The craft-beer market’s growing palate for big, roasty stouts has created a boon for coffee brewers, chocolatiers and bourbon-barreling experts. But it’s also helped incite a surge of interest in their most natural distilled companion: rocks glasses swirling with peaty, single-malt scotch.
Peat itself is basically a moss-like, slightly decayed heap of vegetable tissue. As such, it’s predominant in damp climates, like Scotland, on isles such as Islay. And when one dries the malted barley used in making whiskey (in single-malts, barley is the mixture’s lone grain, and the batch is cultivated and bottled at one distillery) over a peat-fueled flame and left to age in its cask, voila: You get one toasty-ass kick in the pants. It’s basically composting for alcoholics.
But, like all things we consume, not all smoky single malts are created equal, whether in terms of quality or cost. So below, we’ve barley-picked five superior scotches for you can snag for less than nine Hamiltons and a couple of Washingtons that boast enough up-front peat and well-rounded finish to warrant toting while camping or keeping on the shelf for indulgent winter evenings.
Lagavulin Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky (Aged 16 Years)
Ever since earning Ron Swanson’s endorsement, Lagavulin 16−which had already been planting its flag stateside at high-end cocktail joints and eateries−has united young and veteran drinkers alike at its feet. And while some bar managers and retail merchants will buy in limited quantities and mark up the price, most scrupulous liquor stores should have it in supply for $79.99 per bottle, or possibly $70-$75 if it’s your lucky day. If not at yours, travel to the nearest one that does. Lagavulin 16’s smokiness rivals that of German Rauchbiers, but it’s instantly and diligently fanned (but never extinguished) by vanilla sweetness to the end.
Neat or Rocks: Neat. Always.
Recommended companion: Angus or sirloin, fireplaces, deathbed.
McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt Pot Distilled Whiskey (Aged 3 Years)
It’s aged for a fraction of Lagavulin’s duration, and only bottled sporadically (the next batch gets corked and readied this fall), but it also costs $20-$30 less (suggested retail is $54.95, though it can be had for $45-50). It isn’t quite as unforgettably fiery as Lagavulin, nor as balanced by that subtle, fruity subtext. But the loyal malting process at Portland’s Clear Creek Distillery generates an easy drinker that’s neither overly astringent nor syrupy-sweet. McCarthy’s is a deservedly proud, Pacific kin to its Islay counterpart.
Neat or Rocks: Neat. Maybe a pinch of water.
Recommended companion: An imperial-stout chaser, pork loin, deck of cards.
Hakushu Single Malt Whisky (Aged 12 Years)
No disrespect to vintage Japanese single-malt maker Yamazaki and its hallmark 12-year, but if one’s going to fork over $60 (per suggested retail price) for a fine, Far Eastern brown liquor—particularly if they favor that peaty aroma—Hakushu 12 is king. Its distillery is situated in among forestland near the Japanese Alps, lending it a unique mythos. But the proof is in its improbably smooth compromise of real-deal peat and remarkable spice. This is a true gentleman’s drink, in any language.
Neat or Rocks: Neat.
Recommended companion: Smoked fish, steak, sophisticated company.
Ledaig Batch 1 (That Boutique-y Whisky Company)
Jesus Christ. As one might infer from the cartoon label of a sledgehammer-wielding lad, this limited-run (217 bottles, though they are still available) blend of assorted Ledaig casks (hence the varying and unconfirmed ages for each bottle) exhumes unholy smoke. If Lagavulin 16 is an optimal control in peaty experimentation, Ledaig Batch 1 could adequately represent extreme pungency. But it’s also a great counterpart in one’s collection to the softer, more floral single malts (see next entry on Caol Ila 12), and at $65.58, is a steal of a potential collector’s item. But for those who like their beers huge and wines full-bodied, Batch 1 may emerge your flavor of the month.
Neat or Rocks: A pinch of water will do.
Recommended companion: Game of Thrones, roasted marshmallows, Zantac.
Caol Ila 12 Year Old
Here’s another dependable, near-puberty-aged Islay favorite that’s priced at just under $60 retail but can often be found for $5-10 less at well-scouted liquor warehouses. As mentioned in comparison to Ledaig Batch 1, Caol Ila 12 goes easy on the peaty influence. It’s there, but as more of a bridge between its crisp, herby initial contact and spicy reconciliation. There’s more of a bouquet present than in most single malts of its class, and might be the scotch that gets your significant other to the dark side of top-flight booze. Or, at least, a honey-brown middle ground.
Neat or Rocks: A cube or two can’t hurt, but keep it neat to get that peat.
Recommended companion: Roasted chicken, maybe a meaty whitefish, a first date.