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5 Smokey Whiskies Even New Drinkers Enjoy

 

Let’s face it. Peaty whiskies have been divisive. There always seems to be a small army of devotees who are absolutely fanatic over smokey Islay Scotch (I’ll call them “peat fanatics”). Ron Swanson from the Parks and Recreation sitcom is an example of a peat devotee.

 

Ron Swanson / Nick Offerman is an absolute fan of Lagavulin’s peaty whiskies (Image Source: Lagavulin Distillery)

 

On the other side, new drinkers and several long-time whisky drinkers (whom i call “peat moderates”) are saying “woah chill!”. Peaty whiskies are too overwhelming for them, they say. 

But if you are a peat moderate, let’s not be hasty! Peaty whiskies are more diverse than you think! There are many styles and degrees of peatiness. Some whiskies resemble mildly smoked cheese. Some exude an elegant coastal smokiness. Some remind you of Hong Kong-nese BBQ pork.

So for peat’s sake, give them another chance. (I was dying to use that pun.)

To that end, we have put together a range of peated whiskies of varying styles and intensities that you are likely to enjoy. From the mild and fruity expressions to intense charcoal-grilled steak, there is bound to be one for you,

But before we introduce these whiskies, let’s have a quick primer on what exactly is peat in whisky. 

 

What is peat?

 

Men harvesting peat in Islay (Image Source: Whisky Advocate)

 

The smokiness you taste in certain Scotch whiskies is derived from peat, a flammable organic material consisting mainly of decayed plant matter (island moss, grass and flowers), viking sweat and soil built up over thousands of years in Scottish wetlands. 

This peat is harvested by distillery workers, and used to fire up kilns in whisky distilleries.

 

Chunks of peat are burnt in a kiln to smoke the malted barley at Laphroaig Distillery (Image Source: Astrodon)    

 

Because malted barley is very damp, they have to be dried using a kiln. More traditional parts of the Scottish whisky industry burn peat (rather than neutral-flavoured coal) to dry the damp barley. As peat is burned, it releases smoke loaded with phenolic compounds stain the malted barley. This flavour is so intense that it eventually ends up in the pour of whisky in your glass.

Now, there are degrees to peatiness. Not all “peated” whiskies are exactly “peat bombs”. In fact, many blended Scotch whiskies have a small level of peatiness in them that we may not usually notice.   

 

Johnnie Walker’s blend actually includes some peaty whiskies from Caol Ila and Talisker. Taste it carefully and you would pick out some smokiness.

 

Distilleries can vary the amount of smokey phenols that are infused into the whisky. They can also adjust the perceived intensity of the smokiness by making other notes more prominent, such as fruitiness or oakiness.

Enticed yet? Read on! Whether you are an enthusiastic peathead or a peat moderate, there is a bottle for you. We bet you would enjoy at least three of our bartender’s recommended peaty whiskies below.

 

1. Smoky Teriyaki Chicken: Benriach Smoke Season 

 

 

We begin with the gentlest fruity-peaty whisky from the Highlands region with the Benriach Smoke Season.

Benriach is one of the few Highland distilleries today that still produce peated whiskies. Its use of peat sourced from the Highlands also sets its flavour profile apart from the typical Islay Scotch.

Highland peat tends to be more earthy, umami and rich from the increased plant-based matter and heather the makes up its composition. This is different from Islay peat which is features much more salinity given its proximity to the sea, as well as flavors closer to kombu and iodine as a result of seaweed and coastal matter that goes into the peat.

Benriach’s typical house style is relatively light and fruity with green orchard fruits, tangerine and vanilla. The Smoke Season expression is an example of the distillery’s deviation from its norm to explore less conventional production methods.

 

So how does it taste?

This starts off with a gentle and sweet smokiness, kind of like smelling a smoky teriyaki chicken. 

 

 

This meaty start has good depth to it, with a note of butter biscuits and dried fruit jam. This is reminiscent of Marks and Spencer’s Redcurrant All Butter Puffs.

 

These puffs are just the best, that mix of buttery oiliness contrasted with the tart redcurrant jam made for a perfect snack. (Image Source: Lazada)

 

On the first sip, you notice this is heavy bodied. Yet the flavours are sweet and crisp with lots of bright zesty yuzu and grapefruit. Mild heat.

 

 

Smokiness is present throughout, but it’s very well-balanced and doesn’t elbow its way into the conversation. It comes in the form of ashy-ness similar to the burnt ends of a Neapolitan pizza.

 

 

You may wish to check out our full review of the Benriach Smoke Season.

 

2. Grilled Pineapples By The Beach: Talisker 8 Year Old Rum Cask

 

 

Next up, we have another bright and lively but relatively lightly-peated expression from Talisker.

The only working distillery in the Isle of Skye of the Scottish Highlands, Talisker is known for its medium-bodied whisky, distinctive maritime character and a light-to-moderate smokiness.

The bottle we have is a limited edition Diageo Special Release that was specially finished in Caribbean rum casks. 

Rum cask whiskies imports esters from the rum, which tends to give the whisky a little more funk- that characteristic overpowering ripened fruit profile. But this is a double-edged sword! If that strong funkiness overpowers the underlying malt it can bring it in a weird direction and make it far too cloying. Yet, appropriate use of rum casks gives the malt a whole new dimension of grilled tropical fruits that can be a wonderful summer sipper or even something that could make a summer cocktail.

 

So how does it taste?

On the nose, a wonderful marriage of gentle coastal notes, smokiness and grilled tropical fruits. This is rather bright and estery in texture. Some of that over-ripe fruit notes from the rum is apparent, although this is balanced out by the Talisker’s light maritime character and gentle smokiness.

 

  

Taking a sip, you notice this has some bite! Some pepperiness and brininess reminiscent of Singaporean pork rib broth (bak kut teh). Soft, sweet juicy fruits show up with notes of honey, more grilled pineapples and sliced apples.

 

 

Very crisp, bright, and another polite introduction to slightly smoky whiskies!

You may wish to check out our full review of the Talisker Rum Cask.

 

3. Crispy Bacon with Maple Pancakes: Laphroaig 10 Year Old Sherry Oak

 

 

We’re gradually dialling up the smoke with a moderately peaty Laphroaig now. 

Laphroaig Distillery is considered one of the iconic members of the smokey Islay club. It’s well known for its distinctive medicinal ashy flavour with elements of iodine and vegetal notes.

More recently, Laphroaig has been venturing out of its bourbon-focused cask styles and began exploring more wine-based expressions. This includes several port wine-finished expressions and now this 10 Year Old Sherry Oak expression.

This expression begins its life the same way as any classic Laphroaig, with about 8 to 9 years in ex-bourbon casks. It is then transferred to ex-oloroso European oak butts where it is finished for an additional 12 to 18 months.

As mentioned earlier, this is one of the very few sherry-based expressions released from Laphroaig. Chances are that you won't find this in most bars.

 

So how does it taste?

On the nose, this reminds me of aromatic incense, honey and strawberry preserve. A very nicely-integrated smokiness with a rich, sticky sweetness. 

 

 

Swirling this in the Glencairn glass brings out more ashy smokiness and honeyed notes. It’s almost like waking up to your partner cooking you crispy breakfast bacon and maple syrup pancakes (one can only wish).

 

 

Taking a sip, this is sweet, rich and velvety. It’s mouth-coating with a beeswax texture and sweetness. Rather prominent notes of moss, ash and a nice dark chocolate note.

 

 

You may wish to check out our full review of the Laphroaig Sherry Oak.

 

4. Chinese BBQ Pork Jerky: Port Charlotte 2010 OLC:01 

 

 

Since your palate is familiar and well-prepared for smokiness, there should be no turning back now! 

We go on to a bottling from Bruichladdich Distillery. As a distillery, Bruichladdich produces 3 different styles of single malt under three different labels to represent varying degrees of peat. (1) The Bruichladdich label is completely unpeated, light, fruity and delicate in flavour; (2) the Port Charlotte label is moderately peated at 40ppm, with flavours of elegant smoke; and (3) the Octomore label is very heavily peated at 160ppm.

Bruichladdich is a distillery that constantly impresses us with its innovation and commitment to produce whiskies that are a little more innovative than its Scottish siblings. The distillery’s Cask Exploration series demonstrates its experimentation with maturation in various different casks styles, such as cognac cask and marsala cask.   

This instance, we’re going for the Port Charlotte Oloroso Cask (OLC:01) which was matured in first-fill oloroso casks for 18 months.

 

So how does it taste?

On the nose, rather hefty sooty smoke with some notes of black tea. But trust me, give it some time! After 30 seconds or so, the smoky aroma dissipates slightly and opens up to a Christmas cake of dried plums, apricots and orange-flavoured chocolate.

 

 

On the palate, this is certainly defined by leading notes of ashy smoke and dried fruits. Yet, underneath that is a layer of sweet honey and nuttiness of the Oloroso. It’s a little bit like biting into a decadent slice of Chinese BBQ pork jerky (肉乾).  

 

 

After a few moments, this opens up to more fruity sweetness with cherries, ripe bananas with a fading leathery note.

 

 

You may wish to check out our full review of the Port Charlotte 2010 OLC:01.

 

5. Grilled Porterhouse Steak with Pinot Noir: Ardbeg Blaaack

 

 

We go on to Ardbeg, another iconic member of the smokey Islay club, and the peatiest of our selection today. Ardbeg expressions tend to be full of energy with heavy fruitiness balanced with an equally substantial smokiness.

We have with us the limited edition, sheep-themed, Ardbeg Blaaack expression, bottled in 2020 to celebrate the Ardbeg Day Committee’s 20th Anniversary. 

This was a highly anticipated release from Ardbeg because this is the first time Ardbeg was matured in New Zealand Pinot Noir casks. That’s quite an unusual cask selection for a Scotch.

 

So how does it taste?

Nosing it, you get very intense aromas of charred barbecued meat. It’s an immediate evocation of the moment you bit into a morsel of juicy char-grilled porterhouse steak. 

 

 

Behind the smokiness you get slightly tart notes of cherry and blueberry jam, with a good mushroomy earthy foundation to it.

 

 

On the palate, this is very big on the mouthfeel but at the same time velvet-y and smooth. Dominant notes of aromatic, ashy smoke, but it doesn’t get too overwhelming. 

 

 

The curtain of smoke gives way to some really nice wine-based flavours. Semi-sweet and slightly dry with cherries, blackberries, and black muscat grapes - all with their skin on which imparts a lightly dry textue.

 

 

As the wine fades, you start to notice more spicy foundational notes of hot cinnamon chai latte.

 

 

You may wish to check out our full review of the Port Charlotte 2010 OLC:01.

 

Tasting set available!

And there we have it- five peated whiskies of varying styles and intensities. If you aren’t familiar with these styles of peated whiskies, you might be surprised to realise how gentle, aromatic and fruity many of these peated whiskies could be. 

Don't just take our word for how this whiskies taste. You can try them for yourself! We have put together a tasting set of these whiskies on our online store. Do check it out!

 

 

@charsiucharlie



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