5 Smoky World Whiskies Challenging Scotch
When the topic of smoky whisky comes up in a bar it’s usually in association with Scotland, and more so, the famed isle of Islay. From Lagavulin to Bowmore, Islay enjoys a long, rich history of peated (smoky) whisky-making, made possible through the island’s vast peat bogs, where the organic matter has been accumulating for centuries. Used throughout time on the isle, not only for whisky-making but as a source of fuel, peat and the whisky born through it is now synonymous with Islay. But the whiskey world is changing and peated expressions, bursting with notes of earth, wood, and smoke, are being created in countries you’d never imagine. From the land of the rising sun all the way to the Pacific Northwest, here are the smoky whiskies challenging peated Scotch on the global whiskey stage.
Westland Peated Single Malt
Based in Seattle, Westland has been a leading force in the recent movement of American single malt whiskey. The distillery utilizes a carefully thought-out mash bill and uses local ingredients to create a range of stellar single malts. The team also launched the Garryana-matured Native Oak series, which sees Westland travel across the West Coast in search of Garry oak, a rare type of wood native to the Pacific Northwest. Further expanding their portfolio, Westland Peated claims to have a ‘mash of peated malt that is among the smokiest in the world.’ The smoky malt is mixed with their unpeated variety to create a balanced whiskey bursting with notes of campfire wood, smoke, subtle fruit, and vanilla, present through maturation in American oak.
Mackmyra Svensk Rok
Sweden is known for many things. Good coffee, cinnamon buns, sustainability. They’re also making a mark on the whisky world. Mackmyra started in 1999 and has since launched successfully in markets all over the world. They keep it local too, as all the ingredients used in production are sourced within 75 miles of the distillery. The Mackmyra Svensk Rok is made using Swedish peat from a white moss peat bog (Karin-mossen) in the region of Gästrikland. The release also features the addition of Swedish juniper, with twigs placed on top of the peat stacks before burning. Speaking to Angela D’Orazio, Mackmyra’s master blender, she emphasizes that juniper makes up only 1% of the smoking material. As juniper’s profile is so strong, this percentage is enough. The nose brings fruit, vanilla, juniper, and subtle smoke. Aromas of raisins and plums continue on to the palate, where the smoke intensifies. Earth, wood, and soft juniper in the air deliver the whisky of Sweden.
Paul John Peated Select Cask
Based in Goa, India, the Paul John distillery is one of the pioneering forces behind the Indian single malt whisky boom. Alongside Amrut, Paul John creates one of India’s only single malt whiskies, exporting their expressions across Europe, Asia, and the US. Despite the company's huge size, modesty is quickly seen in their ethos. As the master distiller, Michael D’Souza, puts it during our chat, ‘we do not do anything special to create quality single malt whisky, we simply see that each and every whisky-making step is meticulously followed.’ Bottled at 55.5%, the Paul John Peated Select Cask is made using Scottish peat, as India doesn’t have peat bogs. The smoke from the peat fire dries the malt and flavours it, before it’s broken down, fermented, and finally, distilled. Matured in bourbon casks and distilled using six-row barley, the nose is sweet and surprisingly spicy, with ginger, pepper, and cinnamon aromas. The palate delivers abundant smoke, meatiness, and leather, while the spice turns sweet, bringing about a stellar balance. Colourful, vibrant, and balanced, this Paul John single malt is a must for lovers of peat.
Kavalan Peaty Cask
There’s not much to say about Kavalan that hasn’t already been said, even Paul Giamatti sings the distillery's praises on Showtime's 'Billions' series. The distillery is truly a wonder. In just 11 years the team have managed to create whisky which stands tall against the oldest, most established distilleries in the world. Based just outside Taipei, in Taiwan, the distillery utilizes the country’s hot, humid climate, which greatly accelerates maturation, making Kavalan whiskies burst with deep flavours far beyond their years. While Kavalan doesn’t (yet) make peated spirit in the traditional sense (drying the malt over a peat fire), this expression was matured in a cask previously holding peated whisky. This interesting approach delivers a subtle smokiness, with some pineapple and sandalwood on the nose. The smoke intensifies on the palate as does the presence of summer fruit and caramel, finally delivering a long, rich finish of balanced sweetness and smoke. A truly spectacular smoky expression, partially reminiscent of a traditional peated malt but with the exotic, oriental addition of sweet tropical fruit and incense.
Yoichi 20 Year-Old
Founded by the father of Japanese whisky, Masataka Taketsuru, Hokkaido’s Yoichi distillery has come to be known as the maker of intense, smoky Japanese whisky. Taketsuru dreamt of creating whisky similar to the Scottish, but in his own homeland of Japan. For this reason, he left his job managing Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery after 10 years and started Yoichi (and Nikka) back in 1934. Sadly, the Yoichi aged range was discontinued a few years ago, amidst stock shortages at Nikka. But some bottles of the 10, 15, and 20 Year-Old remain in the 'wild' for those willing to search.
The Yoichi 20 Year-Old is the very definition of peated Japanese whisky. Powerful and bold, yet deep and rich, it all comes together to create this timeless expression. Aromas of deep smoke, umami, and leather blend in with the presence of vanilla and burnt caramel. The palate is unexpectedly lively, with winter spice and dried fruit joining the thick earth, oak, and smoke. Meaty notes with some liquorice bring a well-balanced finish to this truly exceptional whisky from Japan.