Peated single malt Scotch whisky is very hit or miss with a lot of whisk(e)y drinkers. In a grey world, peated scotch is very black and white for a lot of palates out there. You kind of either fall in love with the earthy, smoky, medicinal juice immediately or take a sip and want to avoid it for life.
I’m here to tell you: it doesn’t have to be like that. As with any whisk(e)y category, there’s deep variation in peated whisky. And to show that — and to maybe help you find one you like — I’m blind tasting some brand new peated single malts alongside some classics.
For this taste test, I grabbed some standard and special bottles, ranging from barely peated to “holy shit am I licking an ashtray” peated. But as I alluded above, there’s so much more to peated whisky than just the peatiness. With an open mind, you’ll also find big fruit flavors, soft honey, vanilla, caramel, woods, herbs, florals, botanicals alongside and underneath that smoke and earth.
Before I dive in, let’s clarify what a “peated” whisky is. Unlike unpeated malts, peated whisky is made with barley malts that are kilned (heated to stop germination and develop sugars for fermentation) with dried peat as a heat source. That’s real peat from real peat bogs. The dried peat burns and smolders, creating a fair amount of heat and smoke that imbues the barley with phenols. Those phenols impart various types of smoky, earthy, and medicinal flavors from ashtrays to asphalt to Band-Aids to smoked salmon belly or brisket fat, to name only a few.
Moreover, the phenol levels depend on how intense the malting smoke was. That means you can get very mild or low phenols in some malts and wildly higher phenols in others, all depending on the malt master. This is all to clarify that there’s no single “peated” malt out there that defines the style (and that’s before we get into fermentation, distillation, and aging which all add massive variation too).
Our lineup today is:
- Talisker 10
- MacNair’s Lum Reek 12-Year Peated Malt
- Laphroaig Càirdeas Warehouse 1
- Bowmore Aston Martin 21-Year
- Oban Old Teddy The MacLeans
- Ardbeg Traigh Bhan 19 Years Old
Let’s find you a great peaty malt to add to your bar cart!
Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Scotch Whisky Posts of The Last Six Months
Part 1: The Tasting
The nose opens with this soft sense of pitted orchard fruits next to a thin line of beach campfire smoke far off in the distance with a hint of minerality and bright spiced malts. The palate has a hint of an oyster shell that leads to dried pears and apricot with a hint of warmth and spice malt next to dry sweetgrass. The end is full of lightly smoked plums with a hint of cardamom and cinnamon next to sea salt and a final whiff of that beach campfire way down the beach somewhere.
Well, hello there, Talisker. Oyster shells, beach campfires, and tons of orchard fruit are dead giveaways. While this feels really good on the palate, it is very entry level. We’ll see how it fares.
Caramel malts and a hint of leather draw you in on the nose with hints of a mocha latte dusted with nutmeg. The palate has a very Maltesers/Whoppers vibe that leads to sweet chocolate maltiness with a touch of spiced honey and wildflowers with that old leather note lurking in the background. The end is soft and full of honey and chocolate with a short finish that just hints at smoked malts via a smoked chocolate vibe.
This was nice, but very candy/chocolate driven.
This opens with a big Band-Aid note next to an old brisket smoker that’s layered with fat and pepper roasted into the metal that mellows away from the metal and toward the fat and black pepper with a slice of white birthday cake with honey and spices on the side. The palate is very much ashtray driven with a hint of burnt toffee sauce, a touch of summer flowers, a dash of dried fennel, and a small spoon full of rich and floral honey. The end circles back to those peppery and smoky fats as sweet notes of honey amp up on a complex finish.
This has to be the Laphroaig and I kind of dig it. It’s bold and funky but really has a nice and complex foundation under all that peatiness.
A clear note of good butterscotch greets you on the nose next to Nutella, boot wax, and a dash of creamy peanuts with this smoked sour plum feel. The palate adds some mulled wine spices to that smoky sour plum with a hint of mocha latte next to Almond Joy and a hint of cherry bark. The end has this hint of earthy peat that’s almost mossy with an underpinning of dark chocolate over dried red berries that descends toward a fresh mango note.
That mango note at the very end was fascinating and really worked. This is a good pour.
This opens with a supple sense of pear candy, soft honey, smoked apple chips, burnt orange rinds, and a hint of white saltwater taffy with mild hints of woody spices tied to warm malts. Those warm and spicy malts open the palate toward dark and tart berries, pear Starbursts, orange oils infused into marzipan, and almost sour apple peels. The end slowly descends through the spiced malts toward the dried berries with a hint of honey and vanilla before the apple/pear vibe leans into a hint of orchard wood smokiness.
This is a great and subtle pour. You’d barely know this was peated thanks to the medley of fruit on the palate.
Soft smokiness comes from smoldering lime leaves that lead to a hint of sour cream bespeckled with fennel seeds and wrapped up in cold-smoked salmon with a hint of pine resin and black tea in the background of the nose. The palate has this soft and sweet hint of grilled pineapple that works the taste toward salted dark chocolate fudge, orange zest, and dried lavender with a whisper of wet granite and sea-soaked charcoal. The end has a slight sweet ash vibe that’s more fruity than peaty with a sense of seawater-soaked wood smoldering away and roasting some marshmallows.
This is a killer pour. It’s complex yet welcoming. It’s bold yet subtle. This is a winner.
Part 2: The Ranking
6. MacNair’s Lum Reek 12-Year Peated Malt — Taste 2
Average Price: $229
This blended malt from the famed Glenallachie Distillery in Aberlour is probably better known for providing juice for iconic blends like Chivas. This blend marries peaty malts with sweeter Speyside malts to create a sherry-forward dram of whisky.
This was nice but certainly had the thinnest palate (and most candy-like) of the panel. That said, I can see this working wonders on the rocks on a hot day or in a very nice cocktail.
5. Talisker 10 — Taste 1
Average Price: $64
This is one of the most awarded single malts ever. The juice is matured in ex-bourbon casks in Talisker’s warehouse which is literally feet away from the sea. The subtly peated malts take on a real seaside feel as those years tick past, creating a whisky that will not disappoint.
This was very good as an opener. It was just a little outclassed by the bigger-hitting whiskies in play today. Still, this is the perfect entry point into peated malt as it’s so soft and subtle with big fruit notes.
4. Laphroaig 2022 Càirdeas Warehouse 1 — Taste 3
Average Price: $90
This year’s Càirdeas release celebrates the Friends of Laphroaig and how they keep the brand going. The juice in the bottle is made from Laphroaig’s high-phenol peated malt right next to the sea on Islay. The hot spirit was then filled in first-fill limited edition single barrel Maker’s Mark bourbon barrels. The barrels were then stored in the famed four-story Warehouse 1 right next to the crashing sea until they were just right and then bottled as-is after vatting.
This was a great Laphroaig. This brand is really growing on me but slowly. I dig this but it’s still a huge peat monster with some serious medicinal and ashen notes that are hard to get past at first but rewarding once you do.
3. Oban Old Teddy The MacLeans — Taste 5
Average Price: $182 (Distillery only)
This distillery-only Oban edition is made to celebrate the whisky makers of the past at Oban. The juice in the bottle is made from Oban’s subtly peated malts. It’s then filled into ex-sherry casks, both first fill and refill. After a good rest, the barrels are pulled and vatted before being bottled as-is.
This is just delicious, subtle, and easy to drink. It’s a great easy-sipper that’s easy to get into thanks to the peat being far in the background. Just make sure to add a cube or a few drops of water to really let all that fruitiness bloom in the glass.
2. Bowmore Aston Martin 21-Year — Taste 4
Average Price: $770
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.
This is delicious but, again, barely peated. This is way more bourbon and sherry forward than peat forward. It’s fruity and spicy and creamy. This is just great whisky that has no rough edges and only a whisper of sweet earthy peatiness.
1. Ardbeg Traigh Bhan 19 Years Old — Taste 6
Average Price: $360
This is Ardbeg’s yearly release of special batches of 19-year-old peaty malt. The whisky is Ardbeg’s signature, heavily peated whisky that’s bottled during a “haar.” That’s a thick and briny foggy morning on Islay, which imparts that x-factor into the whisky before it goes into the bottle.
This should be a peat monster but it’s too complex to call it that. Yes, it’s heavily peated but the layers of fruit and tea and toffee and so much more elevate this beyond just being a “peated” whisky to a great whisky.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
This ended up being a bit of a journey. I’d start with the Talisker 10 as a “dip the toe in” pour. It’s so accessible and even keeled while offering hints at peat. After that, try some Bowmore and maybe Oban. Then if you’re brave enough, tackle the Laphroaig and Ardbeg. Though, I’d highly recommend trying a pour at your favorite whisk(e)y bar before committing to a whole bottle.
All of that said, that Ardbeg really is a stellar pour of whisky. It’s just so… interesting and complex. It’s one of those pours you just keep wanting to go back to so you can find new depths in the nose and palate. There’s a ton buried in there, so make sure you add a little water on your Ardbeg journey.