Peated whiskies seem to be a love-or-hate deal, with little room for indifference. The best-known of them come from the rocky shores of Islay, off the southwest coast of Scotland—but producers even in Speyside are capitalizing on the growing fan base. Aficionados love the strong smoky flavors and the briny notes of seaweed and iodine that are reminiscent of a smoldering campfire by the shore. Naysayers say that it’s like drinking an ashtray or that they smell like a tire store. But depending on where and how the whiskies are made, peated malts encompass a whole range of smoky flavors, along with everything from ripe pears to dried mushrooms.
Peat makes its entrance at the very beginning of the whisky making process, before distillation, when the barley is roasted, or malted, to stop the seeds from sprouting fully. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the fuel used for roasting was usually peat, which burns like coal and is abundant throughout Scotland. In the years after World War II, most Scottish distilleries switched over to other, cleaner fuel sources, but a few kept up the peaty tradition. And in recent decades, as single malt mania took hold and whisky-philes started searching out bolder and more distinctive whiskies, the smoky stuff—the more intense the better—gained a rabid cult following that makes brands like Bruichladdich, Lagavulin and Ardbeg some of the most desirable of all Scotches.
While taste is subjective, there is a way to objectively measure peat in whisky, and that’s by measuring the phenol, the chemical that gives a whisky its characteristic smoky notes. A lightly peated malt can have 10 to 15 ppm (phenol parts per million); while one that’s heavily peated can have about 40 to 60. The most heavily peated whisky ever recorded, Bruichladdich’s Octomore 8.3, released in 2017, measured a completely bonkers 309 ppm. But age and distilling techniques all have an effect on how a whisky actually tastes, no matter how peaty it looks in a lab.
For our list of the ones to try, we’ve selected whiskies from several regions, with peat levels ranging from dainty to massive, and flavor profiles that dot the map.
1. The Macallan Exceptional Cask 1950
Peated Macallans are very few. Peat was used to malt their barley only for a few years after World War II because of a fuel shortage throughout Great Britain, so coming across one isn’t just a bit of whisky history, it’s a bit of world history. After six-plus decades in oak, the whisky has smoky notes that are distinct but gentle. But it’s still quite a shock to taste those trademark sherry notes (Macallans are known for their sherry cask aging) in such a different context than a Macallan of modern vintage. This Exceptional Cask lives up to its name. With just 336 bottles available worldwide, demand will likely outstrip supply ($58,000).
2. Lagavulin 16 Year Old
Islay is the center of the peated whisky world, and most fans regard Lagavulin 16 as the quintessential Islay malt. It’s been a licensed distillery since 1816, and while it makes several other expressions, the flagship 16 is the place to start. It’s got everything Islay fans love and newbies fear—lots of ashy smoke (35 ppm) and salty sea air, some seaweed and iodine—but beneath the peaty surface there’s fruity sweetness, vanilla and burnt caramel, with a healthy dash of oak for balance. Not just a star among Islay whiskies, but of single malts worldwide ($70).
3. Port Ellen 37 Year Old
Port Ellen is perhaps the most legendary “ghost distillery” in Scotland. It shut down in 1983, during a fallow time for the Scotch whisky industry, but the barrels filled and laid down to age before the end have produced incredible and fiercely coveted “new” bottlings, released as part of Diageo’s annual Special Releases series since 2001. Collectors have wondered for years when the well would finally run dry, and this 37-year-old, distilled in 1979 and released in 2017, seems to be the last of the lot. It goes out on a high note, with lively notes of green apple and citrus offsetting dry pepper and oak. Time in barrel has dimmed the peat and smoke elements only slightly; this is still an Islay malt all the way. Port Ellen is preparing to reopen next year, but for serious whiskyphiles, only the originals will do ($3,500).
4. Compass Box Peat Monster 2019
Blended whiskies are usually given short shrift by single malt snobs, but Compass Box’s superior craftsmanship and transparency about what’s in the blends have won accolades from even the most haughty of connoisseurs. This new configuration of one of the best-known Compass Box expressions debuted this year with a simpler and older blend of malts, consisting almost entirely of Islay stalwarts Caol Ila and Laphroaig. The siblings play beautifully together, with the seaweed and iodine notes of the Laphroaig taking the lead, while the oily, medicinal aspects of Caol Ila play a stellar backup role. Creamy vanilla flavors waft alongside the wisps of smoke. A truly refined peated malt ($65).
5. Ardbeg Uigeadail
Next to Bruichladdich’s Octomores, Ardbeg has the peatiest whiskies in all of Scotland, as measured by phenol parts per million. Named after the loch used as Ardbeg’s water source, Uigeadail (pronounced OO-gah-dal) is a bit of a mystery—it doesn’t have an age statement, and while it’s aged at least partly in ex-sherry casks, we don’t know any specifics. But it’s the most popular of Ardbeg’s core range, and with good reason. Peat lovers adore the campfire-in-your-mouth flavors, but there’s a lot of complexity beneath the smoke, where notes of caramel, candied orange peel and dark chocolate lurk ($75).
6. Bruichladdich Port Charlotte: Islay Barley 2011
Islay’s most iconoclastic distillery is best known for producing the most heavily peated whiskies (as measured scientifically) in the world, but there’s a lot more to Bruichladdich than Octomore. Case in point—the Port Charlotte series, which aims to make terroir as much a part of whisky making as it is for wine. Every step of the process except malting takes place on Islay, and unlike almost every other Islay brand, Port Charlotte uses barley grown on the island—which isn’t convenient or cost-effective, but does contribute to the flavor of the finished product. Aged a mere six years or so, it’s not as heavily peated as Octomore, but the ash and smoke are still intense. Also in the mix are jammy sweetness, tart citrus and the malty notes of the barley itself, which the oak hasn’t had time to obscure ($65).
7. Bowmore 1966 50 Year Old
Bowmore is Islay’s oldest distillery, having been around since at least 1779. The famed “Black Bowmore,” distilled in 1964 and released in several editions between the 1990s and 2016, almost singlehandedly kicked off the modern single malt craze that continues unabated to this day. The 1964’s exalted status is justifiable, but this lesser-known sequel, distilled two years later, may be even better. Where half a century in wood will leave most whiskies tasting like a brittle oak stave, a few lucky casks manage to avoid that fate. This miraculous malt, limited to a mere 74 bottles, is intense and fruity, mingling with the Bowmore’s distinctive smokiness—think roasting pineapples on a campfire at the beach. A gorgeous rebuttal to all the naysayers who claim extra-aged whiskies are nothing more than marketing tools ($35,000).
8. Laphroaig 25 Year Old Cask Strength
The venerable Islay distillery celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2015, and it’s still going strong, with a never-ending stream of new, limited-edition expressions. Their 10-year-old cask strength is a must-try starter whisky for the peat-curious, but for those who want to move into more rarefied air, the 25-year-old, which makes an appearance every year or two, is worth searching out. Aged in ex-bourbon and Oloroso sherry casks and bottled at cask strength, this spirit is the slightly more delicate and refined than its brawny younger siblings, but there’s still plenty of peaty smoke and spice, along with a supporting cast of light fruit, vanilla and honey. A beautifully balanced whisky ($600).
9. Glenlivet Nadurra Peated Whisky Cask Finish
The Glenlivet’s sweet, gentle flavor is so at odds with the in-your-face style of typical peated malts that it’s hard to imagine a combination of the two. But Glenlivet and/or peat fans don’t have to imagine. Starting in 2015, as part of its Nadurra series, the distillery has taken its classic whisky, beefed it up to cask strength and added peat to the mix. Rather than using it during the malting process, however, they’ve used it during aging, finishing the liquid for up to three years in casks that formerly held heavily peated whisky. The result is a fascinating combination of sweet and smoky, with vanilla and tropical fruits harmonizing with earthy peat. For a cask-strength whisky, it’s surprisingly smooth and creamy, with a dry finish almost devoid of alcoholic heat. A perfect peaty gateway for the uninitiated ($85).
10. Balvenie Week of Peat 14 Year Old
With its trademark vanilla-and-honey flavor profile, the Balvenie is a quintessential example of a Speyside malt, which is pretty much the opposite of a classic smoke-and-seaweed Islay whisky. But for one week a year, the distillery peats its barley, and its influence is both fascinating and delicious. The Week of Peat employs Highland peat, which is found inland, rather than the maritime Islay peat, and it imparts a more earthy, smoky flavor to the whisky. It’s got the bones of a Balvenie, with vanilla, honey and ripe pear notes, but that’s overlaid by a gentle dry smoke that mingles with the other flavors ($100).
11. Benriach Temporis 21 Year Old
Like the Balvenie, BenRiach is a Speyside distillery that uses Highlands peat to make a whisky that’s literally and figuratively miles away from the briny, peated malts of Islay. Yes, there’s smoke on both the nose and the palate of Temporis, but it’s a sweeter smoke, something closer to a barbecue than a campfire. It’s been aged in four different casks—ex-bourbon, Oloroso sherry, Pedro Ximenez sherry and virgin oak—which adds layers of vanilla and dried fruit like raisins and prunes, with smoke reminiscent of a strong tea wafting in on the back of the tongue. Dry, spicy oak holds all the flavors together ($200).
12. AnCnoc Peatheart
This Highlands malt, formerly known as Knockdhu after the distillery where it’s made, flies below the radar of many single malt fans, which is a shame because the distillery makes some very fine whiskies, both peated and unpeated. Peatheart uses barley peated to 40 ppm, making it AnCnoc’s peatiest expression yet. But because production methods, aging times and the source of the peat all affect how the final product tastes, it’s not an Islay-style peat bomb. Rather, it’s sweet and mellow with notes of tea and light tobacco, mingling with vanilla, apple and caramel—an elegant sipper. Peatheart isn’t available in the States yet, but we’re told it’s arriving soon; for now, it’s one more reason to plan that trip to the UK ($70).
13. Highland Park 18 Year Old: Viking Pride
The winner of countless awards and accolades, Highland Park 18 is aged in both European and American Oloroso sherry casks. The peat smoke mingles with honey, orange, vanilla and surprising earthy mushroom notes to create a seamless whole in which no one flavor dominates. Peat lovers and sherry lovers will be equally delighted by this one ($150).
14. Talisker 10 Year Old
Made at the only distillery still operating on the Isle of Skye in the northwest of Scotland, Talisker 10 is one of those whiskies that often gets taken for granted because it’s been such a constant presence for so long. The 10-year age statement isn’t particularly sexy, it’s not bottled at a high proof and even the peat content is pretty low (about one-tenth of the peatiest Octomores). But it’s a perfectly constructed malt that belongs in every serious whiskyphile’s liquor cabinet. Crisp bacon, celery salt and ripe red apple evolve into sweet malt and gentle smoke, which lingers on in the long finish. A classic ($60).
15. Bunnahabhain Toiteach A Dha
Bunnahabhain is known as the Islay distillery that doesn’t peat its whiskies, but there have been exceptions to the rule over the years. Toiteach a Dha is the first peated malt to be added to the brand’s permanent range. Aged in ex-bourbon and sherry casks, vanilla, caramel and dried fruit mix with briny seaweed notes from the peat, along with smoke and a hint of mushroom. It’s a weird combination, but a very tasty one ($75).