Smokehead Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky – Review

*Thanks to the good folks at Impex Beverages for the sample.

Advertising and marketing have been around for centuries. Political slogans and commercial messages have been found in ancient Egyptian ruins and Vesuvius’ ash depository, Pompeii. Johnny Gutenberg’s printing press really upped the ante, and today we’re basically bombarded in all our waking hours by logos, brand names, slogans, and carefully crafted fonts and images, all with the intent to lead us to choose one thing over another. Although the world of Scotch was quick to use images of tartan-ed Highland chieftains to sell malt, it didn’t really improve on that for nearly a century.  Only in the last 10 years or so have we seen crisp modern design, and edgy fonts and graphics on tins and bottles. Tradition and convention now often gets pushed aside as the Scotch industry reaches out to lure more drinkers into its peaty, heathery clutches.

There might be no better example of this than Ian Macleod’s Smokehead Islay Single Malt. With no age statement given and even more intriguingly, no distillery listed, Smokehead is a direct appeal, not to traditional Scotch aficionados, but to a crowd more interested in drinking something “edgy” and unique out in the bars. Distressed lettering spells out descriptive adjectives around the bottle and tin, some accurate (“peaty”, “briney”, “balanced”) and some (“outrageous”, “monstrous”) perhaps a little hyperbolic when compared to the Octomores and Supernovas of the world. Smokehead wears its target audience on its sleeve, and while it might be easy to dismiss such consciously marketed malts, the true test is what’s inside the bottle and Ian Macleod have backed up their heavy marketing with a pretty darn good whisky.

The Nose: For an Islay malt labeled outrageous, this is almost elegantly reserved…lots to say, but it’s not shouting it. As expected, there’s peat, warm black rubber and a bit of green wood smoke but it’s not overwhelming, just earthy and pungent.  There are also some nice notes of well-toasted and buttered bread.   All of this is balanced and softened by a bit of coca and good sweetness of the baked fruit variety.

The Palate: Nice development, the honeyed, malty entry quickly turns peaty, but while it’s fairly strong, the peat is not as medicinal as, say, Laphroaig. There are some fruit or even sherry overtones that soften it a bit. All that peat is backed up by ashy wood smoke and a briney saltiness which grows steadily stronger towards the finish with just a catch of youth towards the end.

The Finish: Longish, salty, ashy, and a little spicy.

Thoughts: This is really good stuff, I’m surprised that no distillery wants to claim it.  Rumor has it that it’s mostly under 10 years old, which if true is pretty impressive. It’s nicely structured, complex and without much of that young whisky harshness. Oddly enough…or maybe not so oddly, one of the first things this reminded me of was a much younger Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist, it’s peaty, earthy strong stuff, but there is a subtle, sweetness, a slight delicacy that makes it interesting. It also reminds me a bit of Caol Ila but it’s not as bright, more earthy…my guess is that Smokehead comes from one of these distilleries. At $55, on the one hand, it might be a little pricey for this kind of mystery NAS malt, but on the other, it’s also in line with the Ardbeg 10’s and Caol Ila and Bruichalddich 12’s. Definitely worth a try.

Smokehead Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky, Islay

43% ABV

Score: 85

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4 thoughts on “Smokehead Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky – Review

  1. Out of the 679 different scotch samplings that I have tasted and taken notes on, 34 of my top 100 favorites are Islays. I say that so you will know that I love the peat, the snoke, everything an Islay can bring to the experience. Last night I got to sample the Smokehead. It was a new bottle, opened just for me, so I know it was not contaminated in any way. I never got past the fact that it tasted like someone had just dumped the entire contents of an ashtray into that single bottle. I could go on, but for me that pretty much says it all.

  2. Tastes to me like a very young Lagavulin, and really really close to the cheap Trader Joes Islay, “Finlaggan” of the nearly identical flavor. At $50 a bottle, the Fin is less than half the cost of the smokehead, and neither of them stand up to the 16 YO Lagavulin. Marketing is were the money went for this one.

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