Smoky whiskey usually calls to mind the heavily peated single malts of Islay,

but there’s a whole host of other smoke sources being used in American craft distilling—and none of these whiskeys tastes like scotch. Peat is the traditional fuel source for Scotland but in the U.S., our own smoke traditions rely on native hardwoods like hickory and mesquite or the fragrant fruit woods of apple and cherry. And now these distinctly American smoke flavors are making their way into whiskey.

These flavors are familiar thanks to centuries-old traditions that are an indelible, beloved part of American foodways: barbecue, bacon, country ham, smoked fish. Now, distillers are incorporating local smoke into the grains used in their mashbills. This provides a unique way to create distinctive flavors while incorporating a sense of provenance in their whiskeys. The smoke scale of these American single malts, bourbons, ryes, and everything in between runs from barely a wisp to a full five alarms, with plenty of nuance in between to entice consumers at any comfort level.

Photo courtesy of Corsair

Beyond wood for smoking, some distillers are even drawing on native peat to smoke their grains. Although peat has never been a major fuel source in North America, it’s actually abundant in certain areas, and the advent of craft-scale malting facilities born of the micro-brew movement has enabled it to be used for distilling. (There are many more distillers using imported Scottish peated barley in their recipes, but they aren’t covered in this article.) The differences in flavor and character can as varied as the terrain from Maine to Minnesota to Washington.

Check out these outstanding smoked American whiskeys from across the country.

Photos, from left: courtesy of Santa Fe Spirits; courtesy of Ranger Creek; courtesy of Whiskey Del Bac

Mesquite

Santa Fe Spirits Colkegan ($55)
Ranger Creek Rimfire ($34/375 ml)
Whiskey Del Bac Dorado ($60)

What peat is to scotch, mesquite is to American single malt—at least for distillers in the Southwest, like Whiskey Del Bac founder Stephen Paul, who wants to make “mesquited” as common a term as “peated.” A leguminous tree native to North America, mesquite (from the Nahuatl word mizquitl) is prized for the earthy flavors its smoke gives to barbecued meat. Those same flavors shine in the single malts from Santa Fe Spirits (New Mexico), Whiskey Del Bac (Tucson, Arizona), and Ranger Creek (San Antonio, Texas). Santa Fe sources its malt from Wisconsin’s Briess Malt & Ingredients Copmpany, while Ranger Creek cold-smokes its malt in house and Del Bac has an on-site malting facility to supply its needs. Already a popular flavor in meat, potato chips, and other foods, mesquite seems poised to dominate in whiskey too.

Photo courtesy of Deerhammer

Hickory

Deerhammer Hickory-Smoked Corn Whiskey ($38)

The sweet, rich flavors and aromas of hickory are often associated with bacon, but they make a great match for whiskey as well. Buena Vista, Colorado’s Deerhammer Distillery cold-smokes yellow corn from Ute Mountain Farm, using about 15% of it in its corn whiskey mashbill. After a four-day open-top fermentation, it undergoes direct-fire double pot-distillation and maturation in Deerhammer’s own ex-bourbon and single malt barrels.

Although the product was recently discontinued, Little Rock, Arkansas-based Rock Town cold-smoked soft red winter wheat to create a gentle smokiness in its whiskey. Nashville’s Corsair Distillery—one of the earliest leaders in American smoked whiskey—malted barley over hickory wood smoke for Wildfire, which has also been discontinued but can still be found at some stores. Even Jack Daniel’s has gotten in on the hickory game, releasing a limited-edition whiskey in 2018 that was infused with charred hickory staves to impart a smoky flavor.

Photos from left: courtesy of Jersey Spirits; courtesy of Iron Smoke.

Applewood

Jersey Spirits Wildwoods Applewood Smoked American Single Malt ($52/375 ml)
Iron Smoke Straight Bourbon ($55)

Located just outside of Rochester in Fairport, New York, Iron Smoke Distillery is the brainchild of rock musician Tommy Brunett, who was inspired to make an applewood-smoked bourbon during a session of cooking ribs while enjoying whiskey. The distillery’s proprietary process lightly smokes the wheat for its four-grain mashbill—Brunett calls the resulting flavor “just a puff of smoke”—and the bourbon is bottled at both 40% ABV and barrel proof. Fairfield, New Jersey’s Jersey Spirits, meanwhile, offers its Wildwoods Applewood-Smoked single malt, aged in small barrels for just shy of three years, as a limited edition, alongside a cherrywood-smoked version.

Photos from left: courtesy of Corsair; courtesy of Sonoma Distilling Company courtesy of Pine Barrens Distilling

Cherrywood

Corsair Triple Smoke American Single Malt ($50)
Sonoma Distilling Company Cherrywood Smoked Bourbon and Rye ($50)
Pine Barrens Cherrywood Smoked Malt Whiskey ($40)

Cherrywood creates a delicate, nuanced smokiness in grain. Sonoma Distilling Company’s master distiller, Adam Spiegel, incorporates cherrywood-smoked malt into both his bourbon (13%) and rye (10%), resulting in a mild smoke character. At Long Island Spirits, master distiller Rich Stabile uses cherrywood-smoked malt to produce an English-style barleywine mash which he double-distills into the softly smoky, spicy Pine Barrens. In Corsair’s Triple Smoke single malt, the sweetness of the Wisconsin cherrywood smoke is balanced by dry German beechwood-smoked malt and earthy Scottish peated malt—each a perfect third of the mashbill.

Photo courtesy of Corsair

Texas Scrub Oak

Balcones Brimstone ($55)

Although Waco, Texas’s Balcones Distilling makes single malt used Scottish peated barley, it’s the blue corn-based Brimstone that makes the boldest smoky impression. Though roasted, the corn itself isn’t smoked. Instead, the distillery uses a proprietary process to smoke the distillate over Texas scrub oak, also called shin oak. (The same liquid, unsmoked, goes on to become Balcones Baby Blue and True Blue.) After maturation and bottling at 53% ABV, Brimstone is the result—a beefy, brash whiskey that’s unmistakably Texan and utterly unique.

Photos from left: courtesy of Maine Craft Distilling; courtesy of Brother Justus courtesy of Copperworks Distilling; courtesy of Westland.

American Peat

Maine Craft Distilling Fifty Stone ($50)
Brother Justus Cold-Peated Whiskey ($95)
Copperworks Peated Malt Whiskey Made with Washington Peat ($76)
Westland Solum (Not Available)

Like Scotland, the U.S. has rich peatlands, concentrated in the Pacific Northwest, Midwest, and along the East Coast. But little of this peat has been harvested and used for drying malted barley, meaning most American distillers look overseas for their peated malt needs. A few producers, however, have been able to get their hands on local peat, including Portland-based Maine Craft Distilling, whose Fifty Stone single malt is made with floor-malted Maine barley dried over Maine peat and seaweed.

In Minneapolis, Brother Justus Whiskey Company is one of several Minnesota distilleries to use locally harvested peat, employing its proprietary “Aitkin County Process.” Rather than peating malted barley in the kiln, the distillery facilitates contact between its whiskey and the reed/sedge peat itself, which emphasizes earthy botanicals rather than smoke.

In Seattle, both Copperworks Distilling Company and Westland Distillery have created single malt from Washington-state peated barley, made at Skagit Valley Maltings. Hotly anticipated for several years, Westland’s whiskey is still maturing and will be released in 2022 as Solum, part of the distillery’s Outpost series. Copperworks, meanwhile, bottled a barrel of its peated single malt in late 2020, showcasing the soft, forest-driven character of the peat—a tantalizing tastes of just how distinct and delicious America’s peated whiskies can be from their Scottish counterparts.

A seasoned blind taster and critic, Susannah Skiver Barton covers whisky and spirits from both lifestyle and trade angles. She served as a senior editor at Whisky Advocate and Market Watch for many years, responsible for the annual awards list. Other bylines include Punch, The Daily Beast, and more. She is a Certified Spirits Specialist and recipient of the 2020 Alan Lodge Young International Drinks Writer Award.