What Is Whisk(e)y?, Whisk(e)y Wisdom

Smoke vs. Peat


The next sentence will arm you with enough knowledge to conquer the world of smoky whiskeys. All peat is smoke, but not all smoke is peat.

If you walked away from this article right now with only that piece of information, you will possess something valuable. Grasping this truth in one hand while holding a Glencairn glass in the other, you’ll travel the world of whiskey and make intelligent distinctions.

If you’ve a curious mind, though, and you’d like to try a fun experiment – walk with me a little further. To taste is to see, so let’s try some whiskey.

Gather a quintessential peaty Scotch and a smoked American whiskey.

Here are some Scotch whisky options from Islay:

  • Ardbeg
  • Bowmore
  • Bunnahabhain
  • Caol Ila
  • Kilchoman
  • Lagavulin
  • Laphroaig

And here are some smoked American whiskeys:

  • Balcones Brimstone
  • Wood's Tenderfoot American Malt Whiskey
  • Corsair Oak Smoked Wheat Whiskey
  • Ranger Creek Rimfire Mesquite Smoked Texas Whiskey
  • Iron Smoke Apple Wood Smoked Whiskey
  • Rock Town Arkansas Hickory Smoked Whiskey
  • MB Roland Kentucky Dark Fired Whiskey

Have you picked a Scotch and an American Whiskey? Good, now pour a dram of each and let’s start.

As you nose each whiskey, what do you notice? What similarities are you finding? Most obviously they’ll share a smoky characteristic. Give your whiskeys a sip. What are you finding now? The same similarities, or are they starting to diverge? Here’s where we really start to unlock them. What differences are there? The answer to that question will be the most important.

Let’s analyze our findings.

If you’re an American, the American whiskey probably smelled like campfire smoke and after you tasted it, it still left you with a homey campfire feel on the palate. Why? Because all of the American whiskeys listed above are smoked using some sort of wood as fuel. Possibly the same wood you’ve burned in a campfire before.

What about the Scotch? Again, on the nose you likely got campfire smoke, but when you sipped it that’s when everything changed. Instead of familiar memories about a campfire, you tasted something foreign. Something medicinal. Something probably closer to iodine, Band-Aids, rubber bands, or tar. Why? Because all of the Scotches listed above are smoked using peat as a fuel.

Is the distinction solidifying in your nose, on your tongue, and in your brain? Can you sense how they’re similar and yet quite different? Why then are the words “smoky” and “peaty” used interchangeably so often?

I believe it’s a case of the Q-tips. What do I mean? Sometimes brands become so successful that their name replaces the actual term for a product. We don’t say cotton swab, tissue, or throwing disc. Instead we say Q-tip, Kleenex, and Frisbee. Likewise, smoky Scotches became so popular that their own style of smoke – peat – became synonymous with smoky whiskey.

Where do you go from here? Keep trying smoky whiskeys. Compare and contrast learning to differentiate between the different kinds of smoke and continue to hone your senses. The sharper you are the more fun you’ll have.

Did you enjoy our little adventure today? If so let us know in the comments below!

We’ll see you next week.

— Zac Smith

P.S. If you want to explore the differences in peat, try one of the above Scotches against a peated Irish whiskey like Connemara.