily peated with a medicinal tang, while a pinch of salt and touch of sweetness help to give it a fully rounded flavour. The finish is so smoky that just one sip will linger for a very long time.
Ardbeg wee beastie whisky, 47.4%
Ardbeg is an outstanding Islay distillery that doesn’t hold back on the peat. This latest core range addition possesses all the vigour of youth (it’s a mere five-years-old), lashing out with powerful peppery oak flavours and causing a sharp intake of boozy smoke, while ex-bourbon and oloroso casks add some lighter charred corn and honey sweetness to the simmering tar below. Despite being such a powerful flavour, it’s also remarkably smooth, allowing you to experience its full force by sipping it neat.
Cotswolds Distillery peated cask single malt whisky, 59.3%
Some Scots may refuse to believe it, but England now produces some mighty fine whisky. Leading the way is the Cotswolds Distillery, which has an award-winning peaty expression among its range. It matures its spirit in ex-peated quarter casks, adding subtle layers of peat to the honeyed fruit flavours, before a dry, smoky oak comes through and lingers on the palette. A good whisky for making your first foray into peated territory.
Lagavulin 12 year old special releases 2020, 56.4%
Diageo’s annual special releases are limited edition whiskies from a range of its distilleries and, each year, peat whisky advocates hope that something from Lagavulin is included. 2020s line-up will more than satisfy their peaty cravings, with a 12-year-old Lagavulin cask strength whisky showing fine form, spraying the senses with smoke and a crisp island sea breeze. This is peat at its freshest – slightly sweet, a touch salty and full of zest – and with a swirl of medicinal and leathery smoke flavours. Outstanding.
Benriach the smoky twelve, 46%
Speyside isn’t a region that is usually associated with peat, but Benriach is a distillery with smoke in its veins. This 12-year-old whisky is an excellent marriage of peat and sweet Speyside fruit flavours, with a smooth oily feel and a splash of sticky orange juice. The peat takes a while to emerge, at first adding charred edges to the fruit, before the smoke eventually wafts away the sugar coating. Rich, creamy, peaty and sweetly delicious.
High Coast Timmer peat smoke, 48%
Sweden is steadily gathering a fine array of distilleries, with High Coast being the latest to catch our attention. Timmer is a heavily peated offering, with pithy lemon joining a large dose of smoke from the initial sniff through to the finish. It has a scorched dryness, like spices hitting a hot pan and some TCP that should get the peat enthusiasts twitching with glee, while creamy malt and fresh grass all help to round the spirit off nicely.
Bruichladdich octomore 10.3, 61.2%
For peat fans who really want to exercise their taste buds, Islay’s Bruichladdich distillery is the place to look. It’s boundary-pushing whiskies usually feature a large whack of peat flavours, as is the case with this bottling. The barley comes from a single local source and the peat certainly gets to work on it, sending the flavours in many directions (with the help of a six-year residence in American oak casks). The result is a punchy spirit with oaky smoke, medicinal smoke, coffee smoke and a long, dry smoky finish.
Westland peated single malt, 46%
This is an American attempt at a Scottish style peated single malt, and the result is impressive. The initial aroma is sweeter than peat, but if you keep inhaling and you’ll soon detect some boozy tar that indicates smoked malt. There’s more obvious smoke on the palate, but it never dominates, allowing spicy oak and scorched fruit to share the limelight. A great all-rounder that we think would make some smoking hot cocktails.
Compass Box the peat monster, 46%
Artfully created by Scottish magicians Compass Box, this is a blended malt whisky and is actually much tamer than others in this list. The peated elements are typical Islay, with briny island air enhancing the medicinal, kippery smoke, while a Speyside fruitiness sweetens and mellows the monster inside. Scottish blends can often offer great value and, at under £50, this bottle is a steal.
Togouchi chugoku jozo 12 year old Japanese whisky
In Japan, whisky blending is seen as an art form, and a peated whisky is sometimes used as one of the many flavours within the blender’s box of tricks. Togouchi’s 12-year-old bottle is a fine example, with peaty undertones and spice complementing an orchard fruit freshness to create a whisky that is smooth, dry and elegant. The kind of whisky to serve with a glass full of ice.
The verdict: Peated whisky
The Lagavulin special release is an outstanding whisky, and we were also impressed by the Swedish entry from High Coast, but for an all-round smoky flavour and exceptional value, the Laphroaig single malt whisky is the peat of perfection.
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