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The Best Peated Scotch Whiskies From Islay For Newbies

Islay is renowned for its peated single malts. Of course, not all peated whisky comes from Islay, but most of the big names do, with Lagavulin, Ardberg, and Laphroaig all feeling pretty mainstream. Port Ellen — the small burg in the middle of the island’s windswept south shore — remains the epicenter of using peat (a flammable, super-dense soil drawn from bogs) to malt barley, which is then fermented to distill whisky.

When peat use in whisky is described to the newbie, the first question is usually: Butwhy? The shortest answer is “history,” which has then gone on to inform the palate of many a whisky lover. Peat is a traditional fuel in the fireplaces and furnaces of the Scottish Isles — so it was the natural choice to create heat and smoke to dry germinated barley. This application of heat stops the germination process and imparts phenols into the barley, creating dried malts. Those phenols are then carried into the mash and eventually the spirit, as it goes from a cloudy beer to a refined and matured whisky.

As with all things whisky, variation abounds. There is no single “smoky” or “peatiness” to all whisky from Islay. Each of the distilleries operating on the island today has its own vibe and character that imparts varying levels of peatiness into its expressions.

To get a handle on the peaty whisky of Islay, we’re calling out ten bottles we actually think you should try. Yes, even if smoky whisky isn’t for you. Think of this as a friendly introduction to the style, much like the friendly greeting you’d get if you made it to one of these tradition-bound distilleries. If any of the bottles pique your interest, click on the prices to try them for yourself.

Ardbeg 10

Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy

ABV: 46%

Average Price: $54

The Whisky:

This is Ardbeg’s signature bottle and a true gateway to the peaty style of single malt scotches. The real highlight of this expression is the peat smokiness filtered through sherry casking. The phenol count tends to be on the higher end with this expression, so you’ll know you’re drinking a smoky whisky from the first nose. But it won’t absolutely floor you.

Tasting Notes:

Firepit smoke, red fruit, and a hint of lemon zest lead the way. Black pepper spice, fatty smoked meat, plenty of salty-sweet brine, a dose of vanilla, and a whisper of nuttiness all mingle and mix through the palate. A sense of bitterness and a touch of licorice come into play as the sip very, very slowly fades through the smoke, nuttiness, and fruit, leaving you warmed and awake.

Bottom Line:

We’re putting this first because it’s a great litmus whisky. You’re either going to be intrigued or spit it out. If this perks up your taste buds, then dive in! Though, you might want to try it over an ice cube or two to mellow it down a bit.

Bowmore Legend

Beam Suntory

ABV: 40%

Average Price: $36

The Whisky:

Bowmore is Islay’s oldest distillery, dating back to the mid-1700s. Their Legend expression, incidentally, is their youngest release. It’s a peated malt that’s aged for around five years in ex-bourbon casks before it’s vatted, proofed down, and bottled.

Tasting Notes:

This doesn’t feel young for such a relatively young scotch. The nose opens with a murky billow of smoke that’s infused with sea spray and a hint of dry hay. There’s a sweet and waxy saltwater taffy sweetness on the palate that’s followed by rich and almost salmon-belly-fat smoke with a touch of floral honey and vanilla underneath it all. The end is short, leaving you with a bit of iodine and ash next to a soft mineral water smoothness.

Bottom Line:

There’s an ease to this dram. It’s well-balanced between the sea and the smoke with a nice sweetness. Over a couple of rocks or in a cocktail, it really shines.

Bruichladdich 10 Port Charlotte Heavily Peated

Rémy Cointreau

ABV: 50%

Average Price: $85

The Whisky:

Bruichladdich really has fun with peated whisky. This expression keeps the peat phenols in the mid-range, leaning high. The casking is a mix of first and second-fill bourbon barrels and second-fill French wine barrels. That utilization of second-fill oak means there’s a very light touch of wood on this peated whisky.

Tasting Notes:

Imagine a dark chocolate orange drizzled in salted caramel and served on a wet leaf of seaweed and you’ll be on the right track for the nose. The smoke kicks in on the palate with a vibe that feels like those wet seaweed leaves thrown on a smoldering pile of pine to create a massive billow of smoke everywhere, as hints of buttery white wine and strawberry jam-covered scones linger in the background. The finish leans into the bready nature of the scones with a dry straw edge that followed by a mouthful of the seaweed heavy grey smoke.

Bottom Line:

This is quintessential. But it’s also not for the faint of heart. This is salty and smoky way before it’s sweet and bready. Have you ever smelt the smoke from a fire while on a boat in choppy seas? It’s kind of like that.

Bunnahabhain Toiteach A Dhà

Distell Group Limited

ABV: 46.3%

Average Price: $76

The Whisky:

This smoky Islay peated malt means “smoky two.” Well, that’s what “Toiteach A Dhà” translates to anyway. The whisky is a peated malt that’s matured in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks and then married with an eye cast towards the sea and all that sherry wood.

Tasting Notes:

There’s a clear sense of sweet and stewed plums with a focus on cinnamon sticks and an almost spicy smokiness. The palate shifts towards a savory fruit (think pumpkin) with flourishes of dark chocolate next to meaty dates and lightly salted sardines. The end leans back into the spicy and very briny smokiness as the malts ebb and flow between sweet and dry with a plummy texture.

Bottom Line:

The sherry shines through under all that brackish smoke. Still, this is a Bunnahabhain and it really keeps the sweeter aspects of the whisky front and center.

Caol Ila 12

Diageo

ABV: 43%

Average Price: $74

The Whisky:

Caol Ila is a tiny Islay distillery that is more familiar to hardcore whisky fans than the casual drinker. This expression is the distillery’s entry-point whisky that highlights the subtle peatiness, gentle aging, and the soft lapping of the sea against the distillery’s outer white walls.

Tasting Notes:

There’s a matrix of dried roses soaked in water touched by orange oils, almonds, and a trace of classic Listerine buzziness. The sip has a savoriness that feels like olive oil speckled with coarse sea salt next to a distant billow of briny smoke, all counterpointed by sweet malts and fruits. The finish sweetens the smokiness with a fruity-yet-spicy tobacco edge while the end fades towards an almost salty-sour hint of citrus.

Bottom Line:

This is a definite, “Holy Shit!” whisky. It’s peated and smoky, sure. But that smoke is so subtle and refined in the build of this dram that it’ll draw you in more than push you away. Add some water or a rock to really let this one bloom in the ol’ Glencairn.

Kilchoman Sanaig

Kilchoman Distillery

ABV: 46%

Average Price: $70

The Whisky:

Kilchoman is one of the newer distilleries on Islay, named after the creek near the stillhouse. The juice in the bottles is rendered from ex-bourbon and (primarily) ex-Olorosso sherry casks.

Tasting Notes:

There’s a mix of toffee, espresso bitterness, and bright tropical fruits on the nose that lead towards a very earthy (almost vegetal) note of spicy peat. The taste leans into peaches and cream with dark chocolate-covered raisins next to hints of tart red berries and more of that spicy smoke. The end is long and folds in a touch of sea salt into the spicy smoke and all that fruit.

Bottom Line:

This feels very bright for a smoky whisky. The smoke is very tied to the fruit and spice, making this a nice food-pairing dram.

Lagavulin 16

Diageo

ABV: 43%

Average Price: $102

The Whisky:

This is the most recognizable Lagavulin out there. The malts are smoked just down the road from the distillery at Port Ellen and the juice is crafted expertly by the sea at Lagavulin. Then the whisky spends 16 long years mellowing in old American and Spanish oak.

Tasting Notes:

Imagine a beach fire that’s using dried seaweed as fuel next to mugs of honeyed black tea and a clump of wet moss on the nose. The taste of this dram meanders through dried pipe tobacco smoke laced with hints of vanilla and tart apple while notes of briny caramel lead towards an oyster shell minerality. The finish is pure silk as the seaweed grows wetter and the smoke sweetens towards that caramel, vanilla, and apple.

Bottom Line:

This is the mountaintop of balanced and nuanced smoky Islay whiskies. It kind of has everything you want from a peated malt whisky while still feeling very accessible and incredibly easy to drink, especially when mixed into a classic Smoky Cokey highball.

Laphroaig 10

Beam Suntory

ABV: 43%

Average Price: $65

The Whisky:

This might be one of the most “classic” Islay smoky whiskies on the shelf. The craft behind this whisky is a blend of the unique Islay peat (used to smoke the malts) and the influence of the sea, which laps at the distillery’s outer walls.

Tasting Notes:

The smoke is what greets you with a hint of fruity wood, creating an almost sweet smoke next to a hint of anise and maybe some Band-Aid scent (not in a bad way!). The palate holds onto the smoke while adding a wet seaweed brininess next to hints of vanilla cream, peppery spice, and soft oak. The end really amps up the smokiness while holding onto the iodine of the sea with a final note of salted toffee.

Bottom Line:

This is a bottle that hooks people into smoky whisky. That being said, I really dig it in an Edinburgh sour with an egg white, Gomme syrup, and lime juice. It’s a killer summer cocktail.

Port Askaig 110 Proof

Port Askaig

ABV: 55%

Average Price: $75

The Whisky:

Port Askaig selects prime barrels of peated Islay whisky for their drops. This expression is a cask-strength release of Islay peaty malts with a focus on ex-bourbon cask aging. The juice is then bottled as is — without any filtering, cutting, or added color.

Tasting Notes:

There’s an old smoker vibe with all the burnt sugars, apple cider vinegar, and fatty brisket of years past coming through the smokiness. The palate pops with a rush of lemon-lime-orange oils as smoky bacon fat leads back towards a mix of cumin-forward spices and maybe a touch of dried mint. The finish is long and returns to the apple and burnt sugars as the fatty smoke builds and eventually fades.

Bottom Line:

This is the perfect backyard BBQ whisky. It’s also a killer whisky to make a rib glaze with.

Compass Box Peat Monster

Compass Box

ABV: 46%

Average Price: $66

The Whisky:

Compass Box is one of the most interesting blenders working today. This expression is the perfect example of the craft of whisky blending, with six masterfully married peaty barrels coming together, focusing on Caol Ila and Laphroaig. A touch of Highland malt is added to bring in hints of dark spice to balance all that Islay peat.

Tasting Notes:

Yes, this is peaty but not ridiculously so, thanks to the subtlety that is Caol Ila. There’s a really rich and sweet apple/pear vibe that cuts through the earthy peat while a vanilla cream brings about a velvet mouthfeel. The smoke returns but is tied to the fruit — like a bushel of smoked apples, pears, and apricots next to a touch of ashy smoke — on the finish.

Bottom Line:

This is another great example of the power of sourcing barrels and masterfully blending them. You really can’t go wrong with the subtly of the smoke that builds and builds while still holding onto all that fruit. It’s a winner!


As a Drizly affiliate, Uproxx may receive a commission pursuant to certain items on this list.

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