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There are whiskies with a hint of smoke, and then there are smoky whiskies – whiskies that’ll send the fire department to your home in search of whatever’s burning. Whiskies so smoky, they’re not allowed in smoke-free bars.
Smoky whiskies are made all over the world, but when you want serious smoke, there’s only one place on earth to go, and that’s Islay (pronounced EYE-la), a small island off the southern coast of Scotland that’s more or less covered in peat. Dried peat, a dirt-like material made from decaying vegetation, has been burned for fuel on Islay for centuries, and it’s also used to roast – or malt – the barley that’s used to make Islay whisky. That peat smoke gets into the barley, and man oh man does it get into the whisky as well. Islay whiskies aren’t one-dimensional by any means, but if you’re looking for smoke, Islay is Smoke Central.
Here are five of Islay’s – and thus the world’s – smokiest whiskies. Our advice: If you’re a whisky novice, you may want to start elsewhere. These smoke bombs can be dangerous to the untrained tongue.
1. Bruichladdich Octomore 7.4 Virgin Oak Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Chemically speaking, Bruichladdich Octomore 7.4 Virgin Oak Single Malt Scotch Whisky is far and away the smokiest whisky in the world. The smoky flavour of peated whisky comes from phenols, a class of chemical found in peat smoke that’s absorbed by the barley. A smoky Islay whisky generally has about 50 PPM (parts per million) of phenols. Octomore 7.4? A walloping 167 PPM. And yet it somehow doesn’t taste like the inside of an ashtray.
The Octomore 7.4 is the first release in the tenure of new head distiller Adam Hannett, and it’s unlike any previous Octomore in that it’s aged in virgin French oak rather than the traditional used-bourbon or -sherry barrels. It was laid down as an experiment, and it succeeds and then some. The virgin oak transforms what could be a one-dimensional peat bomb into a complex layered whisky with sweet citrus and honey complementing cinnamon and clove from the wood and, of course, the ashy barbecue notes of the peat. Also, Octomore is made from barley grown on Islay itself, something that can’t be said for most other Islay malts.
2. Ardbeg 10 Years Old
Ardbeg has been around for 200 years, off and on; as recently as the 1980s, the brand was more or less defunct. But once single malts, especially Islay malts, were embraced by the hipsterati in the ’90s, Ardbeg became cool again. Today it has a large and ardent fan base. There are a lot of Ardbeg expressions, all aged in different ways and for varying lengths of time. But if it’s smoke you’re looking for, look no further than its flagship bottling, the Ardbeg 10 Years Old. At 55 PPM, it’s one of the most phenolic whiskies around, but the real proof is in the tasting. The nose is so smoky it’s almost surprising to not see plumes rising up from the glass. The peaty smoke continues on the palate, mingling with dark fruit and wisps of salty sea breezes. The finish is peaty and, yes, smoky, and lingers on the back of the tongue for what seems like an eternity.
3. Compass Box Peat Monster
Single malts get the love from whisky snobs, but there are some great blends (meaning whiskies from more than one distillery blended together) as well -like the Compass Box Peat Monster, from one of the most highly regarded blended brands in Scotland. A combination of two Islay whiskies and a peated Highland malt, it delivers smoke, peat, more smoke, and more peat, along with a touch of menthol and a hint of saline. The Compass Box blenders clearly know their stuff; in the hands of lesser artisans, a blend this smoky could leave a drinker gasping for breath. Instead, the smoke caresses the throat rather than assaulting it, leaving behind nothing but sighs of pleasure.
4. Lagavulin 16 Year Old
If you could put the spirit and mood and smells and tastes of Islay in a bottle, it’d be called Lagavulin. The Lagavulin 16 Year Old is a perfect entry to the world of smoky whiskies, because while it’s jam-packed with peaty, smoky notes, all that time spent in wood has rounded off the sharp edges. The result is an elegant, somewhat mellow dram that’s surprisingly easy to drink. The smoke is dry and warming, the whisky equivalent of sitting by a roaring fire on a chilly autumn night.
5. Laphroiag 10 Year Old Cask Strength
Laphroaig (pronounced la-FROYG, if you’re wondering) packs a lot of smoky power in its whiskies, but it’s also got a signature flavour all its own. A little iodine, a little mineral, a little seaweed, a little medicinal, it’s… well, it’s not for everyone. But the same can be said for Islay whisky in general. And understanding Laphroaig’s deliciousness is like graduating from a master class in single malts. The Laphroiag 10 Year Old Cask Strength is just that – straight from the cask: bottled straight from the barrel without the addition of any water (adding water is a general practice in the spirits world). As a result, it packs quite a wallop from the alcohol as well as the smoke; adding a little water to your dram will extinguish the fire, but the smoke and other flavours are still there in force.