Single malt and blended whisky drinkers around the world come in two distinct types – whisky that has a strong smoky or peaty flavour, and the rest who like their drink to be smooth and gentle on the palate, with maybe just a hint of peatiness. Most of the peaty single malts, including the more popular ones like Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Bowmore, come from Islay, a rocky island off the southern coast of Scotland.
Peaty whiskies get their distinctive flavor from peat, a thousands-of-years-old collection of decaying moss, shrubs, tree remnants and other vegetation found under the ground; this is used in the toasting of barley, the starting point of making whisky. The heat generated by the peat fire is used to dry and expedite the germination or `malting’ of the barley. That is when the barley acquires the aroma of the burning peat, which gives the whisky its smoky flavor. Naturally, the more the peat used, the stronger the smoky flavour.
The make up of peat is different in various parts of Scotland and thus influences the nature of the whisky that is produced there. The Islay region is known for its characteristically untamed and fierce style of peated whisky, while the peat found on the Orkney islands in the north lacks tree roots and hence generates less heat, which in turn makes whiskies from this area, like Highland Park, lighter and less smoky.
The use of peat is not restricted to Scotland. Whiskies made in other parts of the world use local peat that give them aromas and flavour that is unique to their topographies. Connemara, the Irish single malt, is distinctly Irish, while famed Japanese whiskies like Yamazaki and Hakushu get their taste from Japanese peat. This is also the case with Amrut, the fast-selling Indian single malt. The smokiness and the earthiness of peated whiskies thus has many variations, as can be seen in this list of the 10 best peaty whiskies.
This is said to be the most heavily peated whisky on the planet. Despite the potent aroma of the peat, you can still feel a harmony of character, rich intensity and the warmth of honey. Its phenol level is 258ppm (parts per million), as compared to the 40-60 ppm that is usually seen in the ‘regular’ peaty single malts.
One of the most heavily peated demons from the house of Ardbeg, it boasts of phenol levels in excess of 100ppm. Last year’s version contains sherry-cask whiskies, which earlier versions did not, making it more fruity and sweet, interplaying with the peaty flavours. Before long, you start feeling a burst of citrus smoke, seaweed, wet pine needles and a bit of briny flavour, all of it in complete denial of the whisky’s light, straw-like colour
Compass Box Peat Monster
This is a whisky made by marrying an Islay South shore peated with a peated malt from the Isle of Mull up in the north, as well as a smoky Speyside malt. The result is an extremely complex, multi-layered, richly smoky but balanced blended malt whisky, with a hint of fruitiness.
Lagavulin16 Year Old
My first selection of an aged whisky in this list — its rich and dry peaty smokiness is true to where it comes from, southern Islay. The nose reminds you of Lapsang Souchong tea and concentrated iodine with a powerful peat punch, intertwined with lovely sherry, caramel and vanilla notes. It ends on dates, figs and spice.
A vatted malt from the house of Douglas Laing, this represents a ‘marriage of malts’ from the Islay region with contributions from Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bowmore and Port Ellen. Besides salt and peat, you can taste sweet tar, ashes and smoke, followed by bourbon-led vanillas and varying levels
Talisker Dark Storm
Probably the smokiest whisky to be produced on the Isle of Skye, it is available only through travel retail along with its sibling Talisker Storm. The main contrast between the two brands is that Dark Storm has been matured in heavily charred oak casks, which adds extra intensity and spiciness. That apart, there is some really chunky peat, peppercorns, a touch of red chilli and a great balance with the sweet affair.
Kilchoman is a farm distillery, the smallest in Scotland, and it grows its own barley. It is a vatting of 5 to 6-year old whiskies matured in first-fill bourbon casks, married and then finished in Oloroso sherry butts for 4 weeks, which results in the creamy, sweet vanilla taste from the bourbon and dark chocolate and spice from the Oloroso. All of it is gorgeously layered with peat smoke.
Nikka Pure Malt Black
As the name suggests, this malt is from the house of Nikka Whisky, founded by the father of Japanese whisky making — Masataka Taketsuru, who learned the art from the Scots. It is a blended malt of Nikka’s Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries. It combines the fruity elegance of Miyagikyo malts and the smokier notes of Yoichi’s robust personality, laced with fruit, balanced oak, peat and toffee.
Laphroaig 10 Years Old
Inarguably a classic Islay malt, its medicine and iodine blast have many describing it as a burning hospital. It is said to be a favourite with Prince Charles, who awarded Laphroaig his Royal Warrant in 1994.
Connemara Peated Irish Whiskey
Peat is uncommon in Irish whiskies, which are known for their distinctively smooth finish. Connemara is one of the exceptions, being a double distilled and overtly peated malt whiskey. Unlike the scotch whiskies, however, the peat influence feels like wood smoke. You can also taste floral notes with a honeyed sweetness, which ends with a long and pungent finish.