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Best peated whisky: from Speyside to Islay, the peaty whiskies to please

Gorgeously distinctive, with hints of smoke, salt and a vague medicinal quality, peated whiskies are fabulous. Here's why - and the best ones to buy

Published: August 26, 2022

Peaty? Peated? What is this distinct, smoky flavour and why is it so good? Look no further - whether you're a neophyte to all things peat, or a dedicated fan, here is what you need to know - and drink.

What is peated whisky?

Peat is formed when plan matter decays in an oxygen-free environment and has traditionally been used as a fuel source. Leave it alone for long enough, by which we mean a few million years, and under the right conditions it will eventually become coal. Which is all well and good, but you may well be asking how does it get into the whisky making process and for goodness’ sake why?

In a nutshell, once you’ve finished malting the barley that will ultimately become a dram of the good stuff, you need to stop the barley’s germination and you do this by heating, or kilning, it.

Back in the old days, since some distilleries had ready access to peat as fuel, they burned it to heat the green barley, and it became infused with the smoky quality of the fuel. These days, distilleries use hot air in kilning, but to maintain the signature flavour of their whiskies, they will still add varying degrees of peat smoke to the mix at this point.

The actual flavour of the whisky depends on where the peat is harvested. The island of Islay in the Inner Hebrides is justly famous for its heavily peated whisky, and the particular smell and flavour with which it imbues the spirit. If you’ve ever tried it, you’ll recognise it immediately: a combination of smoke, salt and a medicinal quality that gives some malts an aroma not unlike a freshly opened pack of sticking plasters.

The peat on Islay contains a lot of sphagnum moss, and the thinking is that this is responsible for the unique flavour of the island’s whiskies. Indeed, try a peated whisky from Orkney and you’ll find the smoke still there, but a less medicinal and more floral, honeyed flavour, thanks to the peat containing a great deal of heather.

Of course, it wasn’t long before the success of these smoky drams meant other distilleries all over the world started dabbling in the alchemical pursuit of the perfect peated whisky, so let us guide you through some of their most fascinating expressions.

Port Charlotte 10 Year Old Scotch Whisky

Port Charlotte 10 Year Old Scotch Whisky
Port Charlotte 10 Year Old Scotch Whisky

Best Islay peated whisky

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Where else to start than the island that is most closely associated with the magical combination of smoke and fire? There really is an embarrassment of riches here, but we couldn’t ignore those lovely people at Bruichladdich.

Although they took the heretical stance of releasing unpeated whisky under their own name, they indulge all their darkest, peaty desires when it comes to their Port Charlotte expression. This 10-year-old is a rich combination of creamy vanilla, salty spice and toffee all rolled in a rich blanket of smoke, redolent of peat fires. The next best thing to enjoying a bonfire in your front room, and a great deal more practical.

BUY HERE Port Charlotte 10 Year Old Scotch Whisky

Hakushu 12 Year Old

Hakushu 12 Year Old
Hakushu 12 Year Old

Most delicately peated

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If all this talk of barbecues, bacon and medicine chests is getting a little alarming, then here’s something rather more refined and deftly balanced. Japan has long been an importer of Scotch whisky, but its temperate climate also lends itself to production of its own distinctive styles. In this bottling, Hakushu delivers a sweet, citrussy 12-year-old dram, with a fine thread of smoke.

We added a little water, which brought out vanilla and a soft, grassy herbal note. There’s a long finish that delivers pear drops and a touch of ginger, and we felt as though we were transported to a meadow in springtime (minus the hayfever). If you’re more likely to reach for the chamomile tea than the lapsang souchong this may well be your dram of choice.

BUY HERE Hakushu 12 Year Old

Caperdonich 18 Year Old Peated - Secret Speyside Scotch Whisky

Caperdonich 18 Year Old Peated - Secret Speyside Scotch Whisky
Caperdonich 18 Year Old Peated - Secret Speyside Scotch Whisky

Best for the last chance saloon

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It’s a sad fact, but not all distilleries make it, and some are decommissioned or mothballed after many years of dutiful service to a grateful nation. All that remains are their bottlings, and these can become increasingly precious to collectors, meaning that you might need a stiff drink to get over the prices.

We think this beautiful dram from closed distillery Caperdonich is probably (whisper it) under-priced, although certainly not cheap. Part of Chivas’s Secret Speyside collection, referring to the area around the River Spey in Scotland, this peated bottling is one of a kind, and when it’s gone, it’s gone for good.

We opened it outside as the sun went down and were immediately hit with the smell of seaside bonfires, carbolic soap and smoke. Pour a healthy splash into the glass though, and the sweetness comes bursting through, along with cinnamon and baked fruit. Take a sip and there’s the flavours of rich, sweet oranges, fudge and peppery spice. There’s nothing quite like it and <sob> there won’t be again.

BUY HERE Caperdonich 18 Year Old Peated - Secret Speyside Scotch Whisky

Talisker 10 Year Old Whisky

Talisker 10 Year Old Whisky
Talisker 10 Year Old Whisky

Best under £50

A reminder that sometimes it just helps to be an island when it comes to peated whisky. Skye, from where this feisty contender hails, is the largest of the islands in the Inner Hebrides, famed for its rugged, windswept and craggy features; and we can’t help but feel that the whisky has taken on some of the personality of its home. The older a bottling is, the more it has had a chance to mellow, so you might be excused for thinking that 10 years in the barrel might tame Talisker somewhat, but it still knocks our collective socks off.

Alongside the rolling smoke that we associate with a peated whisky, there are briny notes, liquorice sweetness, a little bit of toffee and plenty of freshly ground black peppercorns and a blast of chilli in the finish. The next best thing to striding around the coast of Skye, and you can do it all from the comfort of your armchair.

BUY HERE Talisker 10 Year Old Whisky

Caol Ila 18 Year Old Whisky

Caol Ila 18 Year Old Whisky
Caol Ila 18 Year Old Whisky

Best under £100

It can be a balancing act to let loose just the right amount of peat smoke, but not let it dominate the whisky entirely. After resting in cask for 18 years, this bottling from Caol Ila (pronounced ‘cull eela’) on the east coast of Islay nails it.

The initial flavours are smooth, creamy and grassy, even flinty, but there’s so much sweetness here, tempered by soft smoke. As you might expect from a whisky that’s old enough to vote, this is a more mature, well-rounded and interesting expression of peat and worth taking your time over. We poured out a sizeable dram after dinner, and found ourselves in a contemplative mood, looking back ever more forgivingly at our 18-year-old selves.

BUY HERE Caol Ila 18 Year Old Whisky

Glasgow 1770 - Peated Whisky

Glasgow 1770 - Peated Whisky
Glasgow 1770 - Peated Whisky

Best young upstart

Despite the 18th century moniker, this bottling from Glasgow Distillery is actually a lot younger than it is letting on. The distillery it hails from was opened in 2014, and produces quite the range of spirits, including gin, rum and ‘botanical vodka’ as well as different expressions of malt.

Despite their avowed intention as Glaswegians to “take their craft seriously, and themselves not too seriously”, they’re not messing about with this peated number. There’s no age on it, but given the youthfulness of the distillery, we’re guessing it’s around 4-5 years old. It’s a precocious wee dram though and has travelled a fair bit even while staying still, having been matured in American virgin oak casks and finished in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks.

The initial nose is very heavy on barbecue smoke, but when poured it develops a fair bit of complexity, with the sherry cask adding sweet dates and blackberries to the sweet, highland peat notes. We thought it was a cracking drop to round out an evening, and we’re not alone – it has won ‘Best Lowland Single Malt Whisky’ for the last three years running.

BUY HERE Glasgow 1770 - Peated Whisky

Interested in all things whisky? Check out our round-ups of the best whiskies on the planet

Best whisky glasses: from crystal to tumblers, budget to Glencairn, from Amazon to ASDA
9 of the best Scottish whiskies: our favourite Scotch brands
Best Islay whisky: from Ardbeg to Laphroaig, the Islay whiskies you need to try
Best rye whiskey: ideal rye for a Sazerac, Manhattan, or simply neat
Best peated whisky: from Speyside to Islay, the peaty whiskies to please
8 of the best single malt whiskies
Best expensive whiskies worth the price tag: Macallan, Glengoyne, Tobermory, Glenfiddich
Best supermarket whiskies: best whisky buys from Lidl, Aldi, Morrisons and Tescos
Best blended whiskies: is it worth buying blended whisky? The best brands
Best world whiskies: from cheap to expensive, the world whisky brands you have to try
Best Irish whiskey: from cheap to expensive, single malt, blends, and smoky
Best Speyside whiskies: from single malt to blended, M&S to Glenfiddich
Best English whiskies: the English whisky brands worth buying
Best Japanese whisky: our expert guide to best brands, from single malt, blended, under £50, to best-selling

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With over twenty years experience as a writer, Justin has covered the eating and drinking scene in Edinburgh extensively. Previously writing for The List Eating and Drinking guide, he now resides in Brighton and continues his keen research into whisky consumption.

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