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More Than Just Smoke: We Put Peated Scotch Whiskies To The Test With A Big, Blind Ranking

Peated whisky has a way of separating drinkers into immediate objectors or lifelong devotees. There’s really no getting around its inherent divisiveness. But thinking that “peated” whisky is just one thing — smoky! — is pretty reductive. Peated whisky has as many flavor nuances and variances as any good whisky out there, and one of the best ways to parse all those variations is to taste them blind. Which notes stand out amongst the earthiness, Band-Aids, and smokiness? Which did you enjoy most?

For today’s test, I’m picking eight peated whiskies — all from Scotland — and tasting them blind. I did pick whiskies with a pretty big range of phenols (peated intensity of the malt), ages, and finishes. There are a couple of blends in there with the single malts too. Mostly, I want to see what stands out among the style but also whether the special bottles are really that much more unique in flavor than your everyday pours.

Today’s lineup is:

  • Oban 12 Tale of Two Foxes
  • Bowmore Aston Martin 21
  • Johnnie Walker Green Label
  • BenRiach The Smoke 10
  • Lagavulin 12 The Lion’s Fire
  • Laphroaig Cairdeas PX Cask Finish
  • Compass Box Glasgow Blend
  • Talisker 8 The Rogue Seafury

Let’s dive in!

Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Scotch Whisky Posts of The Last Six Months

The Ranking

Peated Whisky Blind
Zach Johnston

8. Compass Box Glasgow Blend –Taste 7

Compass Box

ABV: 43%

Average Price: $40

The Whisky:

This expression is a marrying of whiskies from all over Scotland. 65% of the juice comes from single malts from a “distillery near the town of Aberlour,” Laphroaig, and Clynelish. The rest is part Highland malt blend (from the Glen Moray, Tomatin, and Balmenach distilleries) and a grain whisky from Cameronbridge distillery. Those whiskies were barreled in sherry and bourbon casks with a French oak barrel thrown in too.

Peated Whisky Blind
Zach Johnston

Blind Tasting Notes:

Smoked prunes mingle with a hint of nutmeg and a little bit of ripe red cherry with a hint of the cherry tree that leads toward a smoked beef fat. That smoky fat drives the palate while earthy malts mix with dry straw, almond shells, and a plummy mid-palate. That sweetness fades as a cold fireplace and wet charcoal bring the peated vibes and almost leather prunes and dates round out the kind of thin finish.

Bottom Line:

This almost had me until the water kicked in on the end and sort of washed away the rest of the palate. That’s fine, this is a mixing scotch after all, and this will bring some good layers into a nice cocktail.

7. Benriach The Smoky 10 — Taste 4

Benriach The Smoky 12
Brown-Forman

ABV: 46%

Average Price: $64

The Whisky:

This whisky is made with unpeated malt and peated malt from the Highlands. That juice is aged in a combo of ex-bourbon, ex-Jamaican rum, and new, freshly toasted oak casks before it’s masterfully blended by Dr. Rachel Barrie and proofed down with Speyside springwater.

Peated Whisky Blind
Zach Johnston

Blind Tasting Notes:

Thin notes of apple cider and smoked honey create a creamy nose with singed cedar bark, fresh pine boughs, and fatty smoked pork belly. The creaminess drives the palate with a foundation of vanilla cookies while smoked apple chips and saffron stewed pears mingle with dark dried fruits and winter spice on the somewhat thin end.

Bottom Line:

So that’s where all that creamy vanilla comes from — new toasted oak. Anyway, this was fine. It didn’t wow on this tasting but I can see pouring this into a cocktail jug and mixing something good and lightly smoked.

6. Laphroaig Càirdeas 2021 Pedro Ximénez Casks — Taste 6

Laphroaig Cairnes
Beam Suntory

ABV: 58.9%

Average Price: $124

The Whisky:

Laphroaig is always innovating. 2021’s Càirdeas is a triple-matured, cask-strength whisky. The whisky first mellowed in ex-bourbon casks before being moved to quarter casks and, finally, finished in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks. That whisky was then bottled as is.

Peated Whisky Blind
Zach Johnston

Blind Tasting Notes:

Band-Aids and rosewater counter marzipan and Nutella on the nose with a good dose of iodine and old ashtrays (hello, Laphroaig) as a hint of cherry tobacco, spicy apple pie filling, and vanilla tobacco round things out. That iodine and fresh bandage continue on the palate as really fatty and smoky bacon mixed with salted licorice, smoked apple chips, and fennel. The mid-palate leans into the funk with a nori-and-bacon-wrapped cedar box that’s been soaked in seawater for years and then filled with Red Hots dominates the finish.

Bottom Line:

I think I really have to be in the right mood to enjoy this. The last time I had it was a couple of months ago at the distillery and I thought it slapped. Today, I was more “meh” to “it’s nice enough.” One thing is for sure, this is far more distinct and unique than the last two entries.

5. Johnnie Walker Green Label — Taste 3

Diageo

ABV: 43%

Average Price: $72

The Whisky:

This whisky was actually taken off the market in 2012 and people lost their shit. Diageo came to its senses and brought it back by 2016. The juice is a blend of single malts only, making it a “pure malt” and not a “blended scotch whisky” (that blends malt and grain whiskies). The juice primarily comes from Speyside, Highland, Lowland, and Island malts with a focus on a minimum of 15-year-old Talisker, Caol Ila, Cragganmore, and Linkwood.

Peated Whisky Blind
Zach Johnston

Blind Tasting Notes:

Cedar boxes full of sweet apples draw you in on the nose as hints of black peppercorns and vanilla pods lead to underlying wet sweetgrass that’s been lit on fire and is just starting to smolder. Soft notes of tropical fruits — think subtle pineapple and star fruit — counter dried roses, sweet apple tobacco, fresh honey, varnished pine. The mid-palate has a slight winter spice vibe that leads back to now smoldering cedar and vanilla with dark and dried berries mixing with dark chocolate sauce and old and dry wicker that sat in the sun too long.

Bottom Line:

I was kind of surprised to see this ranked so low. This is a pretty freaking good whisky, but I guess a blended malt couldn’t quite beat out the special single malts below.

4. Talisker 8 The Rogue Seafury — Taste 8

Talisker
Diageo

ABV: 59.7%

Average Price: $256

The Whisky:

This year’s Talisker sticks with the classic age statement of eight years while leaning into the smokier side of the island whisky. The build on this expression is a marrying of the “Smokiest Reserves” from the Talisker warehouse. That juice is then vatted and bottled at cask strength.

Peated Whisky Blind
Zach Johnston

Blind Tasting Notes:

Smoked plums and apricots lead the way on the nose with mild whispers of sea spray, wet green moss, oyster shell, and a smoldering evergreen forest after a fire and rain with this line of candied malt running underneath. The palate starts with pink sea salt and dried roses and veers into a green bell pepper and old tree bark before a speck of sandy dirt arrives. The mid-palate sweetens with smoked prunes and dates before a big note of dried Ancho chili firework bursts on the end.

Bottom Line:

This is the part of the ranking where I’m splitting some very tiny hairs. This is stellar whisky. I really couldn’t find any faults and basically ranked this and the next three randomly so they all weren’t tied for first place.

4. Oban 12 The Tale of Twin Foxes — Taste 1

Oban 12
Diageo

ABV: 56.2%

Average Price: $320

The Whisky:

Oban’s location on the Scottish coast, next to both the Islands and Highlands, allows it to harness the best of both regions when making its whisky. This year’s 12-year release is built on the backs of both ex-bourbon casks and refill bourbon casks, allowing the stronger notes of those new bourbon casks to get a light mellowing from the refill wood. The results are bottled at cask strength.

Peated Whisky Blind
Zach Johnston

Blind Tasting Notes:

Brine and nori crackers subtly move through the nose with old wood planks from a well-worn dock as tart-yet-sweet dried cranberries mix with a hint of sardine oil, cracked black pepper, and smoked cod. The palate builds from a sweet and malty base toward orange oils, soft and sweet red berries, and a hint of creamy vanilla cream soda on the mid-palate. The finish leans into old cedar humidors before a big rush of dried chili peppers and more of the white smoked fish fade back towards the creamy vanilla and soft berries and malt.

Bottom Line:

This is fantastic and could have been number one (it certainly would’ve been had I seen the label, since I’m ride or die for Oban) but it’s number three today. What are you gonna do? This is why blind taste tests are so interesting.

2. Lagavulin 12 The Lion’s Fire — Taste 5

Lagavulin 12 Lion's Share
Diageo

ABV: 56.5%

Average Price: $321

The Whisky:

This is the younger of two special releases from Diageo last year. The whisky is built from juice aged in refill bourbon casks, meaning that the casks had already aged bourbon and then aged single malts at least once before this whisky was filled into them and left for 12 years. That whisky was then vatted and bottled at cask strength.

Peated Whisky Blind
Zach Johnston

Blind Tasting Notes:

Salted sushi rice with a hint of apple cider vinegar mingles with green tea, damp potpourri, salted pork belly, and wet grey beach sand on the nose. The palate gently puffs a line of smoke from a distant beach campfire toward your senses as dark and almost waxy cacao nibs mix with creamy vanilla, sheets of nori, toffee candy wax wrappers, and some more of that green tea — this time it’s a little over-steeped. The mid-palate sweetens that tea a little with what feels like floral honey that’s immediately cut off by a wet driftwood beach fire, into which someone just threw a bag of dried chili peppers.

Bottom Line:

What an intense end and truly beautiful dram. There’s just so much going on that I want to go back and live in this whisky for a while. There’s certainly so much more to find in that nose and flavor profile and that makes this one kind of exciting to revisit again and again.

1. Bowmore Aston Martin 21 — Taste 2

Bowmore Aston Martin 21
Beam Suntory

ABV: 51.8%

Average Price: $640

The Whisky:

This collaboration between Islay’s Bowmore and Aston Martin is about luxury. The blend of this single malt follows the golden ratio to create an aesthetically pleasing vibe. The base is 61.8% 21-year-old single malt aged in first-fill Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso sherry casks. The rest of the blend is equal parts of Bowmore’s other casks that are at least 21 years old ranging up to 35 years old.

Peated Whisky Blind
Zach Johnston

Blind Tasting Notes:

Creamy yet floral honey draws you in on the nose with fresh Grade-A maple syrup that has a little of the tree bark in it, alongside hints of peanut brittle, creamy Nutella, and fresh boot leather (almost creamy boot wax). Soft mulled wine spices and sugars open the palate as savory fruit — mostly papaya and gala melon — mix with vanilla lattes dusted with dark cacao, cherry bark, and toasted coconut. The mid-palate sweetness and creaminess give way to spicy woody tobacco, dark fruit leather, and a distant whisper of burnt marshmallows over a smoky backyard firepit.

Bottom Line:

This new drop (released in January 2022) is one hell of a whisky. It’s just f*cking delicious from top to bottom. I could drink this stuff for the rest of my life and kind of be okay with it.

Final Thoughts

Peated Whisky Blind
Zach Johnston

Well I suppose it’s no surprise that the most refined and uniquely made whisky won the day. That Bowmore Aston Martin 21 is just phenomenal. It was phenomenal when I first tried some in Bowmore next to the sea on Islay and it was maybe even more so today in my kitchen. That’s rare, especially since another bottle on this list didn’t pull that off.

Overall, great, well-aged, and limited whisky won the day. Again, no big surprise there. That said, all of these whiskies have their place. I wouldn’t kick Compass Box Glasgow Blend off any shopping list just because it came in eighth today — it was up against super rare whiskies and is a great mixing scotch. That said, the top four are all really what you want to focus on if you’re looking for something truly special the next time you’re at the liquor store.

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