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Islay is a rugged, windswept Scottish island located just west of the mainland, and it’s not for the faint of heart. The terrain is treacherous, mostly because of the wet peat that lies just under the layers of grass covering the hills. Sinkholes abound, ticks and midges are everywhere, and a rainstorm seems to always be imminent. Still, this seemingly inhospitable land is home to some of the most-prized single-malt scotches in the world.
Islay distilleries use peat as a fuel source, harvesting the hard-packed vegetation from the land and burning it like coal to dry wet malt. The resulting smoke hits the malt, permeating the grain and eventually adding that smoky element you smell and taste in the bottle.
Peat is used in various parts of Scotland, but it’s crucial to the identity of Islay whisky. These are seven of the island’s best drams.
1. Ardbeg 10 Years Old ($60)
The Ardbeg distillery is well known for its peaty single-malt scotches. And for a relatively young whisky, its 10-year-old expression has a smoky complexity that belies its age. Bottled without any chill-filtration, the whisky is rich and oily on the palate and bursting with flavors of sea brine, tangy citrus, creamy toffee, smoke and spice. The aggressively smoky dram also falls at a price point that allows peat novices to wade into the water without breaking the bank.
2. Bruichladdich Octomore 10.3 ($215)
Bruichladdich might just produce the world’s most heavily peated single malts ever. Their expressions continue to push boundaries, as evidenced by Octomore 10.3, which is matured for six years in American oak casks and distilled from barley that's grown on a single Islay farm. The potent whisky clocks in at 61.3% ABV, and the peat registers at a whopping 114 ppm (phenol parts per million). That’s a lot of smoke, but the whisky’s character is still front and center, with plenty of sweetness, citrus and spice. Octomore is not for everyone, but that seems to be Bruichladdich’s M.O., to experiment and challenge how far it can go with peat, while still crafting a drinkable, enjoyable whisky.
3. Compass Box Peat Monster ($65)
Compass Box sources its whisky, finding rare and artfully distilled juice that the company then blends together into special releases. The Peat Monster is part of the Signature Range, and is comprised of whisky from Islay, Mull and Speyside. It’s light in color but big on smoke, although not overpoweringly so, most likely due to the addition of the lighter Speyside component. There’s an underlying hint of sweetness that takes the edge off The Peat Monster, making it more on par with a blended scotch like Johnnie Walker Blue Label, though it’s a much more interesting dram.
4. Laphroaig Cairdeas Port & Wine Casks ($130)
Laphroaig might be the best known of the peaty Islay single malts. It's a whisky that one can find in almost any bar, even those that don’t specialize in brown spirits. The brand’s flagship 10-year-old scotch is never a bad choice, but Laphroaig’s Cairdeas Port & Wine Cask expression is a fun experiment. It marries whisky that was aged in ruby port barriques with whisky that was aged in ex-bourbon barrels and then finished in red wine casks. That combination produces a dram with sweet honey, cooked fruit, toasted marshmallows and Laphroaig’s classic iodine-rich peat smoke.
5. Laphroaig Lore ($150)
This whisky was released to celebrate 200 years of Laphroaig history. The liquid comes from a variety of casks, including first-fill bourbon barrels, virgin European oak, first-fill oloroso sherry butts and quarter casks. That’s a lot of flavor being combined, and it comes across from the moment you pop the cork. Laphroaig Lore is deep and peaty, with strong undercurrents of dried currants and a touch of sea salt and seaweed. It’s a complex dram that’s often enjoyed with a splash of water, which unlocks even more aromas and flavors.
6. Lagavulin 8 Years Old ($75)
Lagavulin is another of the famous Islay peated whiskies, and the brand released this eight-year-old expression in 2016 to celebrate the distillery’s 200th anniversary. The whisky is said to be inspired by Alfred Barnard, a British whisky writer from the Victorian era who you have probably never heard of (it’s OK, you’re not alone). Supposedly, he sampled an eight-year-old bottling in the 1880s and praised it; hence, this anniversary edition is eight instead of 16 years old. The whisky is light and refined but also smoky and a little sweet, with a long finish that warms you up as you wind down.
7. Talisker 18 Years Old ($162)
This is a classic single malt from the only distillery on the Isle of Skye. Talisker is double-distilled, and the taste combines marine salt with some fruit that balances out this medium-peated whisky. Talisker 18 is an excellent option for new entrants into the world of peat, but it’s also prized by veteran drinkers of smoky scotch.