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What Is a Smoky Whisky? Here's All You Need To Know

By: Neelanjana Mondal

smoky whisky

There is a fine line between peaty and smoky whiskies and it’s the way the flavour is imparted to the liquor. The tagline here is not all peaty whiskies are smoky whiskies but mostly all smoky whiskies are peat whiskies. In case another agent is used to smoke, you can notice the difference given that peat is more earthy and the smoky ones often have a non-earthy, woodsy flavour to them.

The making of scotch with peat

To make Scotch whisky, malted barley must undergo a heating process to halt germination before fermentation. Traditionally, this was done by drying the malted barley over a peat-fueled fire. As the peat burned, the smoke enveloped the barley, infusing it with distinctive smoky aromas and flavours that carried through into the final whisky. Not all Scotch utilises peated malt, and the peat itself varies in character depending on its source. Peat from deeper levels or different regions contains diverse vegetation, leading to nuanced smoky profiles. The heathery peat of Highland Park's Orkney malts contrasts the robust, maritime peat smoke synonymous with many Islay distilleries. This variety in peat sources and preparation methods allows for a spectrum of smoked expressions, from subtle hints to intense smokiness, each shaped by the unique peat combustion during the malting stage.

smoky whisky

Peaty vs Smoky: The basics

Both are distinct but related characteristics found in certain whiskies, primarily those from Scotland. Peat is a fuel source made from partially decayed vegetation, and it has been traditionally used to dry the malted barley in some Scottish whisky regions, particularly Islay.

When peat is burned, it releases smoke, which comes into contact with the malted barley and imparts a distinct smoky aroma and flavour profile. The intensity of the smokiness can vary depending on the amount of peat used and the duration of exposure to the peat smoke.

Whiskies with a pronounced smoky character are often described as having notes of burning wood, campfire, iodine, or even a hint of medicinal or maritime notes. These smoky flavours can range in intensity, depending on the whisky's production methods and the specific distillery's house style.


Olfactory Trick

Peat and smoke are terms often used interchangeably, but they don't necessarily infer one another. It's easiest to discern smoke versus peat by assessing the whisky's nose, palate, and finish. On the nose, smokiness is the obvious aroma we associate with burning -- it could be wood, clothing or something similar. Peatiness, however, comes across as a dank earthiness, like moist topsoil or fertile potting mix. In many Islay malts, peat can also have an iodine or rotting seaweed note. So smokiness is more carbon-based, while peatiness is more organic.

Tasting Trick

On the tongue, smokiness typically manifests as an ashy or charcoal-like taste; it's as if you just drank something cigarette-flavoured or inhaled cigarette smoke and has a drying, sooty experience. Peatiness manifests more organically, likened to root liquorice, earthy soil notes, and dark flavours like black jelly beans, sometimes with a dry, floral note. The finish is where they diverge more where smokiness leaves a dry, ashy aftertaste, whereas peatiness has a moist after-note and green bitterness (like over-boiled veggies or unripe fruit). In balanced whiskies, this peat bitterness is offset by the malt's sweetness.

smoky whisky

Phenomenal Phenol

Ultimately, peatiness contributing to smoke derives from phenol levels in the malted barley. Discerning their nuances enhances understanding and appreciation of these distinct but related whisky characteristics. The phenols contained in the malt, from barley, that are used to make the whiskies are what define and give their peaty or smoky characteristics. There are primarily five phenols present in whisky – Syringol, Cresol,  Guaiacol, Xylenol and Phenol; these differentiate peaty from smoky. Some are detectable only to the nose, some to taste and some add a certain amount of sweetness and medical taste to the whisky.

If you prefer yours on the milder side, Black Dog whisky can grant you that experience and just like peaty whiskies, this one is perfect to be enjoyed neat, on the rocks or with a splash of water. The stronger ones come from Scotland’s Islay where there is a bountiful peat supply to keep the distilleries fed. There are other varieties of scotch also sold internationally with the distinct smell and taste of smoke in them. 

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