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When most people think of smoky whiskey, they think of scotch. There’s good reason for that, as peated single malts, particularly from the island of Islay, are renowned for their intense campfire flavor. Most scotch is actually not smoky, and indeed there are whiskeys from other countries that fit this flavor profile. American single malts, for example, can be smoky, either through the use of peat or using various types of wood to infuse the grain or even the distillate with flavor. And some distilleries take a more subtle approach, putting their whiskey into casks that once held smoky scotch to finish for a period of time and capture the lingering flavors that the wood soaked up. Winter is the perfect time to explore some smoky whiskey, as the flavors just seem to match the weather and mood of these colder months. Here are some of the best smoky whiskeys to try out this season.
New Riff Backsetter Bourbon and Rye
New Riff is an outstanding distillery located in Newport, Kentucky. The main reason that the whiskey coming out of here is so good is that it’s matured properly. The team decided to focus on bottled in bond releases, meaning the liquid has been aged for at least four years and is bottled at 100 proof, among other criteria. New Riff has also been putting out some more experimental releases, like this Backsetter duo of bourbon and rye. The name basically refers to the sour mash process, in which part of the previous distillation, or “backset,” is used in the next batch to maintain consistency. The difference with these whiskeys is that peat-smoked malted barley and rye were used in the mash bills, giving them soft smoky notes not normally associated with American whiskey. The amount of peated grain used to make these whiskeys might be small, but the effects are pronounced.
To buy: $50, totalwine.com
Westland Peated Single Malt
The Pacific Northwest is an important region in the American single malt category, with distilleries like Seattle’s Westland making delicious and interesting whiskeys. The core range includes this single malt made from a mash bill of both peated and unpeated malted barley. A higher percentage of unpeated barley is used than peated, so the smoky flavors are present but not dominant in the way they would be in an Islay scotch, for example. The whiskey is aged in both new and used casks, bringing notes of chocolate, fruit, and vanilla to the mix. If you like this whiskey, get ready for the forthcoming Solum expression, which is made from barley smoked with locally harvested peat instead of peat imported from the UK. It’ll be a while before you get to try it, though, as the whiskey is currently aging and won’t be released till 2023.
To buy: $80, wine.com
In Waco, Texas you’ll find Balcones Distilling making a bunch of different types of Texas whiskey, from bourbon to rye to single malt. One that really captures the spirit of the state is Brimstone, a whiskey made from 100 percent roasted blue corn that is smoked with Texas scrub oak. This gives this young whiskey (aged for just over two years) ample notes of smoke, but think barbecue, campfire, and smoked paprika rather than the iodine and seaweed flavors of a peated scotch. Balcones also has a peated single malt to check out, but Brimstone is very different, especially because the actual distillate is smoked rather than the grain used in the mash bill.
To buy: $65, wine.com
Laphroaig 10YO Cask Strength Batch 12
Laphroaig is one of the best known smoky Islay single malt distilleries, producing highly-regarded peated whiskies that are assertive, bold, and full of flavors that people either love or hate. The core whisky in the lineup is ten years old and bottled at 80 proof. But if you’re interested in high-proof whisky with an even smokier flavor profile, check out the latest batch of Laphroaig Cask Strength. This is the same 10-year-old whisky, but bottled at a hefty 60.1% ABV. This packs a real punch, but a little water both opens up the palate and makes it a softer sipping experience. If you’re looking to really splurge, you can also try the new batch of the 25-year-old cask-strength whisky, aged in ex-bourbon and sherry barrels and bottled at 49.8% ABV. Expect more muted notes of peat here, along with rich flavors of vanilla, spice, and dried fruit.
To buy: $90 (10-year-old), $750 (25-year-old), flaviar.com
Compass Box Peat Monster Arcana
Single malts get most of the attention in scotch whisky, but blends are actually the more popular category. Compass Box is unique in this world, sourcing whisky from various distilleries, blending it, and trying to maintain as much transparency about the process as possible. Peat Monster Arcana is a limited-edition version of the Peat Monster expression, released to commemorate the company’s 20th anniversary. The breakdown is as follows: a cask-strength version of the original Peat Monster was put into French oak barrels to mature for about two years, and then blended with malt whisky from Talisker, Miltonduff and Ardbeg before bottling (Talisker being the largest component of the blend). This is a lovely whisky, with an assertive but not overpowering smoky presence, mingled with chocolate, caramel, and bright fruit flavors.
To buy: $95, drizly.com
If you haven’t tried Italian whisky before, you are probably not alone. But that is set to change with the introduction of PUNI into the American market. The distillery is located in the Alps and makes a variety of young but flavorful whiskies that are aged in different cask types. The Alba expression is not actually made from peated malt, but a gentle whiff of smoke comes into the liquid via the whisky’s maturation. It’s a three-year-old whisky that’s initially aged in marsala wine casks from Sicily, then finished in Islay scotch whisky barrels. This creates an appealing mix of vanilla, ripe cherry, tobacco, and subtle smoke notes that make this whisky a delicate and interesting sipper.
To buy: $119, totalwine.com
Milk & Honey Elements Peated
Another country that many didn’t realize made whiskey is Israel, and until relatively recently it in fact did not. But Tel Aviv’s Milk & Honey distillery got up and running back in 2014, and now there are a few more operating in the country as well. The core M&H expression is called Classic, but there are a few speciality releases available as well. For something on the smoky side try the peated expression in the Elements series, which takes the Classic and finishes it in different cask types. This one spent some time in Islay whisky casks, much like PUNI Alba, and soaked up flavors of smoke and iodine along the way. These notes are relatively soft on the palate, which also has flavors of vanilla, honey, citrus, and some light spice.
To buy: $68, blackwellswines.com
High West Campfire
This whiskey from Utah’s High West is not new, but it’s an interesting blend that packs a nice dose of smoke in every sip. Campfire combines bourbon, rye, and peated scotch ranging in age from about four to eight years old. The rye whiskey is produced by MGP in Indiana and at the High West distillery, the bourbon also comes from MGP, and the scotch is a blended malt from an unnamed distillery. All of these flavors intermingle but you can pinpoint bits of each as you sip - the sweet vanilla corn from the bourbon, the spice and fruit from the rye, and of course a nice dose of smoke from the scotch that earns this whiskey its name.
To buy: $65, flaviar.com
Bruichladdich Port Charlotte OLC:01 2010
Bruichladdich, located on Islay in Scotland, is known for releasing some intensely smoky whiskies as part of its Port Charlotte and Octomore lineups. This new single malt launched last spring as part of the distillery’s Cask Exploration series, and the team there considers it to be one of its most unusual. It was distilled in 2010, and then matured in ex-bourbon, ex-Syrah and ex-VDN (vin doux naturel, a sweet wine from France) casks. Finally, it was transferred into Oloroso sherry hogsheads for 18 months. The whisky was bottled at 55.1% ABV, and has a strong peat backbone with complementary notes of sweet fruit, honey, and a bit of spice on the palate. This whisky will replace the Port Charlotte MRC:01 2010 release.
To buy: $160, flaviar.com
Oban Distillers Edition
Diageo’s Distillers Edition series takes classic single malts that you are probably familiar with and finishes them for an additional period of time in specially constructed casks that are seasoned with fortified wine for a month. This puts a unique spin on the whiskies, which are fun to try side by side with the original expressions if you can score a bottle of each. Case in point is the new Oban Distillers Edition, a lovely whisky full of fruit and vanilla notes with just a hint of peat that underscores the palate. For this release, a 2006 vintage of 14-year-old Oban was finished for up to six months in casks seasoned with Montilla Fino sherry, and the effects are striking. For something smokier try the Talisker or Lagavulin Distillers Edition releases, but the softness of this whisky is what makes it shine.
To buy: $95, reservebar.com
Son of a Peat The Redeemer
This blended malt whisky, now in its third iteration, is available exclusively via online spirits retailer Flaviar. Son of a Peat The Redeemer is made up of 12 single malts sourced from undisclosed distilleries in Islay, Islands, Highland, and Speyside that were aged for up to 20 years. It’s non-chill filtered, no color is added, and bottled at cask-strength of 53.8% ABV. According to the tasting notes, this is the smokiest version of this blend yet, with notes of smoked meats, medicinal hits, and a bit of bitterness augmented by chocolate, oak, and nuts. The relatively high proof dials up the peat as well, so this one is for real fans of explosively smoky scotch.
To buy: $80, flaviar.com