Smoke experimentation has become a major aspect of U.S. single malts. (photo by Iraua)

Using peat to smoke-dry barley for whiskey dates to the earliest days of Scotch. For many years, peat smoke defined Scotch, differentiating it from its Irish predecessor. It’s not that the Irish didn’t use peat—it was the major energy source for the region and the primary heat source for pot stills. However, the peat smoke only became a flavor factor when used as a barley drying agent.

As Scotch styles differentiated by geography, peat smoke became a signature attribute of Islay and Island whiskies, although it appears in other regions’ specialty expressions. As experimentation increased, especially in the late 20th century, even Irish whiskey distilleries danced with peat. Ultimately, peated whiskey is a distinctive style that usually engenders a love-it-or-hate-it response.

Fast-forward to modern-day whiskey, and you’ll find that peat is a broad-stroke brush that, while still defining Islay Scotch, is also a “color” in modern whiskey’s flavor palette that has been re-imagined through widespread experimentation. To fully appreciate the extent of peat’s reach, we need to rethink “peat” to mean “smoke.” Many distillers have attempted to replace “peat” with alternative “smoke” components, a concept nowhere more prevalent than in American single malt whiskeys.

American distilleries started making “Scotch alternative” whiskeys in the 1990s, which have come into their own over the past ten years. Several producers make true “peated” whiskeys, in some cases even importing the peat-dried barley. Others discovered alternative methods to impart the smoke, showcasing the ingenuity of America’s modern whiskey sense.

One of the best examples of an American peated malt is Westland’s Peated American single malt whiskey. Westland’s approach is to blend peated malt with various other malts, fine-tuning the peat flavor to meet their specific profile ideals. You certainly can’t argue with their methods; multiple double gold medals and “Whiskey of the Year” awards are proof-positive of their success. Other American single malt distilleries using peated barley include McCarthys, Balcones, and Fifty Stone.

Other American whiskey-makers have taken alternative approaches to smoke. Although Fifty Stone uses peated barley in the mix, they also use locally-sourced seaweed to impart a unique smoke flavor. Whiskey Del Bac Dorado and Santa Fe’s Colkegan each use mesquite-smoked malts, while Corsair smokes their barley with hickory for their Wildfire single malt. Not to be out-smoked, Andalusia Whiskey’s Stryker single malt combines three different woods—oak, mesquite, and apple—to smoke its barleys.

Whatever its source or methodology, smoke is a crucial component in many whiskey arsenals. While peat/smoke in whiskey unquestionably produces strong flavors and equally strong opinions, the only likely change will be greater experimentation resulting in more variety. And that means more goodness for us peated and smoked whiskey lovers!