The lure of Islay captivates a growing assortment of whisky enthusiasts across the world. Boundaries no longer matter as the approachability of the Lowland fruits or the classy Speyside exponents are tossed overboard. In their place is a new appetite for coastal flavours, the blast of a peat furnace and being shrouded in smoke.
Funny how times change and the sense of fashion grips many within whisky. For sure there have always been those that have enjoyed an Islay dram and have remained steadfast in their staunch support. Others migrate via the hurdles of slowly working their way through the assortment of whisky characteristics. After all, very few start with an Islay dram and actually fall in love with that pungent assault. However, for many years the demand wasn’t just there for anything Islay and casks were difficult to shift.
Our own whisky journeys are unique and specific to each and every single one of us. You may have started with a swallie of a blended Scotch from your father’s spirit cabinet and repelled in horror. Dashing to the nearest sink to gag in horror at this monstrous fiery liquid. Perhaps at a slightly older age and armed with a more experienced palate, received encouragement from a friend to try something a little more interesting than vodka or Tennent’s. We all start off differently and for me, the journey through whisky is one that keeps evolving and giving. Providing entertainment, sustenance, friendship and those moments you’ll never forget.
The point being and if there is a point here amidst my meandering retrospective whisky journey. Is simply each to their own. All the whiskies here on MALT, we give you our honest, arguably informed and independent view. That’s what counts and then you’re armed with another viewpoint to make that purchase or whatever the case may be. We don’t state this on every review nor should we need to but I do feel we should now and again highlight our scoring guide.
Back to the matter at hand. The rumours are that this mysterious whisky is a youthful Ardbeg around 6 years in age, but we stress that’s just the gossip. Smokehead is a single malt from Islay, meaning it comes from the peat isle and a single distillery. Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen.
Smokehead comes from Ian Macleod distillers who own the unpeated Glengoyne distillery and the Speyside sleeper in Tamdhu. Both are worth your time and money if you haven’t already checked these producers out. Macleod’s also offers a range of whiskies under various names including the Isle of Skye, King Robert II and recently acquired Edinburgh Gin for those of you who enjoy that stuff. With the exception of Skye, arguably the best-known brand is Smokehead, which is now available in 3 forms. High Voltage is bottled at 58% strength, an expensive 18 year old called Extra Black and the entry level No Age Statement which forms the basis of this review. Bottled at 43% strength, featuring colouring and chill filtration it’ll set you back around £35 from the Whisky Exchange or a similar price from Amazon.
Smokehead Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky – review
Colour: a glowing tan
On the nose: cinder toffee and treacle with a smoky aspect. Caramel, wet wood, oily, a touch of heather and a trace of salt but more dried seaweed than anything coastal forceful. Stewed black tea with a sense of flaccid punch initially and where’s the punch? Ah! Cornflakes! Yes, it reminds me of that in places although I wouldn’t recommend using this as a milk substitute. Water brings back memories of being in my grandfather’s coal bunker as a kid with that dense smoky air and a batter-like quality. There’s also that sense of too much colouring having been added. I’m not saying smoke as once you’ve stepped into the whisky realm it becomes the air you breathe. To onlookers or those nearby, the smoke is more noticeable from a safe vantage point.
In the mouth: flat arrival, wet bark, kindling, roasted coffee beans, young and more kick on the palate compared to nose. Ham hock, autumnal vegetation with the peat carrying through right till the end with black pepper. Drinkable certainly but lacking definition. Some fleeting dark chocolate comes through with water and the day after clothing residue from campfire shenanigans.
Mixed thoughts overall in summary. There’s a simple level of enjoyment here. Yes, of course, we’d want more of an Islay blast for our cash but that probably explains the expanded Smokehead range. Retailing at around £35, even with some lovely branding, there’s a sense that this is the wrong side of £30. Experience reveals that you can pick up an Islay single malt from a supermarket for around £20 or less. Agreed, these are often bottled at 40% and in more simplistic packaging but that’s quite a price difference.
Smokehead is an approachable Islay that says something of interest without totally capturing your attention. Perfectly drinkable and agreeable, it is a warmup act for the more domineering Islay malts. Time and a drop of water does help the overall experience. For most of this review and my tasting, I’ve bounced between a 5 or 6 for this whisky and tried to pinpoint the ideal number for this bottle… The price costs it a mark but if you see it on special then its a worthy consideration.
My thanks to Ian MacLeod distillers for generously sending a bottle for this review.