Peat vs. Smoke Scotch


Scotch whiskies have a vast range of flavors, from the delicate floral notes of lowland whisky to the robust and complex flavor profile of whisky distilled on the island of Islay. One of Scotch's most distinctive flavors is the "peaty" or "smoky" flavor. Although Scotch enthusiasts may use one word or the other, the two terms refer to the same thing.

Scottish Spirit

  • Describing the peaty or smoky flavor can be challenging. "Intense" is often used, and the strong flavor can be unpleasant to those who are just learning to appreciate Scotch. Esquire magazine describes peaty whiskies as tasting "like Band-Aids and smoke and weird, mossy rawness. In a delicious way, of course." Whiskies with a high level of peat flavor taste smoky -- hence, the alternative term -- but also rich and even almost salty.

Malting Matters

  • According to the Scotch Whisky Association, the peaty or smoky character of some Scotch whisky comes from the final stage of the malting process, in which the malted barley is dried in an oven or kiln. The fuel used in this oven is peat, a material formed by layers of compacted sphagnum moss in wet environments known as peat bogs or peatlands. Peat has been a traditional fuel source in Scotland and throughout northern Europe for centuries.

Scotch for Advanced Drinkers

  • Although peat is one of the most distinctive flavors in Scotch, not all whisky has an equal amount of peatiness or smokiness. Many experts divide Scotch whisky along two axes, ranging from "light" to "rich" and from "delicate" to "smoky." The smokiest whiskies are those from the island of Islay. These whiskies have a pronounced smoky flavour, compared to the more delicate Lowland whiskies, the lighter, sweeter Speyside whiskies or the gentle smokiness of Campbeltown whiskies.


  • As with any type of tasting, Scotch whisky appreciation is more art than science. Terms are not always used consistently, and some may perceive fine distinctions within them. For example, some critics describe whiskies that are smoky but light, as smoky but not peaty, and with a sharp, spicy flavor more characteristic of wood smoke. Nonetheless, most whisky guides tend to use the two terms interchangeably.

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