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Whisky Myths Debunked #5 – Scotch is Smoky

by Oliver Klimek on September 14, 2010

Serious maltheads can skip this article, but I felt compelled to take on this topic because there are not just anoraks out there but also casual whisky drinkers who don’t want to dive too deeply into the nitty-gritty of whisky wisdom.

In many magazine articles and blog postings about whisky you can find statements like “The difference between Scotch an bourbon is that Scotch tastes smoky because it is made from peated malt.”

This is a generalization that is simply not correct. Of course there are lots of peated Scotch whiskies that can give you a peaty smack into your face. Ardbeg, Laphroaig or Lagavulin are prime examples for peaty single malts.

But if you look closer at the Scottish distilleries, you will find that this is only part of the picture. Of the roughly one hundred distilleries in Scotland only about fifteen use peated malt. Island distilleries, especially on Islay, have traditionally been using peat. But on the Scottish mainland most whisky is produced with unpeated malt. The number is rising, though, because more and more mainland distilleries are experimenting with different whisky styles including peated malts.

Why then this misconception? I guess there are two reasons for it. At first, many decades ago, almost all distillieries used peat to dry their malted barley because it simply was the cheapest fuel and available in abundance. This is still reflected today in the typical pagoda-shaped kiln roofs that are visible in most distilleries even though almost all of them are only of a decorative nature now.

But the smoky Scotch myth still persists today because most Scotch whisky consumed today is blended from whiskies of many distilleries. Smoky whisky is very often used to add another dimension to the flavour profile. If you just order “Scotch” in a bar, you will most probably be served one of those blends that leave a little bit of lingering smoke on the palate.

So it is quite important to note that Scotch does not equal Scotch in terms of smokiness. In fact it is on of the strong points of Scotch whisky that it encompasses such a vast variety of styles that makes it almost impossible not to like one of them.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Steffen Bräuner September 14, 2010 at 6:08 pm

Something that also puzzled me is a novice drinker describing a nonpeated whisky as smoky

(like Glengoyne and similar)

When that happens I wish I have a bottle of Caol Ila in my inner pocket. “You think thats smoke, try this then!”

/Macdeff

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Oliver Klimek September 14, 2010 at 6:15 pm

This pseudo smokiness may well be the result of charred or re-charred casks. Some Glenfarclasses can have a wee touch of smoke, and the Auchentoshan 21 I tasted last year had a very distinctive ashtray finish despite being absolutely unpeated.

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Warren Westfall January 9, 2011 at 6:28 pm

Thanks for the comment on Glenfarclass. I too have experienced it. When I emailed Glenfarclass about it, they had no comment. My friend and I now have an explanation.

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gal September 15, 2010 at 9:53 am

deffe,

you’d better carry some Laga 12 CS in your pocket. and tell them, this is smoky!

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martin September 17, 2010 at 9:01 pm

If 90% of the scotch(not sure about the number) bottled and sold is blended whisky, and most of the blends are smoky doesn’t that justify the “scotch is smoky”.

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Oliver Klimek September 17, 2010 at 9:20 pm

I’d be perfectly happy with “most Scotch is smoky”. But I just don’t think it is ok to generalize and create the impression that not matter which Scotch you have, it’s always smoky. This doesn’t do justice to the enormous variety you can find if you just dare to move on a little form the standard blends.

All these articles that state “Scotch is smoky because the malt is dried with peat” make the non-experts believe that all distilleries in Scotland use peated malt, and that’s just plain wrong.

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Maie September 29, 2010 at 10:16 pm

That leads us to the ongoing question : what is the difference between peat and smoke… :-)

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Johnny Murgatroyd May 14, 2011 at 2:36 pm

I have heard that olden days distilleries used to use peated malt more widely than today, so once upon a time maybe most scotch was in fact smokey.

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Jeff November 25, 2013 at 11:50 pm

Reading MAO’s “Shining Moments in Spirits “Journalism”: April 11, 2013 edition”, I see the following:

“In fact, there is almost no unpeated whisky produced in Scotland. Glengoyne does not use any peated barley but, with the exception of particular expressions (Springbank’s Hazelburn range, for example), almost every distillery uses malted barley that has been peated to some degree or the other. And notably peaty whisky has long been available from regions other than Islay (not all of whose distilleries have historically been known for peaty whisky either).”

But in reading Oliver Klimek’s “Whisky Myths Debunked #5 – Scotch is Smoky”, I see:

“But if you look closer at the Scottish distilleries, you will find that this is only part of the picture. Of the roughly one hundred distilleries in Scotland only about fifteen use peated malt. Island distilleries, especially on Islay, have traditionally been using peat. But on the Scottish mainland most whisky is produced with unpeated malt. The number is rising, though, because more and more mainland distilleries are experimenting with different whisky styles including peated malts.”

I don’t know what the truth is, but there must be some resolution. Could you please comment?

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Oliver Klimek November 28, 2013 at 1:49 pm

I don’t know the current malt specifications for each and every Scottish distillery. And of course there are some who use minimally peated whisky (~2 ppm) like Dalwhinnie but this does not translate into noticeable “peated whisky”. Such a minimal peating level may add a little more depth to the character of a single malt but does not turn it into a smoky whisky. Maybe Mr. Annoying has sources that prove his point that most of the distilleries use at least this minimum peat level. But please remember that the article rerfers to “smoky whisky”. And sometimes you may encounter slightly smoky notes that are actually caused by the barrel char.

Here is just a quick list of current non-smoky single malts “shot from the hip”: Auchentoshan, Glengoyne, Macallan, Glenfarclas, Glenlivet, Balvenie, Dalmore, Glendronach, Knockdhu, Knockando, Cardhu, Arran, Glen Elgin, Linkwood, Longmorn, Glen Grant, Glenrothes, Mannochmore, Glenturret, Blair Athol, Speyburn, Fettercairn, Tamnavulin, Glenkinchie, Cragganmore, Glenmorangie, Glen Moray. There are more. Some may do peated whisky for blending purposes, but all those distilleries don’t have noticeably peated whiskies on the market.

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