Hiking in Islay, the rugged Scottish island located just west of the mainland, is not for the faint of heart. This is treacherous terrain, mostly because of the wet peat that lies just under the layers of grass covering the hills. Sinkholes abound, ticks and midges are everywhere, and a rainstorm seems to always be imminent. Still, this is truly beautiful country and home to some of the peatiest single-malt scotches in the world.
I arrived here in early September to participate in the Ardbeg Ultimate ARDventurer challenge, a competition that brought together a group from different corners of the globe to learn about the whisky and put their mental and physical mettle to the test. We hiked, camped, cooked our own meals, cut peat and drank dram after dram of fine whisky. And throughout it all, the scent of peat was a familiar presence, from the fires we made using dried peat as fuel to the lingering smell that greets you when touring the distilleries to the nose you inhale as you take your first sip from a Glencairn glass.
Peat is used in various parts of Scotland, but it’s crucial to the identity of Islay whisky. And these are seven of the best peaty single malts available, from Islay and beyond.
The Ardbeg distillery, located on Islay, is well known for its superb peaty scotch. This cult brand’s newest NAS (no age statement) limited-edition expression, Dark Cove ($110), is what it calls “the darkest Ardbeg ever.” Quite dark in color, it’s matured in former bourbon barrels, in addition to what the distillery somewhat cryptically refers to as “a heart matured in dark sherry casks.” What exactly does this mean? Well, as far as palate, you’ll find the classic Ardbeg smoke with strong hints of raisin and cherry from the sherry. Ardbeg’s description tells you that you can find some squid ink flavor in there as well, but I’m still searching. Sea creature fluids or not, Dark Cove is an excellent whisky.
Bruichladdich might just produce the world’s most heavily peated single malt ever. The latest expression, Octomore 07.4 ($250), is matured in virgin oak barrels and clocks in with barley peated to an outrageous 167 ppm (phenol parts per million). This leads to an interesting and surprisingly appealing whisky. The smoky character is, of course, front and center, but the virgin oak brings subtle nuances to the palate, like sweet, citrus and spicy notes that pop beneath the fire. Octomore is not for everyone, but that seems to be Bruichladdich’s M.O.—to experiment and challenge how far it can go with infusing peat, while still crafting a drinkable, enjoyable whisky.
Compass Box sources its whisky, finding rare and artfully distilled juice that the company then blends together into special releases. The Peat Monster ($67) is part of the Signature Range, and is comprised of whisky from Islay, Mull and Speyside. It’s light in color but big on smoke, although not overpoweringly so, most likely do to the addition of the lighter Speyside component. There’s an underlying hint of sweetness that takes the edge off The Peat Monster, making it more on par with a blended scotch like Johnnie Walker Blue Label, albeit a much more enjoyable dram.
This is a classic peaty single malt from the only distillery to be found on the Isle of Skye. Talisker ($65) is double-distilled, and the taste combines marine salt with a little bit of fruit that balances out this medium peated whisky very nicely. It’s an excellent whisky for new entrants into the world of peat but also prized by lovers of smoky scotch.
Laphroaig might be the best known of the Islay peaty single malts, a whisky that one can find in almost any bar, even ones that don’t specialize in brown spirits. In general, Laphroaig is a very peaty dram, but the distillery experiments with several different expressions. The most recent is the distillery’s annual release, the 2016 Cairdeas Madeira Cask ($75). You can glean from its name that it has been matured in former Madeira casks after being removed from the traditional former bourbon barrels. The peat is front and center, but the Madeira brings sweet orange, dried cherry and sweet raisin notes to the mix.
This release ($125) was created to celebrate 200 years of Laphroaig history. The liquid comes from a variety of casks, including first-fill former-bourbon, virgin European oak, first-fill oloroso sherry butts, first-fill and refill quarter casks and refill, former Laphroaig stock. That’s a lot of flavor being combined, and it comes across here. The whisky is deep and peaty, with strong undercurrents of dried currants and a touch of sea salt and seaweed in the mix. It’s a complex dram that’s best enjoyed with a splash of water to open it up.
Lagavulin is another of the famous Islay peated whiskys. This year, the brand has released an eight-year-old expression ($65) in celebration of the distillery’s 200th anniversary. The whisky is said to be inspired by Alfred Barnard, a British whisky writer from the Victorian era who you have probably never heard of (it’s OK, you’re not alone). Supposedly he sampled an eight-year-old bottling in the 1880s and praised it; hence, this anniversary edition is eight instead of 16 years old (this might have something to do with stock as well, but who knows). The whisky is light and refined but also smoky and a little bit sweet, with a nice long finish that warms you up as it continues.