If you aren’t a fan of whiskey, you probably don’t realize the vast difference in ingredients and flavor between different styles. A bourbon to the unacquainted might not seem all that different from a rye or even a single-malt Scotch. But, to those who enjoy whiskey, the differences are great and sometimes hard to traverse. A die-hard fan of bourbon might have no need to try peated whiskies (think smoky Scotch from Islay like Laphroaig, Bruichladdich, or Ardbeg). Their furthest foray into Scotland might be a blended Scotch like Johnnie Walker, Dewar’s, or Chivas. But that’s a shame. They’re missing out on a nuanced style.
But, even if a fan of bourbon wants to eventually get to the smoky, briny whiskies of Islay, they can’t just go from sweet, corn-based whiskies directly to the rocky shores of Port Ellen. Just as a fan of a light lager isn’t just going to dive into a double IPA or a sour ale without slowly working their way up.
“Think about drinking whiskey as you do drinking coffee,” says Stephanie Moreno, spirits director for. “You may take yours black. If you do, then bitter and intense flavors are not going to be new to you. If you take more cream and sugar than coffee, then baby steps in the bitter direction will be key.”
You may find you prefer bourbon after trying all styles, and that’s more than okay. Not all whiskeys are for all people at all times. Just like if you’re a wine fan, you won’t enjoy every style of wine. People have varying tastes.
Like an adult realizing they actually enjoy blue cheese, some flavors are acquired over time. Peated whiskies aren’t for everyone. “Smoky, medicinal, and intense flavors are not to everyone’s liking,” says Moreno. “If you don’t like a particular style, give it a few years and try again.”
Or, you can start your journey with bourbon and slowly work your way to Islay whiskies.
“I’d say go to a great bar and try a dram of a smoky Scotch—that way you don’t have to buy a full bottle,” says Brendan McCann, head of maturing whisky stocks at The Glenmorangie Company. He adds, “You’ll buy the full bottle the next day after you realize how good it is.”
To help you on your journey, we put together a roundup of our favorite peated whiskies from Kentucky to Islay.