I first truly understood the allure of peated whisky on Islay back in 2013. It was the dead of winter and I was lucky to be staying with some Aussie friends who were visiting Scotland’s whisky mecca at the same time.
One night, after we’d explored distilleries all day, struggling through the brutal wind and rain that crashes into Islay from the Atlantic, we sat down and drank some whisky to warm up, peat fire smouldering in the corner.
This wasn’t any old drop. It was Bruichladdich’s Octomore – probably the smokiest, most heavily peated whisky in the world. We bottled it fresh out of the cask that day while visiting the distillery, and tasting it in our small flat next to a raging ocean, the medicinal sweetness of Islay peat wafting through the room – that was about as close to something religious I’ve experienced.
Bruichladdich Distillery, Islay – Oz Whisky Review
Every winter I find myself devouring the peated stuff (it works wonders on a cold, or makes you think it’s working wonders). But nowadays, the Scots have some competition.
Producers around the world are creating some fantastic peated whiskies in the same style. Australia, in particular, has a smorgasbord of quality peated whiskies to keep you warm and entertained through the colder months.
Yes, peated whisky can be polarising, with many preferring to steer clear of this medicinal, meaty, tar-like genre of the whisky world.
But there’s a vast spectrum of peated whisky out there to try, from subtle, lightly peated malts through to the heaviest peat monsters, and this is especially the case in Australia.
Bill Lark at Brown Marsh bog. Photo – Lark Distillery
Origins of Australian peated whisky
Peated malt whisky has been made in Australia since at least as far back as the early 1900s, where then, as now, Scottish peat was often relied upon to contribute that signature smokiness.
In those days, some producers were importing peat from Scotland to dry and smoke Australian barley over a Scottish peat fire.
But when Tasmanian whisky pioneers Bill and Lyn Lark started making whisky in the 1990s, they were keen to infuse local peat into the equation.
There was one road block, however. Whisky makers in Australia mostly source their malted barley from large commercial malsters. These malsters aren’t set up to produce peated malt. Their primary customers are brewers who don’t want smoke-taint anywhere near their beers (although some do).
So Bill Lark and his team came up with a work around. They began harvesting ute loads of peat from the Tasmanian highlands, eventually securing a lease for Brown Marsh bog, now dubbed ‘Australia’s smallest mining site’.
Lark then began smoking malted barley with Brown Marsh peat to add a soft, earthy smoke to their malt whiskies, a practice they still employ today.
Black Gate Distillery malt smoker – Oz Whisky Review
But a number of producers, like Black Gate, have found that ‘post-malt smoking’ doesn’t produce the level of grunge they’re after. For that, Australian distillers simply source peated malt direct from Scotland, mostly from Bairds Malt, to create more intensely flavoured peated whiskies.
So whether you’re fan of this style, or just getting into it, here’s a selection of Australia’s top peated whiskies to get you started.
10 of the best
Light to medium peated
(Scottish/World equivalents: Bowmore, Benromach, Westland Peated, Yoichi, Connemara, Paul John)
1. Bakery Hill Peated Single Malt Whisky ($165)
Australia’s most consistent peated whisky over the last decade. Melbourne’s Bakery Hill Distillery uses imported Scottish malt to deliver a toasty, charcoal character which is balanced nicely by careful maturation in ex-Bourbon casks. If you like an undercurrent of smoke in your whisky, this really hits the spot. Upgrade to the Bakery Hill peated cask strength for more grunt.
2. Launceston Distillery Peated Single Malt Whisky ($156)
Launceston Distillery’s single malts are renowned for leaning to the floral and fruity side of the flavour spectrum. But this peated malt offering, first released in June 2020, shows that the team can also knock out a cracking peated malt. True to form, this has a softer, barbecue smoke which is played off smartly against the fragrant fruitiness of the Launceston distillate.
3. Riverbourne Supremacy Single Malt Whisky ($175)
Riverbourne Distillery was established in 2015 by former pharmacist Martin Pye at his property south east of Canberra. Martin’s first malt whiskies, praised for their spirit-forward style, appeared in 2018, and in the Riverbourne Supremacy bottling, Scottish peated malt is used to brilliant effect to deliver a rich, butterscotchy malt suffused with a campfire smokiness.
4. Chief’s Son Distillery Sweet Peat Single Malt Whisky ($210)
It’s all in the name. This cracking malt from Chief’s Son Distillery in Mornington Peninsula captures some ash and herbal notes thanks to portions of Scottish peated malt in the mash. The sweetness comes from maturation in ex-Seppelstfield fortified wine casks, giving you a rich and earthy malt to savour.
5. Fleurieu Distillery Single Malt Whisky ($180 approx)
Gareth and Angela Andrews, the owners and distillers of Fleurieu, produce some of the finest single malts in the country. But their process produces a lot of variety where peat is concerned. Some of their limited bottlings are lightly peated, others, like Ecto Gammat, are fully infused with peat reek courtesy of Scottish malt. Maturation takes place in tawny and apera casks, and you’d be hard-pressed to find better if you’re a fan of full-flavoured peated whiskies.
(Scottish/World equivalents: Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Port Charlotte, Kilchoman, Balcones)
6. Furneaux Distillery Co. Peated Single Malt Whisky ($180)
Furneaux Distillery on Flinders Island, just north of Tasmania, is home to Australia’s most intriguing peated whisky project. Inspired by Laphroaig’s medicinal and iodine-soaked whiskies, Furneaux’s owner Damien Newton-Brown and distiller Tom Ambroz are using both Flinders Island peat and Scottish peated malt to create some seriously impressive whiskies. These are limited drops, but if you love that briny, maritime vibe in your glass, seek them out.
7. Corowa Distilling Co. Peated Bourbon Cask Single Malt Whisky ($185)
Corowa Distilling Co. produce some delicious single malts from their home in the old mill on the Murray. Recently, they also started bottling heavily peated whiskies, like this Bourbon cask expression, a medley of vanilla, honey and sooty peat (Scottish again). Look out for their peated whiskies matured in local fortified wine casks, too – hugely flavourful whiskies.
8. Black Gate Peated Single Malt Whisky ($130+)
One of Australia’s benchmark peated whiskies. As mentioned above, Black Gate moved away from smoking their malt with Australian peat and switched to importing heavily peated Scottish malt. The difference was palpable when bottlings of the new style came out in 2018. Now, these are some of richest, boldest but also balanced Aussie whiskies you can get your hands on.
9. Hellyers Road Distillery Peated Single Malt Whisky ($125-$300)
Hellyers Road Distillery produce an array of single malts, and their peated offerings, again utilising Scottish malt, are among their best. Start with the Hellyers Road Peated, progress to the Slightly Peated 15 year old, and then get a taste of their heavily peated cask strength single cask bottlings in the Masters Series. Great value for money whiskies, and they’re also widely available.
10. Limeburners Peated and Heavy Peat Single Malt Whiskies ($145-$520)
Limeburners whiskies have picked up awards right around the world. But for a uniquely Australian take, the core range Limeburners peated is a solid place to start. It gives you a good look at the Limeburners process, which smokes local barley in the Lark method with peat collected near the Valley of the Giants. For the more limited ‘Darkest Winter’ and ‘Heavy Peat’ bottlings, the malt is smoked more intensely for a greater depth of flavour. They’re pricey whiskies, but right up there in terms of quality, and the most distinctively Australian in their use of local peat.