I love peaty whisky. There’s something about the medicinal, smoky flavour of a good Islay dram that really does it for me. It’s obviously a flavour profile suited to my palate, as I used to adore IBC Root Beer when my parents took me on our annual pilgrimage to the US as a kid.
So, to start this blog, I thought I would guide newbies through some of the best smoky stuff you can buy. There are a range of some classic flavours, some new(ish) distilleries and prices aimed at every wallet.
Flying against conventional wisdom, none of these whiskies are older than eight years, but with quality ingredients, high ABV and imaginative finishing, they stand out as the best peaty stuff I have tried over the last year.
Here are my top five:
- Money no object – Bruichladdich Octomore 9.3
If money is no object, the Octomore range from Bruichladdich is absolutely outstanding. And the pick of the bunch for me is their latest 9.3. (Find the review here) It’s about the purest taste of Islay you could find.
You’d think the combination of 62.9% ABV, its young age and about three times the peat of a Laphroaig would make this harsh and undrinkable, but if anything, the opposite is true.
Unlike most 5-year olds you know, this young spirit is remarkably mature.
It’s also the biggest whisky experience I’ve had this year, and although it’s pricey at £160-175 a bottle, I would argue it’s worth every penny.
Not for the fainthearted, but if you get a chance to try this, you won’t be disappointed.
- For quaffing – Kilchoman Machir Bay
There’s no beating Kilchoman Machir Bay for your go-to Islay dram. It can be found for as little as £42 from The Green Welly Stop (brilliant for finding whiskies cheaper), and while that puts it right up there with your Lagavulin 16s and Talisker Storms, I would argue that this is better.
Kilchoman is one of my favourite distilleries and opened my eyes to younger whiskies. From the first 3YO I had, that was like a smack in the face, I’ve regularly tried everything they have to offer.
Along with Bruichladdich, Kilchoman is the only Islay distillery to use Islay barley, but they go even further, by malting all the barley themselves.
If you have more cash, the Loch Gorm and Sanaig are interesting in their own right, and the 100% Islay is a fantastically fresh, barley and peat explosion.
The 2018 Founders Cask is probably the finest dram I’ve had from this farm distillery, with its heady mixture of sherry and smoke a triumph, but it will hit you as hard in the wallet as the nose, so for me Machir Bay is still the go-to for cost vs quality.
- A steal at the price – Laphroaig Quarter Cask
While I’ve been disappointed with a lot of Laphroaig’s NAS (No Age Statement) whiskies of recent years, one reminded me why I love Laphroaig so much. Made in smaller casks, it gets far more notes from the wood than a standard Laphroaig.
Which makes the quarter cask, in my opinion better than the Select, the Ten Year, and definitely the recent overpriced Lore expression. On offer, you can find it for around £30 at Amazon, and at that price its mixture of earthy peat and subtly soft sweetness makes it a steal.
A bit different to most Laphroaigs, it still has that signature medicinal tang and salty peat which comes through on the finish. Well worth a go.
- Something different – Ardbeg Dark Cove
I was lucky enough to be sent a sample of this by a fellow whisky lover while at this year’s Whisky Show.
A limited edition released for Ardbeg Day in 2016, it’s apparently the ‘darkest Ardbeg ever’ (though its colour isn’t that dark, especially compared with your Bowmore 15s et al.)
However, the flavours are rich and deep. Charcoal and coffee mix with Ardbeg’s signature peat smoke and the use of dark sherry casks alongside those of an ex-bourbon variety gives this a dark chocolate and toffee undertone that mixes with notes of ginger and cloves in the mouth.
It’s a Christmas dram if ever there was one. It could do with having a slightly higher ABV in this writer’s opinion, but if you can find a bottle, it’s worth the money (Going for around £120-170). I’d say it is better than both the signature Ardbeg 10, and their other sherry aged peat monster, the Uigeadail.
- A classic reimagined – Lagavulin 8
Like Ron Swanson, I used to love Lagavulin 16, but it’s been somewhat muted since it rose to worldwide fame through comedy smash hit Parks and Recreation. While still smooth, it’s lost some of its character, which luckily can be found in its originally limited release younger sibling – Lagavulin 8.
Stronger at 48%, it’s an explosion of smoke and spice – with a touch of sweetness.
It’s got a much stronger finish than the 16 as well, while adding a bit of saltiness to the nose. Overall, a must try at around £50.
Another nail in the coffin of the thought that older whisky = better whisky.
So that’s my list of the top must-try drams from the peaty isle.
If you think I’m missing something, get in touch and I will happily review it.
That’s a great selection! I love all five Islay whiskies you selected, plus a whole lot more. If I may add some honorary mentions, let me also throw in the likes of Big Peat, Bowmore 15yo, Laphroaig 10yo, Ardbeg Corryvreckan and Caol Ila 12yo. And since Bunnahabhain is way too awesome to remain unmentioned, how about adding one of their heavily peated expressions for the Scandinavian market, too? 😉
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I recently tried Big Peat at an overly drunken whisky tasting in Nottingham. Really good. I used to also love some of the mystery drams like Ileach and Smokehead, but the quality seems to have gone way down.
Also have a bottle of Bowmore 15 and Laphroaig 10yo at home. Very nice drams, but with Laphroaig, I prefer the Quarter Cask to the 10yo. (I used to love the 15yo)
Caol Ila 12yo is great, and I like a lot of Bunnahabhain – I tried their 40yo about a month ago, outstanding.
I haven’t tried Ardbeg Corryvreckan. Will have to give that a go.
Other contenders: I absolutely loved the Kilchoman 2018 Founders Cask release I tried earlier this year, but at £125, I think the Octomore 09.3 just about beats it out for my ‘big bucks’ selection, and the Bruichladdich Port Charlotte Islay Barley is glorious too. You can bag it for around £40 on Distillers Direct.
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