Smoke is among the most desirable flavors in a whiskey, and a blast of it on the nose usually takes you back to summer campfires and good memories. The most common type of smoky whiskey is a peaty Scotch and many products come from peat-rich regions of Scotland – though not exclusively.
Peat is a type of organic matter that, when burned, produces a smoky quality. The peaty flavor is imparted into whiskey when peat fires are used to dry the malt. It’s a single piece of the entire process, and yet it holds so much weight when your goal is a nice smoky whiskey.
Because the peat is such an important part of the process and must be done right, the best smoky whiskey isn’t cheap. But that’s okay, because it’s not the whiskey you’re reaching for to take shots, and it’s not going into all of your cocktails, either.
Some cocktails call for a good smoky whiskey, but you’ll want to try the good stuff neat, as well, with maybe a splash of water. This is when the flavors come out strongest and you’ll be able to best see what they have to offer.
If you’re smart, you’ll sip them slowly and make them last, as is the treatment that all great whiskey deserves.
Table of Contents
The Best Smoky Whiskey
1. Lagavulin 16
Lagavulin is one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries, with the founder technically beginning in 1742 and distilling illegally until 1816, when Lagavulin officially opened. The company has changed hands and gone through many changes over the years, but its location has always been paramount. It’s situated next to a peaty riverbank which has contributed greatly to some of their most distinct flavors.
Lagavulin 16 is a single malt Scotch that won a double gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirit’s Competition in 2017. The peat that is so intrinsic to all their spirits imparts a smoky flavor into just about everything, but it’s particularly intense in this one.
The palate is strong and full-bodied with a distinct taste of driftwood fire and dry peat smoke. Strong maritime notes come through as well with a long and elegant finish. It’s top-notch, classic smoky whiskey that must be experienced neat to get the full effect. It also does quite well with just a splash of water.
2. Compass Box The Peat Monster
Compass Box The Peat Monster is a unique and interesting expression that is the result of a large collaboration between distilleries. The final product is a blend of single malt whiskies that create an approachable expression for those who love big, rich, peaty flavors. The drink is 50% Islay whiskey, 30% Speyside, and 20% from “the Islands.”
We know that the Islay whiskies included in the bottle are sourced from Caol Illa and Laprohaig distilleries while the Speyside single malt is from Ardmore Distillery. The remaining 20 percent is left a mystery.
Once the individual malts are collected, Compass Whiskey Box Co. marries them for a few months using American oak casks. The aroma is intensely peaty, reminding you instantly of summer bonfires on the beach. Smoke is up first on the palate, well-balanced by the appearance of some light fruitiness. The subtle finish is long and lingering.
3. Caol Ila 12
The Isle of Islay is only 240 square miles with a population of fewer than 3,500 people. And yet, it produces an impressive amount of whiskey in a popular style that many people love. Part of this comes from its unique geography and climate. Though small, the island still boasts an impressive 130 miles of coastline with overall pleasant weather.
It gets cool in the winter and remains mild in the summer – not too many extremes going on here. Perhaps the most important element, though is the amount of peat the land contains. Combine this with the salty winds coming off the water and you’ve got an amazing Islay signature flavor.
Caol Ila was founded in 1846 and the name means “The Sound of Islay” in Gaelic. Caol Ila 12-Year-Old is a single malt Scotch whisky with an aroma of citrus, olive oil, and crushed almonds. It offers a sturdy body with notes of smoke, honey, caramel, oak, and a touch of salty tang. It has a smooth, tart finish and ends with that signature touch of peat.
4. Ardbeg Uigeadail
Founded in 1815, Ardbeg Distillery, at one point, employed almost one-third of the population of the island it was located on. This should tell you the significance it carried back then, which as no doubt stayed with them.
Today they are still notorious for creating some of the boldest, strongest, and most vibrant Scotch whisky around. Ardbeg Uigeadail (pronounced oog-a-dal) is made from a combination of whiskey aged in ex-sherry and ex-bourbon casks. Both of these impart unique flavors that come together to create something new and amazing.
The bourbon casks offer notes of cinnamon, honeyed oak, and baking spices while the sherry casks bring dried fruits, figs, berries, and caramelized oranges. These things come together to create a whiskey with unmatched depth and complexity.
The aroma is just as inviting with notes of ocean spice, violet, Christmas cake, cedar, spice, and leather. The palate starts with the sweeter flavors with a touch of cherry and dark chocolate. The peat comes through mid-palate along with honey and tobacco. The long finish is chewy and rich with raisins, mocha, and figs.
5. BenRiach Curiositas 10
BenRiach is nestled in the heart of Speyside, where they’ve been mastering the art of single malt Scotch whisky since 1898. Founder John Duff built the distillery in 1897 after he successfully started and ran two other distilleries. And though BenRiach was an initial success, it closed in 1899 along with many others as the economy took a terrible turn.
What followed was almost 65 years of silence. The facility remained intact but did nothing other than participating in the malting process for another distillery.
However, the BenRiach brand never lost hope and they officially reopened in 1965. It was bought out in 2004 by owners who have, thankfully, remained true to the BenRiach name and still produce incredible single malt whiskies, including the BenRiach Curiositas 10. This expression is made using heavily peated malted barley which produces a strong sense of smoke in the profile.
The intense peat shows up first in the aroma, backed by notes of fruit, honey, and gentle oak. The palate also begins with strong and cascading peat flavors, followed by a complex array of fruits, nuts, oak, wood, and spices. From nose to finish, this whiskey is an adventure.
Peated Whiskey Cocktails to Try
While the best smoky whiskey will no doubt be a delight to drink neat, some amazing cocktails call for a peated whiskey. While amazing, heavily peated whiskey can be an acquired taste, and these cocktails are a good place to start if you’re new to smoky whiskey.
Most peated whiskey cocktails aren’t easy and simple like a two-ingredient cocktail, but the results are worth the extra effort and ingredients. If you can get your hands on the right stuff, definitely give these cocktails a try:
This is the ultimate beginner Scotch cocktail. It’s basically a Scotch-based whiskey sour and it uses a combination of blended Scotch and regular Scotch. Other than that you only need lime juice and honey-ginger syrup.
- 2 ounces of blended Scotch
- ¾ ounce lemon juice – fresh-squeezed if possible
- ¾ ounce honey-ginger syrup
- ¼ ounce peated Scotch
- Lemon peel or candied ginger for garnish
- Homemade honey-ginger syrup is best. This can be done by boiling half a cup of honey and half a cup of water with a 3-inch piece of ginger. Once boiling, reduce heat and simmer for five minutes.
- Allow the syrup to cool.
- Once ready, put the blended Scotch, syrup, and lemon juice into a shaker with ice and shake well.
- Strain the drink into a glass with ice.
- Gently pour the peated Scotch on top, using the back of a spoon. It should float on top.
- Add your garnish and enjoy!
Created by a bartender named Matty Hutchinson who works at an Edinburgh bar called Bramble, this Scotch cocktail is considerably more complex.
- 25 ml Jagermeister
- 25 ml gin
- 10ml peated Scotch – Lagavulin 16 is recommended
- 10 ml vanilla syrup
- 20ml lemon juice
- 1 egg white
Despite the many ingredients, this one isn’t too difficult to make:
- Add all your ingredients to a cocktail shaker.
- Shake it first without ice.
- Add ice and shake again.
- Strain into a chilled glass, and enjoy!
This unique, smoky, sour cocktail is a good mix of herbal, fruit, and heavy peat flavors. It’s rich and viscous with the peat well-balanced by the rest of it.