The clocks have gone back, the nights are rapidly drawing in and leaves are falling. It is the season for the big bold flavours of smoky whisky. They are the perfect accompaniment to your Bonfire Night celebrations and the chilly nights beyond. Be it a traditional Scotch or something a little more quirky, here are 10 smoky whiskies to help you through the cold months ahead.
Ailsa Bay is a Scotch whisky, but one with a difference. It is produced in the Lowlands, which are traditionally known for their light, delicate and non-smoky whiskies. This single malt is the complete opposite of that and offers a peppery, flinty and ember-like style of smoke alongside toffee and vanilla sweetness. It also undergoes a unique micro-maturation in super-small barrels for its first nine months, before being transferred to bourbon casks. Intriguing and unorthodox.
Ardbeg ‘Wee Beastie’
The Scottish island of Islay is the traditional home of smoky whisky and has nine distilleries as a result. Of these, most are using malted barley infused with peat smoke to make their spirit and Ardbeg has built up somewhat of a cult following amongst peaty Scotch drinkers.
Wee Beastie is a recent addition to the range and is unashamedly young, brash and feisty. Hot and ashy peat smoke comes to the fore with this wonderfully expressive whisky. Not for the faint hearted.
All smoky whisky has to be from Scotland, right? And use peat to create the smoky flavours? Wrong. This offering from American craft distiller Balcones throws out the rulebook and tears it up at the same time. Brimstone is made from corn and sees the spirit smoked after distillation, rather than the initial cereal.
The process is a guarded distillery secret and local Texas scrub oak is used to create a barbeque-like smokiness. Definitely one for the adventurous.
Benriach ‘The Smoky Twelve’
There are not many smoky whiskies from the Speyside region of Scotland. However, the innovative distillery of Benriach has been producing some for a short period each year since the early 1970s. This was way before the current trend that many similar distilleries are following.
The Smoky Twelve features a perfect marriage of ex-bourbon, sherry and Marsala wine barrels. The flavours imparted complement the sweet gentle notes from the Highland peat superbly.
Black Bottle ‘Island Smoke’
There are a number of blended smoky Scotch whiskies, including famous whisky producers such as Johnnie Walker Black Label and White Horse, but Black Bottle’s classic old blend seems to always go under the radar. This new expression, part of the brand’s Alchemy Series, explores the aromas and flavours of Scotland’s coasts and islands.
By drawing whiskies from these places they have created a wonderful marriage of sea spray, seaweed and earthy peat notes. Excellent and underrated.
There are very few Irish smoky and peaty whiskeys, which is surprising given the popularity of Irish whiskey and the abundance of peat across the Emerald Isle. A number of artisanal products are beginning to appear but Connemara, made at the Cooley distillery up near the Northern Irish border, has long ploughed a lone furrow in the category. Expect notes of damp moss, bonfire smoke and kippers alongside bittersweet cereals, honey and vanilla. Delicious.
Lagavulin 16 Years Old
This is one of the world’s classic smoky single malts and considered the benchmark for an Islay whisky by many. Lagavulin has a long history of providing the peat smoke power in popular blended Scotches, but the distillery’s whiskies are held in high esteem in there own right. They do not get much better than this fabulous 16 years old expression. A multi-layered malt that oozes class and is full of earthy, spicy and ashy flavours that take you straight to Islay.
Simply put, it does not get more peaty and smoky than Octomore. Often labelled as ‘the peatiest whisky in the world’, this ramps up peat levels like never seen before. Produced on Islay at the Bruichladdich distillery and named after a local farm, it will certainly make an impression. Always bottled young and at high strength to give maximum smoky impact, this whisky is powerful and expressive. A must have for the peat freaks and collectors.
The latest edition is 12.3 which explores Islay grown barley and the terroir of the distiller’s home-grown grain combined with sherry maturation for the first time in history. While previous editions, the 12.1 acts as the base or control of the experimental range and 12.2 offers an alternative maturation to its 12.1 counterpart, this time in a sublimely balanced ex-Sauternes cask profile. The choice is yours, or buy all three?
Paul John ‘Peated Select Cask’
Now for the real curveball on our list – a smoky whisky from India. This single malt is produced by the John distillery in the southern region of Goa, but where do they get their peat from to smoke the barley? After all, there is no peat in India. The simple answer is that they import it from Scotland. The result is a delicious juxtaposition of tropical climate sweetness and richness with the medicinal, herbal and earthy notes of a Scottish peat bog. Fabulous and exotic.
Smokehead ‘Rum Rebel’
The name gives it away: Smokehead is a full-on smoky experience that packs a peaty and peppery punch. Sourced from an un-named Islay distillery, this single malt brand is pushing the boundaries of the smoky category with some innovative products and use of less traditional cask types. One such example is the exquisite Rum Rebel, which has seen a finishing period in Caribbean rum barrels. A funky brand with fun, striking graphics and packaging. One to watch.