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Islay is a rugged, windswept Scottish island located just west of the mainland, and it’s not for the faint of heart. The terrain is treacherous, 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 seemingly inhospitable land is home to some of the most-prized single-malt scotches in the world.
Islay distilleries use peat as a fuel source, harvesting the hard-packed vegetation from the land and burning it like coal to dry wet malt. The resulting smoke hits the malt, permeating the grain and eventually adding that smoky element you smell and taste in the bottle.
Peat is used in various parts of Scotland, but it’s crucial to the identity of Islay whisky. Here are some of the island’s best drams, according to industry experts.
Best Overall: BenRiach The Smoky Ten
Region: Scotland | ABV: 46% | Tasting Notes: Peat, apple, pear
“I like to suggest BenRiach The Smoky Ten for someone looking to dig deeper in the intricacies of peated whiskies,” says iluggy recinos (all lowercase), beverage director of Exxir Hospitality Concepts in Dallas.
“Speyside is a good introduction to scotch I believe, with a lot of easy notes of honey and light earthy tropical notes. Given that BenRiach is put together from a combination of unpeated and peated spirit, it really makes it approachable for those looking to slowly transition to a more complex yet subtle refined scotch.”
Best Age Statement: Oban 14
Region: Scotland | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Fig, spice, honey
“I’ve become fond of Oban 14,” says Joshua Lopez, bar manager at Osaka Nikkei Miami. “They found a balance of spicy yet sweet and smoky flavor, starting out warm with dark fruits then moving to dry crisp green apple flavors. It's not a whisky I was immediately drawn to, but the more time I spent with it, I always seemed to discover a new note or spice and it kept me coming back.”
Best Heavily Peated: Port Charlotte 10 Year Old
Region: Scotland | ABV: 50% | Tasting Notes: Iodine, char, dried fruit
Bruichladdich produces some of the world’s most heavily peated single malt available, along with its core unpeated expression The Classic Laddie.
The Port Charlotte range includes whiskies that far surpass the peat content of other whiskies, but still maintain complexity and delicacy nonetheless. The 10-year-old is aged in whiskey and wine casks and has a PPM (parts per million) of 40, so expect a heavy dose of smoke along with the other notes with every sip.
Best Blend: Compass Box The Peat Monster
Region: Scotland | ABV: 46% | Tasting Notes: Cream, apple, smoke
Compass Box sources its whisky, finding rare and artfully distilled liquid which the company then blends together into special releases. Peat Monster is part of the Signature Range, and it is comprised of whisky from Islay and the Highlands. It’s light in color, but big on smoke—although not overpoweringly so. There’s an underlying hint of sweetness that takes the edge off of Peat Monster, making it more on par with a blended scotch like Johnnie Walker Blue, albeit a much more enjoyable dram. The whisky had a label and blend component overhaul in 2019.
Related: The Best Cheap Scotches
Best Under 20 Years Old: Talisker 18 Year Old
Region: Scotland | ABV: 45.8% | Tasting Notes: Honey, orange, tobacco
This is a classic peaty single malt from one of just a few distilleries to be found on the Isle of Skye. Talisker is double distilled, and the taste combines marine salt with a little bit of fruit that balances out this medium peated whisky very nicely. Talisker is an excellent whisky for new entrants into the world of peat, but is also prized by lovers of smoky scotch as well. The 18-year-old expression hits the sweet spot in terms of flavor and peat levels.
Best Annual Release: Laphroaig Càirdeas PX Cask Strength 2021
Region: Scotland | ABV: 58.9% | Tasting Notes: Peat, Fig, Licorice
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 2021 Cairdeas PX. It is tripled matured in bourbon barrels, quarter casks, and PX sherry hogsheads. The smoky notes are lovingly complemented by a healthy dose of dried fruit and spice here.
Related: The Best Scotch Whiskies to Drink
Best Splurge: Laphroaig Lore
Region: Scotland | ABV: 48% | Tasting Notes: Chocolate, vanilla, almond
This release was created to celebrate 200 years of Laphroaig history. The liquid comes from a variety of casks, including first-fill ex-bourbon, virgin European oak, first-fill oloroso sherry butts, first and refill quarter casks, and refill ex-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.
Best Under 10 Years Old: Game of Thrones House Lannister Lagavulin 9 Year Old
Region: Scotland | ABV: 46% | Tasting Notes: Mint, smoke, currant
Lagavulin is another famous Islay peated whisky. Several years ago, the brand released this whisky as part of Diageo’s collaboration with HBO’s Game of Thrones.
“Game of Thrones fans will enjoy this single malt scotch to the very last drop,” says Manuel Gonzalez, director of operations at Florida's AC Hotel Fort Lauderdale Sawgrass Mills/Sunrise. “It’s very intense with a smoky aroma and just a hint of peach and nectarine. I recommend drinking this flavorful scotch with a small splash of water or neat.”
Related: The Best Scotch Under $100
BenRiach The Smoky Ten (view at Drizly) is the best overall peated scotch. This single malt is not too expensive, and is really well balanced on the palate. It’s smoky, but it doesn’t run you over with peat, and there is a nice range of citrus, honey, and vanilla notes on the palate as well.
What To Look For
Obviously, the main thing you are looking for when picking a bottle of peated scotch is that smoky flavor. But you can decide how big you want to go, as some bottles are heavier on the peat level than others. You can also look at the different cask types the whiskey was matured in, as that will have a big effect on the flavor. Finally, check out the age statement, but understand that an older whisky isn’t necessarily a better whisky.
How is scotch different from other whiskeys?
Single malt scotch must be produced in Scotland from a mash bill of 100 percent malted barley at one distillery, aged for a minimum of three years, and bottled at no less than 80 percent ABV. A small amount of caramel color can be added to maintain the color consistency of the whisky, but this is not thought to affect the flavor by most people (some would disagree, of course).
What is peat and how does it affect the flavor?
Peat is decomposed organic matter that can be found in the ground in various parts of Scotland. It can be dug up, dried, and burned as fuel. When used to stop the malting process of barley, it imparts the grain with a smoky flavor.
What's the difference between peaty and smoky?
The terms are used interchangeably in regards to scotch. But a whiskey can be made using smoked grains, or even smoked after distillation, which has a different effect—more like campfire or barbecue notes. Peat brings a different range of flavors to the palate, and this is also dependent on the region. Islay peat differs from Highland peat, for example.
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Jonah Flicker is an experienced writer who has been covering spirits and traveling the world visiting distilleries to taste and discover for many years. His work has appeared in many different national outlets covering trends, new releases, and the stories and innovators behind the spirits. His first love remains whiskey, but he is partial to tequila, rum, gin, cognac, and all things distilled.