I’ve been an absolutely distracted sonofabitch of late. Every time I would sit down with pen and paper in hand something else would grab my attention and off I would go looking into that.
I think I was subconsciously telling my self to take a break from writing and simply enjoy the whiskies instead. So that’s what I did. Drank for the sake of enjoying my self. No notes. No discussions. Just a good dollop of my favourite poison in the midst of good company (dog included).
But I think I’ve had enough of a break. Plus I’m off to my favourite part of the world in less than two weeks time and I need to start getting into the groove of reporting. Which favourite part, you ask? Well, if you don’t know me by now I guess you never will.
And so, with that in mind and, as a tip of my hat to this remote South Western part of Scotland here are 10 of my favourite smoky whiskies. Spoiler alert, there’s a couple plus one more not from there but you know what I mean.
Also, in no particular order.
Let’s just start with my once all-time favourite. The disgustingly excellent Oogy. I had heard many a whisky drinker / writer mention their Eureka moment – that moment when a certain special whisky hits your palate and you lean back with your eyes closes and say what the actual fuck is going on here? Like it or not that’s an actual quote. I had it with this whisky one evening many moons ago. It was an earlier bottling (around 2007, I think), hence, not marred by the ugly taint of hurried production to meet demand. Just the right combination of thick and chewy smoky peat countered by the perfectly balanced sherry. Still my go to dram to finish off a long session of whisky drinking. Alas, later batches are losing their edge, I feel. Still a mighty fine whisky if you ask me.
The first distillery I visited. The most generous distillery I’ve visited. Staffed by some of the loveliest people I have ever met (though on Islay that’s not very surprising). One of the best tours on the island (if you haven’t then you must check out Water to Whisky). And, in my opinion, quite possibly the most consistently above average spirit produced at these quantities on the island. And the jewel in their peaty crown is their Cask Strength series. Bottled at 10 years old, matured in first-fill bourbon and served at cask strength this series has captured the imagination of even the most hardened of whisky drinkers. There is not a soul who has told me they don’t love this whisky. How can you? It’s just good old fashioned whisky making. My favourite of the lot (they’re up to Batch 008 by now) is Batch 003. Quite possibly the most balanced of them all. Sweeter than most. Though not as smoky as some of the batches (like the 006) but brilliantly preserves it’s Islay heritage of peat, seaweed, iodine and that lovely charred ashy smoke that wafts in and out of your palate as you indulge. The most affordable, as well as tastiest, of all the whiskies you can lay your hands on.
Bruce Lee once famously said “I fear not the man who has practised 10,000 kicks once but the man who has practised one kick 10,000 times.” Bruce Lee could not only punch you from an inch away and hurl you back 10 feet he was also a sage. And if I didn’t know any better I would have thought he was referring to Lagavulin 16. This is the right way of doing things. Perfect a formula. Never let it go. Keep at it till it becomes your second skin. That’s what the Lagavulin 16 is. It has defined the essence of the distillery. Lagavulin, thanks to this 16 year old, can do no wrong. The 16 is the Barack Obama of the distillery. The right balance of fun and seriousness. The swag. Universally loved. Easy to fall in love with. In fact that’s what I have in my glass right now. A buttery sweetness held together by it’s own unique dance of smoke and peat. Flawlessly balanced. Readily available. Relatively well priced. What more could you ask for? Maybe a Warehouse session with Iain Macarthur, perhaps?
Seldom does a distillery suddenly spring up out of no where (the first distillery on Islay in over a 100 years) and capture the hearts of so many whisky lovers. Kilchoman did just that. Hardly 10 years old it has brought back the forgotten art of hand-crafted whiskies. This minuscule operation churns out just enough whisky to keep us barely satiated. But what it does produce it produces with the sternest of eyes on quality. Top quality ingredients and a firm grip on the production process have resulted in some of the tastiest liquid to emerge from Scotland in recent memory. Proud to tell people how young yet incredibly tasty it is it has thrown the gauntlet down in front of brands that hide behind non-age statement whiskies scared to divulge any information on age. Yes, the Machir Bay is a non-age statement but all of Kilchoman’s literature will tell you there is four to six year old spirit inside that bottle. They don’t hide anything. Proving once and for all that age is truly a number. Good whisky, if made with care and passion, will yield stunning results in even five years. The Machir Bay is a shining example of that passion. Matured in first-fill bourbons and then finished off in sherry casks it captures the essence of the island with it’s hint of sherry sweetness and a lot of barley grist and lime shrouded in the most delicate of smoke. Later batches have older whiskies and are just as good as their younger cousins. If anyone wishes for a masterclass in whisky making head on down there.
Surprisingly the only distillery on Islay that doesn’t peat it’s whiskies is Bruichladdich. In fact they claim to be a ‘peat-free zone’ as per their website. However, Jim McEwan has turned producing peated whiskies into an art form. And this art he presents in the form of Port Charlotte whiskies. Born as a special project the PC series uses heavily peated barley (40ppm) and is served at cask strength. Of the lot (PC5 to PC12) my favourite is the PC6. Alas, now discontinued, this six year old whisky is a joy to behold (and imbibe). Served at a blazing 61.6% it promises to take no prisoners. The delivery is surprisingly fruity with citrus and green apple but it’s the strength and the perfectly balanced smoke that takes you places you’ve never been. This one is scarce on the ground and now only available to punters scouring auction sites only to be had at silly prices. Nevertheless, this is history in a bottle.
No list of smoky whiskies is complete without the powerhouse that is the Octomore. Once again Jim McEwan has created a monster that will live long in the hearts of the brave for many many years to come. Peated at unfathomable levels of up to 258ppm the Octomore series is a kick in the teeth for the uninitiated. Served at cask strength it is like making snow angels in the dying embers of a once raging fire all the while being comforted by the perfectly balanced sweetness of vanilla and citrus. This is the by far the smokiest and most powerful whisky on this list. It is a testament to the genius of Sir Jim McEwan (he doesn’t have an MBE but I’ve given him one). It’s OK to be a little scared of this whisky. But once you get over your terror believe me it’s impossible not to fall in love with it. An iron fist in a velvet glove.
Now peat and smoke are not the sole property of Islay. It is known for it, yes. But that doesn’t mean non-Islay whiskies are barred from peating their barley. And that brings us to this Longrow 11 R&K. Two hours from Islay (by ferry, that is) is the town of Campbeltown. Once a prolific whisky producing region it now has just three distilleries to its’ name. One of those distilleries is Springbank and this distillery is genius. It uses the same stills to produce three different types of whisky. The un-peated Hazelburn, the mildly peated Springbank and finally Longrow, the heavily peated nectar of the Gods (and my favourite of the lot). With an earthiness unique to this area Longrow creates some of the most lip-smacking whiskies I have ever come across. This particular spirit is 11 years old and matured in tiny casks known as Runlets & Kilderkins. These casks are barely 75 litres and were previously used to store beer. The small size means massive contact between wood and spirit, thus, imparting some seriously intense flavours. Ground coffee beans, tiramisu and it’s own version of Campbeltown smoky peat make this expression startlingly good. If you’re not afraid to venture out of your comfort zone then get your hands on this bottle.
The first time I tasted the Balcones Brimstone I pretty much fell off my chair. I mean there was no way a whisky was supposed to taste like this. Made by, then owner, Chip Tate at the Balcones Distillery in Waco, Texas it broke all conventional rules. First of all it was made by burnt blue corn (yes, you read that right) and once distilled it was subject to some seriously severe smoking using sun baked Texas scrub oak. That’s right. Smoked after being distilled. This was followed by three years in a virgin oak under the blazing Texas sun and you had the makings of a monster. Imagine sitting next to a bonfire. No wait. Imagine sitting inside the bonfire. Actually, no wait. Imagine you are the fucking bonfire. This is what this whisky is. Peppery, hard-hitting and insanely smoky this one should come with a warning. And it’s own fireman. One of the most unique whisky tasting experiences of my life.
Close to Islay is the small island of Skye. And on it is one distillery. Talisker. That’s it. Maybe an inn, a B&B and some deer. But that’s pretty much it. The entire island depends on the distillery for it’s sustenance. Which is fine because it produces spirit like the classic ten year old and the one that stole my heart – the 57 North. Named because the distillery is located at 57 degrees Longitude the spirit is bottled at (and no prizes for guessing) at a lovely 57%. If you haven’t figured it out by now I am a sucker for high strength whiskies. And this one is no exception. Once again, as with all on my list, it’s the balance that reigns supreme. Sweet vanilla and the deftest of smoke. That combination of sweet and smoky is my melting point.
Now you might raise an eyebrow or two when reading this but allow me to explain. When I said I was going to do a list of smoky whiskies I didn’t just mean those that force you to put on a gas mask. If you recall I said smoky and not smokiest. Subtle difference in words but a huge gap in styles. The Highland Park 18 is the epitome of that difference. While drinkers imagine massive puffs of peat smoke every time someone uses the word smoky to describe a whisky the HP 18 takes the most delicate of smokes and weaves it intricately in between layers of sherry sweetness. I remember when I first really noticed it. It came a few seconds after I poured the spirit onto my palate. I was enjoying the sweetness of the sherry when suddenly, out of no where, it emerged. Like a genie. It caressed my taste buds and was present long after I had banished the liquid down into the deep chasm that is my gullet. While most whiskies on this list wear the smoky badge with a swagger this 18 year old reserves it for when you least expect it.
As with all my lists this too is simply a reflection of my personal experiences. You may agree. Or disagree. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.