Break out the Laphroaig, the Talisker, the Ardbeg, the Big Peat—any of the litany of Scotch whiskies redolent of peat and all its smoky, briny, brooding flavor. But instead of pouring out a solitary glass, consider its ability to add dimension in small doses—from a mere dash to a bar spoon.
“I’m a huge fan of working with peated whiskey in cocktails,” says Chall Gray, proprietor of Little Jumbo in Asheville, North Carolina. Even a mere quarter-ounce of the smoky stuff can create “a whole different ambiance for a drink.”
The key is to make sure that people know what they’re getting into, advises Gray. The flavor of peated whiskey can be polarizing for the unfamiliar, hence in the past, he has spotlighted drinks that lean on it under such menu headings as “Favors the Brave—drinks for the intrepid & the daring.”
Most often, peated Scotch is floated on top of a drink, where a small amount has maximum aromatic impact, with the Penicillin being the best-known example. Another common technique is to pair peated Scotch with another spirit, which helps moderate the smoky influence without burying it altogether. The most common combination is peated Scotch plus a mellow, unpeated whiskey, which might mean a blended Scotch, or an Irish or American counterpart. Less frequently, peated Scotch is paired with spirits outside the whiskey canon, as in Sasha Petraske’s tequila-based Si-Güey.
Peated Scotch also holds its own nicely against rich or sweet ingredients, such as egg whites, syrups or liqueurs. Gray uses both in his take on the Amaretto Sour, The Wind-Up, which showcases both peated and unpeated whiskey alongside amaretto, orgeat and egg white. In Tommy Klus’ smoky Boulevardier riff, the French Connection, meanwhile, the spirit is balanced by sweet vermouth and the gentian liqueur Avèze.
Simply lengthening a drink can also mellow smoky flavors. Bartender Shawn Chen’s Harvest Time, for example, combines warmed cider with Scotch, Campari, ginger syrup and yuzu juice for a drink whose flavors mimic those of baked apple.
“Not many drinks can support a peaty Scotch base by itself,” Gray explains. But figuring out the right combination, he sums up, “allows the base ingredient to shine and makes the Scotch more accessible.”