“Tropical” and “balmy” are not words one normally uses to describe the weather in Scotland, a country famous for its gloomy climate. But if you happened to be visiting Islay in early June, you would have found yourself swapping ponchos and wool sweaters for sunscreen and T-shirts. Early summer had arrived at this rugged southwestern island with atypical dry and sunny conditions, and the timing couldn’t have been better. Fèis Ìle was in full swing, the Islay Festival that celebrates the abundance of peated whisky produced at distilleries in the region. I was there to check out Ardbeg Day, an annual celebration that takes place on the grounds of the distillery. And despite the smoky and assertive (some might call it aggressive) flavor profile that defines most peated whisky, it turns out that a smoldering campfire in liquid form tastes pretty good on a brilliant 75-degree day.
The theme for this year’s Ardbeg Day was Planet Ardbeg, based around a graphic novel created for the occasion by British illustrator and artist Dilraj Mann that highlights the 2023 special release Heavy Vapours. Whisky fans were decked out in outlandish costumes for the festivities, the crowd resplendent in green wigs, spandex, and sci-fi superhero garb. The majority of attendees were also getting pleasantly pickled on some of the smokiest whisky to come from Islay, sipping drams and summery cocktails while sweating and squinting in the uncharacteristic but welcome luminescence on this sunny day.
When it comes to peated whisky, people generally have strong opinions—and for good reason. The flavors associated with this style are often described as medicinal, campfire, iodine, tire fire, and seaweed—and these are all meant as compliments. Ardbeg’s single malts have all of these notes, but there’s much more to it than just peat. This sister distillery to Glenmorangie (both are owned mega-corporation LVMH) is something of a cult whisky brand. There’s a long history behind Ardbeg, but it’s really only been operating since the late 1990s in its current incarnation. Nevertheless, it has managed to make a big impact on the world of heavily peated single malt scotch under the direction of Dr. Bill Lumsden and, more recently, master blender and head of whisky creation Gillian Macdonald.
Macdonald is a firm believer that you can and should enjoy smoky scotch during the hot summer months, and points to the fruity notes it often has as a selling point. “Yes, we clearly are the top end of peat in the category, but you’d be surprised by the level of fruits we have,” she told me. “You don’t need to be sitting in front of a fire with slippers on and a pipe to enjoy it. People talk about baked pineapple and banana notes, for example, but also the level of sweetness that you get is always surprising. Quite a few bartenders like to use Ardbeg as a base for cocktails because it stands up to multiple ingredients.”
The new Heavy Vapours expression is a particularly fruity whisky despite its smokiness. The name comes from the fact that a piece of equipment called a purifier was removed from the still by Lumsden when this whisky was produced. “It was a silly thing to do, but we firmly believe the purifier is one of the key secrets to Ardbeg’s characteristics,” he said. Simply put, the purifier is is a relatively uncommon device at Scottish distilleries that is meant to allow more reflux during distillation—in other words, it forces the heavier vapors to condense and be redistilled. Remove it, and these vapors become part of the spirit, hence, the name Heavy Vapours. “[It’s] what sets Ardbeg 10 apart from Laphroaig 10,” said Lumsden. “They’re both fabulous brands, but if we removed [the purifier], Ardbeg would taste more like Laphroaig.” Macdonald said that this experiment resulted in more fruity, floral, and herbal flavors on the palate that subdued the smokiness. “The element of sweetness it brings takes the edge off the perception of the peat,” she explained. “It’s rounded and softened.”
Aside from the neat pours, there were a variety of summery drinks being served at this year’s Ardbeg Day, all made with Heavy Vapours and other super smoky whiskies. Macdonald’s Ardbeg cocktail of choice is a Whisky Sour, a citrus-forward drink that proves that peated scotch can be a hot weather sipper. Jarett Karlsberg, beverage director at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn, admits that it can be a challenge to come up with scotch cocktails people want to drink in the dog days of summer, so he approaches it as he does mezcal. “Adding a bit of smoke to a cocktail is a great way to add depth to and give it a strong foundation,” he said. “Smoke or earthy flavors can be very helpful in super juicy cocktails to give them a layered sense of structure so the cocktail is not just one note.” He recommends substituting peated whisky for tequila in a Scotch Margarita, combining Laphroaig (or any Islay scotch) with lime juice, orange liqueur, and just a bit of the French aperitif Suze.
Sam Penton, director of bars at Rosewood Miramar Beach, has found ways to incorporate peated whisky in summer drinks as well. “The best summer cocktails are light, refreshing, and a little bit tiki,” he said. “It may be a surprise, but smoky, peated scotch definitely has a home in this category.” He uses Talisker 10 in a version of a Highball along with rum, sherry, and pineapple; and he combines Laphroaig 10 with grapefruit, lime, and coconut in a cocktail called the Atlantic Island.
As the day wound down and the last oddballs in full ghillie suits and neon green kilts stumbled off the distillery grounds, the sun was still nowhere near setting. This time of year, it doesn’t really get dark until after 10pm, which provides ample motivation to keep the party going after a long day of sipping whisky. Back at the hotel, the peated scotch cocktails kept coming, with riffs on a Negroni, Espresso Martini, and even a classic Daiquiri in the mix at various points—proof of how smoky whisky doesn’t have to be a wintry pour. Consider me a convert—from now on, I’ll be making smoky versions of classic hot weather sippers all summer long.