10 Of My Favorite Smoky Whiskies

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.

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01 Ardbeg UigeadailLet’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.

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02 Laphroaig CSThe 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.

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03 Lagavulin 16Bruce 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?

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04 Kilchoman MachirBaySeldom 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.

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05 Port CharlotteSurprisingly 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.

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06 OctomoreNo 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.

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07 Longrow 11Now 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.

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08 Balcones BrimstoneThe 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.

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09 Talisker 57NorthClose 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.

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10 Highland PArk 18Now 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.
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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.

Longrow 11 Years – Rundlets and Kilderkins

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Distillery/Brand: Longrow | Region: Campbeltown | ABV: 51.7% | Color: Full Gold
Nose: 23 | Taste: 23 | Finish: 24 | Balance: 23 | Rating: 93

Review
There is something strangely fascinating about this bottle. I love the packaging with it’s bronze plaque-ish label on the front and it’s embossed lettering. It’s quite grand.

I picked this one off the shelf along with the CV of the same name to do a little head to head comparison. The CV, now discontinued, had gained quite a reputation along the way and so I was eager to see how this one would stack up against it’s brother.

The Rundlets & Kilderkins (R&K from now on) is a type of very small barrel which can be anywhere from 60 to 80 liters big. Or small, if you like. The idea is that smaller the cask the greater the interaction between spirit and wood and, hence, greater it’s influence.

These casks don’t come ready made and instead get re-proportioned from larger barrels. A Rundlet is basically one seventh of a butt making it one of the smallest cask unit holding around 74 liters and essentially used to mature wine. A Kilderkin, Dutch for small cask, was traditionally used to store beer and can hold around 80 odd liters. Think of it as a quarter-cask if you will, only a bit smaller.

This single malt is 11 years old, distilled in November 2001 and bottled in Januray 2013 and has an alcohol strength of 51.7%

Nose: Whoa! Big! Salty. Briny. Toffee. Chocolate. Coffee. Pine needles. Hay. Heather. Meaty. Boiled sausage. White salt. Black salt. Fortified wine. Soot. A different kind of peat. Ash. Dry leaves. Red licorice. Toffee apples. Medicinal. I love this nose. It’s brilliantly complex. Just layer upon layer of beautiful aromas.

Palate: Grape. Sweet wine. Chocolate. Spice. Cinnamon. Black pepper. Nutmeg. Brown bread. Roasted coffee beans. Rich earth. Butter on toast. It has a lovely crisp charring amid the coffee and the grapes.

Finish: Mocha. Mocha. Mocha. Coffee. Oak. Cinnamon. Dry leaves. Hint of smoke. Tar. Bitter chocolate. Drying.

I prefer this to the CV. Both from a packaging and over all experience and complexity point of view. The flavors are on point. The balance between char and sweet is admirable.

Longrows are notorious for breathing well over time which is why I’ve decanted some to have a go at it in six months. This could quite possibly be my favorite Longrow.

Rating: 93

Longrow Red 11 Years Old Australian Shiraz Cask

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Distillery/Brand: Longrow | Region: Campbeltown | ABV: 53.7% | Color: Young Sauternes
Nose: 22 | Taste: 21 | Finish: 22 | Balance: 22 | Rating: 87

Review
Longrow is the peated brother of Hazelburn and Springbank out of the tremendous Springbank distilleries. If you want to know how I feel about Campbeltown whiskies you can read my other reviews. Let’s just say I’m extremely fascinated by them.

A few weeks ago I had a taste of the new Red series by Longrow. They are peated 11 year olds matured in casks that previously held red liquid. The first one of the series was matured in Cabernet Sauvignon. The second one in Australian Shiraz and finally the third one in Port.

I tasted the Port finish first and quite liked it. The one I have in the glass right now has been matured in Australian Shiraz casks. First six years in a re-fill hogshead and then the last five in the Australian Shiraz.

My sample is from a brand new bottle and has been packaged at an impressive cask strength of 53.7%

Nose: Mild peat. Oak. Aniseed. Hay. Cardboard. Red grapes. Salmon scales. Red licorice. Fresh cherries. Vermouth. Black pepper. Balsamic. Cherry drops. Let it breathe and the peat becomes stronger. Few drops of water really open up the nose and makes the flavors really stand out.

Palate: Bitter. Wood. Black pepper. Dark chocolate. Cinnamon. Dark cherries. Apples. Raisins. Red plum. Vanilla. Nuts. Like on the nose a few drops of water make the delivery creamier. More tart. Spicier. And sweeter.

Finish: Long. Oily. Red licorice. Cough drops. Water made the finish longer.

Overall a decent quality dram which takes very well to a bit of water. Even though it makes it a touch bitter.

Another competent whisky from Campbeltown.

Rating: 87

Longrow 14 Years

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Distillery/Brand: Longrow | Region: Campbeltown | ABV: 46% | Color: Young Sauternes
Nose: 23 | Taste: 22 | Finish: 22 | Balance: 22 | Rating: 89

Review
Every time I write a review of a single malt from Campbeltown town I spend the first few minutes gushing on about how irrationally infatuated I am with this region for no particular reason at all.

But I’m happy to reveal that my fascination is quite justified. Barring a few bad apples (Glen Scotia 18, anyone?) it has largely been a parade of interesting and generally above-average whiskies to come out of this small region.

Specifically Springbank which produces three completely different expressions from basically the same hardware which I think is sheer genius – the Longrow being my favorite with Hazelburn as my least.

This, now sadly discontinued, 14 year old, has been finished off in sherry casks. There’s not a lot of literature to find, unfortunately, and my research didn’t turn up a whole lot. For example I don’t know how long it was finished for or the type of sherry it was.

My guess is three years finishing in Marsala – largely because it has such a dry nose and palate. This particular sample is from an open bottle about a third finished packaged at a nice 46% ABV

Nose: Mild peat. Sweet perfume. Mild chocolate. Salt. Brine. Hint of citrus. Wet bandage. Apple cider. Brown sugar. Banana. Ginger. Starts of quite sweet followed by something coastal before finally settling down to a savory finalé. Lovely nose.

Palate: Medium bodied. Spicy at first. Cinnamon. Oak. Brown honey. Gets fruity mid-palate. Plums. Apple. Citrus. Pineapple strudel. Ginger. Salt. Slightly burnt. Not as good as the nose but good nevertheless. Evenly spreads over your palate. Gets dry towards the end.

Finish: Fairly long. Dry. Cinnamon powder. Wood. Lingers.

An accomplished whisky need not be over the top to tick all the boxes. Nicely controlled elegance.

Rating: 89

Longrow Red 11 Year Old Fresh Port Cask

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Distillery/Brand: Longrow | Region: Campbeltown | ABV: 51.8% | Color: Copper
Nose: 22 | Taste: 22 | Finish: 22 | Balance: 22 | Rating: 88

Review
My obsession with Campbeltown continues. And my latest area of interest is the Longrow – the peatiest of the three whiskies produced at Springbank. The other two, of course, being Springbank and Hazelburn.

It started when I pulled out a 14 year old Burgundy Wood Longrow more than two years after opening it. Having not cared much for it earlier it’s transformation had me transfixed. It had become quite magnificent.

I then decided to start looking at these peaty Campbeltowners with a bit more interest. And so far I’ve not really been disappointed.

The Longrow Red series is an annual bottling of 11 year olds matured in casks that previously held a red spirit. The first one was matured in Cabernet Sauvignon, the second one in Australian Shiraz and the one I’m talking about matured for 11 years in port casks.

Quite a reddish / orange hue to this cask strength spirit served at 51.8%

Nose: Quite sweet. Cherries. Red licorice. Cough syrup. Strawberries. Smooth caramel. Sandalwood. Black pepper. Mild peat. Pinch of salt. The nose is quite tart but still decently balanced.

Palate: Red berries. Black pepper. Cinnamon. Oak. Red apples. Maple syrup. Cherry cola. Pomegranate. Quite nice on the palate. The flavors hold quite well. It gets spicier mid-palate.

Finish: Long. Minty. Cinnamon. Oak.

I like the concept behind this range. The whiskies themselves may not be earth shattering but at least someone somewhere is trying to do something interesting. And I respect that.

Rating: 88

Longrow 14 Year Old Burgundy Wood

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Distillery/Brand: Longrow | Region: Campbeltown | ABV: 56.1% | Color: Young Sauternes
Nose: 23 | Taste: 23 | Finish: 24 | Balance: 23 | Rating: 93

Review
I have a confession to make. Actually a confession made on the back of a revelation.

About a couple of years ago I picked up this Longrow to satisfy my ever increasing curiosity for Campbeltown. To be fair I didn’t know much about it and relied on the salesman to pick something out for me.

A couple of months after purchasing it I had a poker night at my place and one of the guys wanted to have a taste. I duly obliged. He liked it. I wasn’t too impressed.

As it turns out he has much better taste in whisky than I do. Not only did I not think much of it I had the gall to write a review about it and label it average. This was, of course, over two years ago. In my defense I live in Dubai so two years is actually closer to eight in whisky years. You know, because of the temperature. So I think I can be forgiven for being naive.

This 14 year old gem has been matured for 11 years in bourbon barrels (1997-2008) and then for a further three in French Burgundy Casks (2008-2011). It’s peated like all Longrows are and it’s served up at a juicy 56.1%

Nose: Warm dark honey. Natural caramel. Toast. Cranberries. Malt butter. Cherries. Red licorice. Star anise. Cinnamon. Tannins. Mint leaf. Cured meats. And that lovely peat.

Palate: Strong cinnamon. Clove. Dark cocoa. Coffee beans. Actually superbly roasted coffee beans. And spices. Roasted too. Burnt sweet caramel. The delivery is full bodied and the flavors brilliantly balanced.

Finish: What a finish! Long, oily and chewy. Minty with lots of coffee. Cherries. Cinnamon. Warm Coca-Cola.

Thanks to my friend The Whisky Snob who raved about it so much he made me give this another go. Incidentally this score is 6 huge points above the last.

I was either stupid or the oxidization helped. I’m going with stupid.

Rating: 93