Smoky charms

Tar, creosote, bonfire and ashy smoke are not usually considered very pleasant or appealing descriptors for consumers, but when it comes to peated whisky these terms are entirely appropriate.

It’s well known that aromatics and sense of smell has a strong influence on our appreciation of flavour. Scientists who research taste and flavour are now beginning to appreciate that there is a genetic element to both aroma and taste. Some people are blind to certain smells while they are powerful and pungent to others. Consequently it follows that the appreciation of a taste of something is affected by how much of an impact the smell has.

Researchers have identified that the smoky-smelling compound found in peaty whisky is guaiacol – and also that it’s the same smell found in bacon, smoked fish, wine and even roasted coffee! There’s a compelling theory that those who smell the smoky notes most and also experience it as strongly flavoured might like peated whisky less than those who don’t experience the same pungency in smell or taste.

It’s an interesting theory. Publisher Shayne Dowling and Editor Fiona McDonald put their heads together when tasting the range of whiskies detailed below.

Tasting panel: Shayne Dowling and Fiona McDonald

Ardbeg Wee Beastie 5 year old

The morning after the campfire, was a description applied to this one. Big bonfire notes with some bacon bones or smoked ham too, along with new leather shoes. The flavour continued that ashy theme with a tarry, creosote nuance mixing with broader, sweet but spirited elements. A pungent and powerful dram.

Ardbeg 10 year old

It was surprising that although twice as old or mature as the Wee Beastie, this was somewhat milder and almost sweeter. The nose displayed more oat biscuit, polished leather and coal smoke. Bright, spicy, warm and rounded with a refined, elegant smokiness and an intriguing licorice and fennel seed tinge to the palate.

Johnnie Walker Black

Consistently, one of the world’s best selling whiskies this is an exceptionally popular blended example. There’s a smoky element to it courtesy of Caol Ila malt from Islay but it’s not too much. Vanilla and dried fruit with a subtle whiff of smoke on the nose. Cereal and biscuit, nuts and dried orange with spice, treacle and that same gentle sooty nuance on the palate. Such a reliable and dependable whisky – and a good way for people to test their smoke or peat taste limits, Shayne said.

BenRiach The Smoky 12

This would be a great introduction for someone starting to explore peated whiskies, Shayne said. The smoke isn’t as oily or pungent as it is on the Islay examples. It’s more gentle and softer, not as acrid and the richer, fruit notes, heather, caramel and orange zest and cocoa or dark chocolate elements balance it well. Overall, a lovely expression with subtle smokiness.

Bunnahabhain 12 year old

Located at the water’s edge, the warehouses at this distillery have been known to be affected by a particularly high tide! Saline sea breeze and kelp notes on the nose and palate mingle with soft, supple and ripe raisin and sultana, caramel flavours. Fiona noted a distinctly dry peppery element that even brings a bit of heat to the taste. The smoke is more of the burned toast variety.

GlenDronach Peated

Charred wood, bit of braai smoke but with a slight caramel or toffee edge, Fiona remarked. Those same characteristics can be found in the mouth with some shortbread, biscuit and even a touch of buttery toffee and spice.


The taste of the Isle of Skye. A briny sea breeze, kelp and tendril of smoke, like that from a far off fire, can be found alongside some dried orange zest and pepper. Rounded, smooth and with a gently smoky sweetness with that same citrus appeal in the mouth. Spicy ginger and cardamom vivacity add to the dry and lively texture. Very approachable.

Laphroaig Select

The use of sherry casks for the maturation means this is more restrained than the others but it still has its trademark peat whiffs. Distinctive medicinal notes on the nose and in the mouth but with a rich, creamy cocoa, caramel and soft dried fruits vibe. Gentle, smooth and appealing.

Laphroaig 10

No mistaking the peat here, Shayne said. Big bonfire and ash with a creosote but also kelp, sea bamboo nuance – that even becomes almost saline. Rich but oily and dry, like having smoked mackerel on an oat cracker. Subtle sweet toffee and praline emerges from the smoke.

Laphroaig Quarter Cask

Texture is the thing here, Fiona noted. Smooth, velvety and supple with a gentle heat that seems to then bring that sooty, ash peatiness and TCP theme through. It’s like enjoying cinnamon raisin oatmeal crunchies while standing around the braai – the flavours and aromas mingle and intertwine. It’s friendly and appealing despite that medicinal note.

Lagavulin 16

This is one of the granddaddies of the Islay peats! Briny kelp with iodine and tarry coal smoke aromatics. Rich, warm, hearty, smooth with that smouldering twig and bonfire vibe. Lovely cereal and malty elegance and balance throughout. Easy to see why it’s so highly regarded, Shayne said.