Exploring the world of peated whiskies is like embarking on a journey through a landscape rich in tradition, flavour, and aroma. So let’s go on one together. Whether you’re new to the style, or a seasoned veteran of the superb and smoky, we think you’ll find something in this article you like. Mostly because there’s some great peated whisky in it. 

What is peat?

This is peat.

Exploring the world of peated whiskies: a smoky and flavorful journey

What is peat?

Peat is a natural substance that forms in wetlands, bogs, and moors over thousands of years through the partial decomposition of organic material, primarily plant matter. This process occurs in a waterlogged, anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment, which slows down the decomposition rate and allows layers of dead plants and other organic matter such as sphagnum moss, grasses, and heather to accumulate. Over time, this accumulation compresses and gradually turns into peat, the composition of which will vary significantly depending on the type of vegetation that predominates in the area where it forms, as well as the specific environmental conditions.

How is peated whisky made?

Peated whisky’s smoky characteristics are imparted through the process of using peat smoke to dry malted barley. During malting, where barley grains are soaked in water to germinate and convert its stored starches into fermentable sugars, the germination reaches the desired stage, so the process needs to be halted. This is done by drying the barley.

Originally peat would have been used out of necessity, on islands where other fuels like coal or wood weren’t available. But burning peat produces a dense, aromatic smoke that infuses the malt with phenolic compounds. This infuses the grain with the unique flavours and aromas of the peat, which carries through the finished whisky. Hence why peated whisky became so popular. The amount of time the malt is exposed to peat smoke and the peat’s characteristics (which can vary by region) influence the intensity and specific flavor profile of the whisky.

The peating level of whisky is measured in phenol parts per million (ppm) in the malt, which can range from lightly peated with subtle smoky notes to heavily peated expressions that are intensely smoky and rich. The choice of peat, which varies in composition from region to region, along with the duration of exposure to peat smoke, allows distillers to create a wide spectrum of flavors and aromas, from medicinal and iodine notes to sweeter, earthy undertones.

Peat bogs on Orkney

Peat being cut on Orkney

Why do we love peated whisky?

Peated whisky appeals to us whisky enthusiasts because its flavour is so distinctive and unique. Yes, you get smoky, charred food. Drinks like mezcal can have a beautiful smoky quality. But there’s something about that marriage of peat and grain that is so pure and primal, when you taste peated whisky your soul soars. Whether it’s earthy, sweet, floral, rich, autumnal, medicinal, or coastal in profile, a good peated whisky always delivers a complex, intense, and rewarding experience.

One that is so sensory it will evoke memories of images. Maybe you drink it and see rugged Scottish landscapes. I think of my gran’s house in Moate, Co. Westmeath in Ireland, growing up in a house heated by peat, gathering around a fireplace filled with black bricks, your clothes smelling of it the next day… This sensory connection can enhance the enjoyment of the whisky, making it more than just a drink but an experience that engages multiple senses.

We also appreciate the tradition and craftsmanship that goes into peated whisky, from the cutting of peat from the bogs to the careful control of the drying process. We like the community of peated whisky, a strange but wonderful cult that forms itself and connects those who share similar tastes. Plus, it’s just cool isn’t it? We all kinda love that it’s an outsider’s whisky, if we’re honest with ourselves… 

Examples of peated whisky

Peated whiskies are most commonly associated with Scotland, particularly the islands and coastal regions where peat is plentiful. The Islay region, for example, is renowned for its peated whiskies, with distilleries like Lagavulin, Laphroaig, and Ardbeg producing some of the most intensely peated expressions.

Peated Scotch whiskies

Peat Week - Meikle Toir

Meikle Tòir The Original

Did you know that the great Speyside distillery GlenAllachie produces some peated whisky? It’s made by legendary master distiller Billy Walker and bottled under the Meikle Tòir label which is pronounced ‘mee-kuhl tor’ and means ‘big pursuit’ in Scots Gaelic. The Original is a single malt made with mainland peat from St. Fergus, a town in Aberdeenshire which produces a sweeter, grassier variety than found on the coast. The barley was peated to 35ppm and then the whisky was aged in a combination of first-fill bourbon barrels, American virgin oak casks, and rye barrels. The result combines the classic fruity Speyside style with wafts of gentle smoke.

Glasgow 1770 – Peated

This is a peated expression, made specifically with heather-rich peat from the Highlands. After distillation, the whisky was matured in first-fill ex-sherry casks and allowed a finishing period in virgin oak casks to produce a sweet fruity single malt with a wood smoke tang. 

Smokehead Unfiltered

From an undisclosed Islay distillery, the Smokehead range really appeals to all the, well, smokeheads out there. This Unfiltered edition is Smokehead with the gloves off. Unlike the original bottling of Islay single malt Scotch whisky, this one isn’t filtered (hence the name) and ups the ABV to 46%. Stand back!

Glen Moray 11 Year Old 2012 Peated Rioja Finish – Warehouse 1

Distilled in March 2012, this lightly peated 11-year-old single malt joins Glen Moray’s Warehouse 1 collection. The maturation process is similar to Glen Moray 8 Year Old 2015 Rioja Matured – Warehouse 1 . It spends its initial ageing period in bourbon casks, before finishing in a host of Rioja red wine casks, imparting splendid notes of sweet dark fruits alongside hints of distant peat smoke. Bottled at cask strength in August 2023.

Port Charlotte 10 Year Old

Introduced as the flagship Port Charlotte expression produced by Bruichladdich in 2018, this 10-year-old single malt from the Isle of Islay is a lip-smackingly smoky number indeed. It’s peated to 40ppm, and drawn from a combination of first-fill American whiskey casks, second-fill American whiskey casks and second-fill French wine casks.

This week we're making the amazing Penicillin cocktail!

The Penicillin cocktail

Tasting and enjoyment

Tasting peated whisky is an experience that engages all the senses. The aroma is the first encounter and will often reveal the smoke first. Take your time and approach the glass gently, allowing the smoke to waft out and not billow like a great fire. You should be able to recognise the smoke type as we so often encounter these aromas in our lives. Is it bonfire smoke? Or BBQ. Maybe it’s ashy. Perhaps there’s a coastal element in there. Keep taking in the aromas and the whisky will reveal more: fruit, spice, floral notes, seaweed, leather… Depending on the dram, of course. 

Then, it’s time to taste. Again, the smoke will often lead the way with other flavours backing it up. Give it time and pick out the other elements among the peatiness, like its sweetness, spice, fruit, or maritime qualities. Add water if you need to calm things down a notch and want to appreciate the other flavours in your glass. Then take a moment to notice the way the smoke interacts with them. Peated whisky shines when the smokiness doesn’t dominate the spirit, but gives it a complex, savoury, and warming backbone. 

Don’t be afraid to play with peated whisky either. The Penicillin is a superb cocktail that requires smoky whisky, while a good peated Highball is a thing of beauty. Peated whisky can also be paired with food to enhance your experience. Rich, fatty foods like smoked salmon, blue cheese, or dark chocolate can complement the intensity of the whisky, while its smoky notes can provide a delightful contrast to sweeter desserts.