The Best Smoky Whiskeys, According To Bartenders


If you’re new to the world of whiskey (or whisky), you definitely need to work your way up to smoky whiskeys. Exactly like the name implies, these are whiskeys that, on top of the malty, aged flavors you know and love, also have a hit (or a gut punch) of smoke. Smoky whiskeys are made all over the world — from Texas to Japan — but the most well-known versions are made with peat-smoke on the Scottish island of Islay.

This tiny, sheep-filled island is where you’ll find the likes of Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Bowmore, and Laphroaig. They are an acquired taste, to say the least. Novice whiskey drinkers might find them to be overpowering, on par with gulping down a glass of campfire smoke, but fans enjoy the way these smoky flavors mingle with the various spices and notes that come from barrel-aging.

Since enjoying a glass of whiskey around a fire is everything we love about summer, we asked some of our favorite bartenders to tell us their go-to smoky whiskeys.

Kilchoman Sanaig

Jack Galobich bartender of The Gage in Chicago

If by “smoky” we mean peaty, then I love Islay Scotch. Laphroaig and Ardbeg are very good as far as flavor and value are concerned but Kilchoman is perhaps my favorite producer at the moment. Their sherry aged Sanaig possess some nice rich fruitiness to balance out its peat and their flagship Machir Bay has some of those sweet butterscotch notes that I enjoy so much.

High West Campfire

Rich Depascale, beverage manager at The Wilson in New York City

High West Campfire. I’m not a scotch drinker, probably due to the over-smokiness to it, but Campfire lends a light, gentle smoke which is not overpowering. High West’s mad scientists mash-ups never cease to amaze me. There isn’t much they make that’s not great.

Johnnie Walker Black Label

Joey Biñas, bartender at Bootlegger in San Diego

Scotches are always popular. Though I do like single malt scotches, blended ones offer a lot both by themselves and in a cocktail like a Penicillin. Johnnie Walker Black Label is always a classic for me.

Warbringer Southwest Bourbon

Torrence R. O’Haire, beverage director & sommelier of Gage Hospitality Group in Chicago

Smoky flavors are tough; I’m not generally a fan, as I tend to prefer things on the subtle side and the smoky whiskies can be very in-your-face. That said, I had a chance to try some of the Mesquite-smoked whiskies coming out of New Mexico and I was shocked at how much I liked them — with their no-nonsense, rough-and-tumble character. Try Warbringer if you can find it.

Lagavulin 16

Casey Lyons, bartender at Pacific Hideaway in Huntington Beach, California

Lagavulin 16 — smoky barely begins to describe what comes out of this beautiful bottle. The highest caliber of peat and smoke; just holding the glass up to my nose reminds me of Rage Against the Machine’s song “Calm Like a Bomb.” The flavor has succinct notes of heather, slightly honeyed sweetness and leather tannins.

It has been tested and proven to help men start acting their own age.

Kaiyo Japanese Mizunara Oak The Peated

Ilan Chartor, spiritual advisor at KYU in Miami

My favorite smoky whiskey is Kaiyo Japanese whisky. It’s most comparable to an Islay scotch due to its smokiness but it has great corn and wood notes that come through.

Talisker 10

Alli Torres, bartender at Refinery Rooftop in New York City

Talisker 10. Traditionally I’m an Islay girl, but the blend of smoke and hint of salinity in Talisker really hits the whole spectrum for me when sipping a scotch. If you ever get a chance to try the Talisker Distiller’s Edition, don’t pass it up.

Lagavulin 18

Matteo Caniglia, restaurant manager at Honey Salt at Parq in Vancouver, Canada

Lagavulin 18 year. I don’t really like that much peat in scotches, and I believe Lagavulin does a great job adding the right amount of peat, while still delivering a clean and enjoyable taste. It’s also my mom’s favorite.

Laphroaig 10

Josh Cameron, head bartender at Boulton & Watt in New York City

To this day, it’s Laphroig 10. It was one of the first scotches I ever tasted and always takes me back to that time, and to a woodshop, helping my grandfather, as a kid. He always says a shot of whiskey will cure anything. Let’s find out.

Ardbeg 10

Leal Ransone, bar manager at Plat 99 in Indianapolis

I really love Ardbeg 10. I once had a firefighter tell me it reminded him of the smell of running into a burning building, and ever since then that’s all I can ever feel when I pour one.