The Secrets Behind Smoky Sips
You never forget your first peated whiskey. Upon first sip, most people make a face—the smoke can be overwhelming. By the second sip, your palate has adjusted a bit, allowing you to detect caramel and honey beneath the unfurling smoke. Reaching the bottom of the glass, you wonder how it went by so quickly, as you daydream about s’mores, bacon and other smoky delights.
Why do we love smoky spirits?
Although smoky flavors are not exclusive to whiskey (mezcal, some gins and Tequilas can have them, too), most people associate them with peated whiskies, specifically Scotch.
But what is peat, and why do we like it? According to Dave Broom, author of The World Atlas of Whisky, prior to the invention of refrigeration, people added smoke to food as a means to preserve it.
“We don’t need smoke anymore to preserve food, but we still use it,” Broom says. “We just like the effect of smoke, and smoking. That’s why people gravitate to smoky whiskies.”
However, peated whiskies are different from those that are merely smoky. Peat—basically decomposing, waterlogged plants—is cut, dried and smoked. It may not sound appetizing, but that fragrant smoke is used to dry barley or other grains used to make whiskey. This process adds bewitching aromas and flavors.
Although peat isn’t exclusive to Scotland, peated whiskies are the norm. There’s nothing like the scent of peat smoke along the windy shore of Islay, where many of Scotland’s best-known peated whiskies are made. The sweet smoke mingles with the briny sea air, miraculously finding its way into a bottle of Laphroaig or Ardbeg.
Smoke it if you got it
A wide range of materials are used to create smoky flavors and aromas in whiskey and other spirits. Producers work with what’s local and plentiful, creating a form of terroir.
The compressed plant matter known as peat is the best-known source of smokiness, traditional in Scotch whiskies and others made in the Scotch tradition (like peated Japanese, American or Irish whiskies). Although most peat (or peated grain) is sourced from Scotland, a handful of American whiskey producers are experimenting with local peat. Seattle’s Westland Distillery is using Washington peat for a uniquely smoky, peppery profile. Similarly, Maine Craft Distilling is experimenting with Maine-sourced peat, albeit in small amounts.
In Iceland, whisky producers like Thoran and Floki are experimenting with smoked sheep dung, while Denmark’s Fary Lochan uses smoked nettles.
Wood smoke also is increasingly used in American, French and other whiskies for a sweet or spiced quality. In Sperryville, Virginia, Copper Fox Distillery uses applewood and cherrywood for what may be the only deliberately smoky rye whiskey. Corsair Distillery (Nashville and Bowling Green, Kentucky) offers a menu of wood-smoking options inspired by barbecue champs like hickory, black walnut, sugar maple, cherry and persimmon.
Meanwhile—where legal, of course—we’ve heard rumblings about cannabis-smoked whiskey and other spirits. While we’re not likely to see those spirits on U.S. shelves anytime soon, it’s a glimpse of what smoky spirits could look like in coming years.
Bartenders love to play with smoky flavors in cocktails, whether that means adding a smoked-salt rim to a glass, dashing in smoky bitters or a quick rinse of the glass with peaty Scotch. But many resort to far more elaborate and entertaining ways to get smoke into the glass.
“Sure, I carry peated whiskies and mezcals,” says Adam Kamin, head bartender at Chicago’s Bottlefork. A section of its drink menu is devoted to smoky and spicy flavors, “but for cocktails, we use other techniques.”
The PolyScience Smoking Gun—essentially, a handheld food smoker—is a favorite go-to tool for drinks. “We put tobacco leaves or hops inside, and then turn it on and smoke the material into a decanter,” Kamin says.
Another favored technique is fat-washing, which involves adding rendered fat to a spirit, infusing it with smoky, savory flavor. Drippings from house-smoked brisket becomes “brisket whiskey.” Bacon fat added to Grey Goose Le Melon vodka yields a flavor that Kamin swears evokes the classic combo of melon and prosciutto.
Perhaps most dramatic of all, Jason Eisner, beverage director of Gracias Madre in Los Angeles, has developed a trio of smoked cocktails that include a quince tepache (a Mexican beverage made from fermented pineapple rinds) and mezcal smoked in a whole pineapple with organic apple wood. Another drink uses the PolyScience Smoking Gun to create roasted hempseed smoke inside a bong filled with mezcal and hopped cucumber soda. The name of that drink, appropriately, is “Up In Smoke.”
How peaty is it?
The concentration of peat in a whiskey is measured in parts per million (ppm), and a growing number of producers list it on the label. The higher the ppm, the more intense the peat concentration in the whiskey. Here’s a shortlist of peated whiskies (Scotch, except where noted), ranked by ppm.
Bunnahabhain: 1–2 ppm
Hakushu (Japan): 7–8 ppm
Amrut Fusion (India): 23 ppm
Bowmore: 18–25 ppm
Talisker: 23–30 ppm
Lagavulin: 35–40 ppm
Laphroaig: 40–43 ppm
Bruichladdich: 40 ppm
Source: Whiskey Distilled, by Heather Greene (Studio, 2014).
Recipe courtesy Shinya Yamao, head bartender, Piora, New York City
Shorthand for “Peat & Tonic,” this riff on the classic gin & tonic gets its smoky flavor from Laphroaig, a single-malt Scotch whisky famed for its peaty profile.
- 1 lemon wedge
- 1½ ounces Laphroaig 10-Year-Old Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky
- ¼ ounce Monkey Shoulder Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
- 1 ounce Tomr’s Tonic syrup
- Club soda, for topping
Squeeze juice from the lemon wedge into a chilled highball glass, dropping the spent wedge into the glass. Pour both whiskies and tonic syrup into the glass. Add cracked ice, then stir. Top with club soda and stir again, lightly.
The following bottlings (not all Scotch) balance smoky character with other nuanced flavors.
Bowmore 12 Years Old (Scotland); 90 points, $48. The scent and every sip entwine rich caramel and peat smoke, ending with a long, bold, smoky sweep and an echo of salty sea breeze.
Connemara Peated Single Malt (Ireland); 92 points, $43. Smoke bomb alert! Imbibers who love a peaty profile will enjoy this smoky-but-smooth single malt. Pair it with assertive flavors like charcuterie. For an even more intense smoky flavor, try Connemara’s Cask Strength Peated Whiskey at 57.9% abv.
Big Peat (Scotland); 92 points, $60. The name says it all. This Scotch is blended from “a shovelful” of Islay single-malts, including Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bowmore and Port Ellen, producers of some of the peatiest Scotches around. Expect a huge rush of peat smoke, with a bitter chocolate finish reminiscent of campfire s’mores.
Laphroaig Cairdeas 2015 (Scotland); $75. This single-malt commemorates the distillery’s 200th anniversary. Earthy, char-like peat smoke wraps around a core of honey and vanilla, finishing with notes of barbecue and black licorice.
Hillrock Single Malt Whiskey (USA); $100, 97 points. This bold, flavorful sipping whiskey is made from New York State malt smoked for eight hours over Scottish peat (an 18-hour version is in the works, too). Bold, smoky-sweet campfire notes lead into toffee, chocolate and espresso before drying to a gentle exhale of smoke.
Recipe courtesy Experimental Cocktail Club, Paris
Inspired by the classic Blood & Sand cocktail, this drink uses mezcal for its smoky flavor, which marries well with the grapefruit juice.
- 1 ounce mezcal (ECC recommends Del Maguey Crema de Mezcal)
- 1 ounce Cherry Heering
- 1 ounce sweet vermouth
- 1 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
- Orange peel
In a cocktail shaker, combine the first four ingredients with ice. Shake well, and strain into a chilled coupe glass. Squeeze the orange peel over the top to release its oils, then discard.
- 1How to Smoke it
- 2The P&T
- 35 Must-Try Smoky Whiskies
- 4Smoke & Mirrors