Peated Whiskey: How Is It Made, Its History, and Top Brands

by Dane Wilson | Last Updated: September 23, 2022

Hey there! This site is reader-supported and we earn commissions if you purchase products from retailers after clicking on a link from our site.

What do words like bacon fat, soot, creosote, and seaweed all have in common? Those are some of the flavors people notice when they drink peated whiskey. An acquired taste, peated Scotch and whiskey are known for being the edgier cousins of smoother alcohol. For some, nothing is better than peated whiskey. Others would rather use it to seal their roof. Whether you love it or don’t, peated whiskey has a lot of history and exuberance to go around.

Table of Contents

What is Peat?

You can’t talk about peated whiskey without first discussing the very humble, down-to-earth origins of peat. Imagine a swamp. Within that swamp is saturated earth, decomposing leaves, sedges, reeds, and moss. In the colder climates, such as Scotland, peat forms in these damp patches of swampy land. However, you cannot make peat overnight. A single foot of peat takes around 300 years to form, making it a rather finite resource. When dredged up from the swamp, peat is a deep black substance filled with scraggly roots and remnants of plants.

Humans have been digging up peat and using it as a heat source for centuries. When it comes to using peat for whiskey, however, only the shallowest portions are commercially cut from the ground for use. It looks a little like cake in its rawest form.

A Brief History of Peated Whiskey

Now that you know about peat, the history of peated whiskey and Scotch will make more sense. Peat has been used in Scotland as a primary source of heat and fuel for centuries. That is because Scotland is covered in a significant number of peat bogs. The layers of peat in these regions have been forming for thousands of years—some are 5,000 years old. How can the age of a peat bog be measured? On average, the peat layers grow about 1 mm annually. That means it takes about 3,000 years for peat to get about 3 meters thick.

Back before industrialization, Scots gathered sun-dried bricks of peat and used them to heat pots. Commercial distillation later began during the 18th century. The practice of using became all the more popular throughout the past 200 years or so. More and more demanded the Scotch, and so the practice has persisted. However, peat use has declined since the 1950s, when other alternatives, like coke, were introduced.

Due to the ecological impact of dredging up peat, many traditional distilleries have redesigned their malting barley process. For example, Bowmore takes peat bricks and grinds them down into a powder before adding it to fire to increase the smoke yield. Distilleries like Glen Ord, Port Ellen, and Glen Esk utilize closed smoking systems instead of traditional kilns to contain the smoke while increasing the influence of the peat on the malt.

Fortunately, the peat in Scotland regrows at a rapid rate, ensuring that there will be enough peat for whiskey and Scotch for many years to come.

Check out this video for more cool details:

How is Peat Used in Peated Whiskey?

You may be amazed to learn that peat somehow manages to instill its flavor in whiskey despite being used once throughout the whole process. Yes, that’s right—peat is used only for kilning the malt. Malting is essential, because you need the grains to germinate and convert starches into sugars. During fermentation, those sugars transform into ethanol, also known as alcohol.

How is this done?

At the whiskey brewing facility, there is a drying chamber with a perforated floor. Malted barley gets spread out over the floor while a fire is stoked in the kiln that sits beneath. The flames are choked off with mouthfuls of fresh, aromatic peat. The goal is to produce a thick gray smoke that rises up towards the grains. Since the grains are moist, the peat smoke absorbs into the hulls readily.

The impact redefines the flavors of the whiskey and Scotch.

What Does Peated Whiskey Taste Like?

One of the interesting things about the smokiness of peat is that, when you consider how tremendous the overall flavor is, you can often overlook the complex nature of the alcohol. You can think of the flavor of peated whiskey as light passing through a prism. On one side, you have all the colors of light blending into one white beam. But then you also have to consider the blues, greens, reds, pinks, oranges, and yellows that blend together to make that harmony happen.

But if you are more chemistry minded, you might look at the flavor of peated whiskey as the variety of syringols, guaiacols, and phenols that are responsible for that smokiness. Depending on the composition of the peat, the phenolic compounds represented on every single grain of barley could be different! This is why peated Scotch and whiskey have so much variety, even between bottles of the same brand.

Here is a look at how some phenols affect flavor:

  • Phenol: responsible for the medicinal flavors
  • Syringol: adds a burnt smell but adds a slight vanilla flavor
  • Guaiacol: responsible for savory smokiness or a burnt flavor
  • Cresol: moss, coal, and tar-like notes
  • Bromophenols: marine character, such as kelp or nori

For example, if peat is harvested from the blanket bogs in Scotland, the whiskey is going to be more woody and earthy. Meanwhile, if you select more coastal peat, the whiskey is imbued with a briny flavor. Other peat may impart a vanilla essence.

Peated Whiskey

How is the Level of Peat in Scotch Whiskey Measured?

The peatiness of a Scotch whiskey is typically measured as phenol parts per million, also called the ppm. The number shows how many phenols were detected in the malt, not in the finished product. If you are looking for the lighter side of peaty whiskeys, look for those with about 20 phenol ppm. The smokiness will be slightly detectable. More like a whisper than anything.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have Scotch whiskeys like those brewed at Bruichladdich that have a peatiness of 300 ppm. That said, keep in mind what was mentioned above: even whiskeys with the exact same ppm can taste distinct. The origin of the peat plays a significant role in the flavor.

Myth Busting Peated Whiskey

Being that you are here learning about peated whiskey, you may have done some research in other places or heard something that just didn’t sound right. There are indeed a couple of myths cycling around that need to be busted.

Here are two misconceptions:

  • Smoke comes from charring the casks or barrels that are used for maturing whiskey.
  • Scotland’s peaty water contributes to the smokiness of peated Scotch and whiskey.

No and no.

First off, the barrels used for aging whiskey are charred. The purpose is to form a layer of charcoal that helps purify and filter any impurities out of the maturing whiskey. The charcoal does not add any flavor to the whiskey.

Secondly, while the water used in Scotland is going to add different notes to whiskey compared to what is brewed in Japan or the United States, the water doesn’t add smoke. The elements in the water that could potentially influence the flavor of whiskey or Scotch do not survive distillation.

Are Peat and Smoke The Same Thing?

Time for a shock. Peat and smoke are not the same thing. You can drink a peaty whiskey without a single note of smoke. On the flip side, you could have a whiskey that tastes like liquid campfire that uses zero peat. There are also smoky scents that will not contribute to the flavor and vice versa.

Most often, the smoke you get in whiskey is related to combustion. Mentioned earlier was the fact that peat has cake-like layers. Some sections of peat have more organic materials, such as strings of dead grass. Should those elements be thrown into a kiln, they will burn, adding real smoke to the malted barley.

Does Aging Whiskey Make It More Peaty?

Since the whiskey-making process only requires the use of peat when malting, those phenols attached to the grains do not carry through to the finished product. Fermentation and distillation counteract the presence of the phenols, reducing their presence. Phenols also fade with age. The longer whiskey remains in the cask, the smoother and less harsh it becomes. Simply put, the peatiness whiskeys and Scotch out there are very young—around 6-8 years.

Around 12-18 years, whiskey begins to take on the properties of the cask. The original smoke flavor is lost among the notes of the cask. This is why some people are disappointed when they pay a handsome price for Islay whiskey that has aged for almost 30 years. Despite the peat used while the whiskey is made, the aging reduces the peat. Of course, Islay whiskey is delicious, but it is not the peaty monster many people think it will be.

How to Drink Peated Whiskey

If you have never had peated whiskey or Scotch before, you may have zero idea about how to drink it. Turns out, there are a couple of ways to make use of peaty spirits. Scotch is most often enjoyed neat at room temperature. The subtlest of flavors are more easily recognized when the whiskey is not frozen or even chilled. You can also add a drop of water into the Scotch to help the flavors develop even further.

Of course, drinking Scotch slightly chilled is also fine. Some people may chide you for your choice, but adding cool whiskey stones to your snifter can make it easier to drink.

Another way to enjoy peated whiskey or Scotch is by mixing it into a cocktail. Often, the peaty whiskey is incorporated into a cocktail as a supporting role. The various notes create a seasoning. Sometimes the whiskey is also used solely for the aromatics and not the flavor. For example, some bartenders will swirl a touch of Laphroaig or Lagavulin Scotch into a martini glass before adding in the vodka. The smoky smell of the whiskey will add dimension to the martini.

However, if you want to get a perfectly blended beverage that brings out the peat, a whiskey and Coke cannot be beaten. The sweetness of the cola balances out the intense smoke of peated whiskey. Give that combination a try. You will most likely fall in love with whiskey and cola.

10 Top Brands of Peated Whiskey Worth Trying

Craving a smoky dram? There are plenty of peated whiskeys out there. The popularity of the spirit has spread internationally, ensuring that there are some exquisite whiskeys with unique flavor profiles. Check out these 10 best brands of peated whiskey to try today:

1. Bruichladdich Octomore 10

Want to try one of the most peaty whiskeys on the market? Then you are going to want a sip or two of Bruichladdich’s Octomore series from Islay. “Most peaty” might sound like you are going to be drinking pure smoke, but don’t worry. Bruichladdich uses their hundreds of years of experience to distill something incredible. The Scotch is subtle yet strong, smoky yet smooth. The Octomore series has variations depending on the casks used as well as the ppm.

For example, the 10.1 has 107 ppm and was aged for 5 years in bourbon barrels. The Octomore 10.4 has 88 ppm and is the youngest whiskey. It is matured in a Limousin oak barrel.

If you cannot locate Octomore near you, try searching for Port Charlotte 10 instead. Both Octomore and Port Charlotte have the same Islay spirit!

2. Ardbeg Uigeadail

Ardbeg is yet another renowned distillery with plenty of experience and creativity to keep you guessing. One of the defining characteristics of this brand is their peatiness. Few distilleries in Scotland can produce something as peaty as what Ardbeg makes. Uigeadail (OO-gah-dal) is the name of a loch where Ardbeg gets its water for the Scotch. Fascinatingly, Ardbeg does not provide a lot more information about this whiskey. All you need to know, though, is that you taste smoke alongside dark chocolate, orange zest, and even caramel. It’s delicious.

3. BenRiach Core Range

In the US, BenRiach is not a well known name. It’s time to get acquainted. BenRiach has a long spread of whiskeys to try, each of them unique and worth a taste test. However, one of the most beguiling offerings is called Core Range, each one made with Highland peat. True to Islay, the whiskey comes off as a symphony of sweet and salty. What makes BenRiach different from other distilleries is their casks. They experiment with flavors and blends regularly.

4. Stauning Smoke Danish Whisky

Denmark is known for a lot of things, but you probably don’t think of whiskey. Stauning, founded in 2009, is here to make a great first impression. Stauning Smoke is a true expression of peat. The ingredients are from sources local to the distillery, including the peat. The terroir in the peat produces a decent amount of smoky flavor and scent. Yet, unlike Islay peat, the smoke in Stauning is more floral. If you want a sweeter, slightly creamy whiskey to drink straight, this is one distinctive brand that you are going to want to try.

5. Lagavulin 16 Year Old

At the heart of many peated whiskey fans is Lagavulin. Believed to be a quintessential Scotch, Lagavulin 16 has everything to love. With 35 ppm, the smokiness is almost like ash on the tongue. As a true Islay whiskey, there is also a bit of briny bite. Once you get past the peat, you will also notice a bit of oak, vanilla, caramel, and fruit. There is no denying that Lagavulin 16 is one of the whiskeys to try if you want to get to know the full range of flavors peat brings to the table.

6. Connemara 12 Year Old Peated Single Malt Irish Whiskey

If you find that you love the lightness of Irish whiskey, check out Connemara 12 Year Old, a single malt Irish whiskey with plenty of peat to go around. The interplay between the traditional Irish notes and peat creates an interesting spread of aromas and flavors that range from toffee, cereal, bacon, vanilla, and barbecue. Does that sound odd? It is, but in a good way.

At 80 proof, this is an excellent way for fans of Irish whiskey to get a toe in the world of peat.

7. Bunnahabhain Toiteach A Dha

Sure, the name is a mouthful, but that is part of the intrigue. “Bunnahabhain” means “mouth of the river” in Celtic, which is perfect for a peated Scotch coming from northern Islay. Many newcomers to the world Scotch find that Bunnahabhain Toiteach A Dha is one of the friendliest whiskeys out there. There is a generous amount of smoke, but that is tempered by oak, sherry, and pepper. This is a multifaceted whiskey that will make you say, “Whoa.”

8. Bowmore 12 Year Old Scotch Whisky

Established in 1779, the Bowmore distillery is one of the most successful out there. You can taste the 250 years of experience in every single sip. One of the best peated whiskeys to try is the 12 Year Old from Bowmore. The sherry casks used by the distillery add the softest of touches to the Scotch. You also get a fair amount of peat. Interestingly, this is one of the best Scotches to partner with a sweet dessert, such as tiramisu or crème brulee.

9. Laphroaig Peated Scotch Whisky

One of the best selling Scotches out there, Laphroaig Peated Scotch Whisky is known for have a full body, salinity, and balance. Try the 10 Year Old whiskey first. It will make you pucker your lips a little, due to the lack of sweetness. However, if you want a true peaty experience, there is nothing quite like this. Feed your curiosity for Islay peat with Laphroaig. Once you get enough of the traditional batches, opt to try the Cairdeas line.

10. Nikka Yoichi Single Malt

Japan and Scotland have always shared some commonality when it came to making whiskey. This single malt peated whiskey hails from Yoichi, the first distillery of Nikka. Yoichi was constructed in Hokkaido in 1934. Why the coldest region of Japan? Hokkaido is environmentally similar to Scotland and has plenty of peat to go around. Due to the coal-fired distillation process, Nikka Yoichi single malt whiskey is one of the smokiest on the market. If you want to taste liquid campfire, give this one a go.

11. Highland Park 18 Year Old: Viking Pride

Here is one you may be surprised to see. Highland Park is a brand that has won a plethora of awards for their delicious whiskey. Hailing from the island of Orkney, which was once home to Vikings but later abandoned, this whiskey is aptly named. The 18 Year Old Viking Pride is aged in American and European Oloroso sherry casks, giving it an almost boozy finish. The peat used to smoke the malted barley adds less smoke and more vanilla, honey, and earthy tones. No one flavor is too overpowering; it all blends together delightfully.

If you love whiskey and sherry, be sure to give this one a try.

Can’t Beat The Peat

Now that you know more about peat and how it is used to make Scotch whiskey, why not pour yourself a dram? Peated whiskey is a delectable, strange, and fascinating creation with loads of flavor. There is plenty of love about peated Scotch and whiskey, as well as many distilleries out there. You are bound to find a peated whiskey that you love. Cheers!