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The 9 Best Islay Scotch Whiskies for a Smoky Drinking Experience

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Hailing from one of the five whisky distilling locations protected by law in Scotland, Islay whisky certainly lends itself to a more mysterious and seemingly unknown variety. Maybe it’s because of the whisky’s unmistakable peat, and smoke-forward characteristics, or the fact that after many years on the windswept and storm-ridden islands off the western coast of Scotland, only nine active distilleries remain of the 23 that once functioned in this region.

Islay Scotch is definitely a love-her or hate-her type of spirit, and while different Islay distilleries offer multiple variations of the whisky, the water and peating levels of the barley are strictly location-based. Islay is a seafaring spirit no doubt, so hopefully with a little guidance and suggestions from us, you’ll find a bottle of your own -magically capturing the majesty of the sea coupled with the timeless tradition of enjoying a glass of quality Scotch whisky on brisk winter’s evening. Cheers.

Best Islay Peated Scotch

The Region of Islay

Islay whisky, simply enough, comes from one of the southernmost Hebridean Islands off the Scottish coastline. And as stated above, the profile of Islay Scotch lends itself to what many describe as medicinal, alluding to notes of iodine, seaweed, and salt. Don’t forget the smokiness either. Islay Scotch is known for its “harsher” profile. While having one of the most divisive profiles in the spirits world, Islay whisky can be deceptively nuanced, with many offerings featuring sweeter, more complex notes as well, such as chocolate, caramel, and vanilla.

What Makes Islay Whiskies Smoky?

Islay whiskies, as well as smoky whiskies from around the globe, typically get their specific profiles from peat. Peat is essentially decomposed plant matter found in bogs. Originally used to burn kilns in Scotland a few hundred years ago, peat was eventually discovered to impart a unique flavor when used to dry the barley grain during the malting process.

The scarcity of trees in the Islay region makes the peat found there much cleaner compared to other Scottish regions, which have mostly stopped using peat for malting.

Laphroaig Quarter Cask

Laphroaig Quarter Cask

It would be foolish indeed to not include one of our favorite single malts from one of our favorite Islay distilleries. Upon its release, the whisky was then aged in a quarter cask for five years. And because of the small size of the cask, this whisky didn’t require a long maturation in order to attain that well-known flavor profile Laphroaig is known for. Surprisingly enough, there’s a notable sweetness to this pour followed by a chili heat, finishing up with more sweetness. Not as much peat as their other offerings which, for individuals new to the region, serves as a gentle introduction.

ABV: 48%
Tasting Notes: Smoke, oak, spicy, sweet

Kilchoman Machir Bay

Kilchoman Machir Bay

Matured in ex-bourbon barrels and sherry casks, this Islay Scotch boasts aromas of vanilla, citrus, and light peat smoke. Followed on the palate are notes of tropical fruit, a bit of dark fruit, and a warming smokiness that plays quite well with the other flavors. On the finish, the Oloroso sherry cask comes in nicely, alongside hints of black pepper and additional fruit.

ABV: 46%
Tasting Notes: Smoke, cardamom, white pepper, anise, salty

Lagavulin 16 Year

Lagavulin 16

Known for its massive peat smoke, Lagavulin is located in southern Islay. Whiskies from this area are known for their intense peat profile thanks to the soil in which the barley is grown. It’s a quite rich and heavy dram, boasting a significant mouthful of malt, sherry, and fruity sweetness. Of course, powerful peat notes along with oak follow and finish things off alongside a touch of fig notes and vanilla. Truly a delicious pour for fans of Islay whisky.

ABV: 43%
Tasting Notes: Smoke, sea salt, tangy

Caol Ila 12 Year

Caol Ila 12 Year

Upon an introduction to this 12-year, you’d assume its potency thanks to an intense aroma filled with smoke and malted barley. However, give her a chance and she’s sure to please with a light and fresh flavor profile filled with notes of toffee, vanilla, light fruit, and smoke. Everything finishes up nicely as well with the initial sweetness fading softly into a smokey end. All around a fantastically diverse option.

ABV: 43%
Tasting Notes: Smoke, ash, toffee, vanilla, pear

Ardbeg Uigeadial

Ardbeg Uigeadial

Deriving from the Gaelic term for “dark and mysterious place” Uigeadial from Ardbeg is one of those pours that never get old. On the nose is ample peat, dark sugar, and espresso. This is soon followed on the palate by a powerful peat and smoke profile in conjunction with more espresso, along with tobacco and smoked brisket. It’s an intense pour to say the least, and outstanding for lovers of the region thanks to notes of caramel and malt that work their way through more peat for the finish.

ABV: 54.2%
Tasting Notes: Smoke, brown sugar, espresso, tobacco, smoked brisket

Smokehead Sherry Bomb Scotch Whisky

Smokehead Sherry Bomb Scotch Whisky

Don’t the graphics on the label fool you, Smokehead’s Sherry Bomb is one of the most unique peated Scotches you will find. Although the Ian Macleod-owned brand is known for its unusual cask-finished single malts, such as ones that have spent time in former tequila or rum barrels, Sherry Bomb is unique in that it fuses traditions of non-Islay whiskies with the smoky notes of the Islay region, giving this single malt notes of dried fruit and spices coming through the clouds of nuanced peat.

ABV: 48%
Tasting Notes: Smoke, seaweed, clove, dried fruit, spice

Bunnahabhain 18 Year

Bunnahabhain 18 Yr

Translated to “mouth of the river,” Bunnahabhain is located near Port Askaig on the east coast of the island of Islay. Needless to say, their whisky is something special and a bit more complex than many of the island’s other offerings. The aroma lends itself to the sea, with a bit of saltiness along with honeyed nuts. On the palate, drinkers will enjoy sherried nuts and spices, alongside the notable medicinal qualities of Islay Scotch. It all wraps up nicely in the end however with a light salt and sherry finish.

ABV: 46.3%
Tasting Notes: Smoke, sherried nuts, spices, iodine

Bruichladdich Octomore

Bruichladdich Octomore

While more are familiar with the brand’s Port Charlotte, Bruichladdich’s seasonal Octomore series is its top dog. While most of its other expressions are “heavily peated,” this single malt is classified as “super heavily peated” by the distillery, and they aren’t joking. Arguably the smokiest Scotch in existence, the PPM (phenol parts per million), which quantifies peat levels, ranges from 80 to as high as 309. Not to mention, the ABV is typically at or above 60%. Grown onsite at the Octomore farm, the barley used to make this fine Islay Scotch leads to a heavy peat profile. In fact, it’s recommended by some that, for certain batches of this whisky, it’s allowed some time (a few months) to oxidize in a decanter due to its intense palate.

ABV: ~60%+
Tasting Notes: Smoke, apricot, vanilla, honey

Bowmore 25 Year

Bowmore 25

Leave it to Bowmore to provide evidence to the claim that patience is indeed a virtue. This 25-year vintage is aged in American bourbon and Spanish sherry casks, both adding their own unique flavors to the whisky and creating the ultimate grail Islay expression. The nose hosts a slew of dark fruit, herbs, and smokiness. Followed up on the palate is more peat smoke that’s complemented by notes of nuttiness and cocoa. Finishing everything up is softer smoke with a bit of dark fruit from the sherry cask, oak, and mocha. Worth every penny.

ABV: 43%
Tasting Notes: Smoke, nuts, cocoa, dark fruit, sherry, oak, mocha

The Best Peated Whisky from Around the World

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Photo: Balcones Peated Texas Single Malt

If you thought smoky whisky was limited to just Scotch, think again. To expand your horizons, check out our guide to the best peated whiskies from around the world.