Founded in 1933, Ian MacLeod Distillers is now into its third generation of family ownership and have continued to go from strength to strength. The business now owns two of Scotland’s most loved distilleries, Glengoyne and Tamdhu, with a series of other revered drinks brands to their name (including the very successful Edinburgh Gin). Amongst their roster of stylish and respectful brands stands out a rather stark and contradictory face, or should we say, skull: Smokehead
The original Smokehead whisky and brand was released in 2006 with a clear motive : break the mould and sell a whisky to a younger and/or less traditional audience. The brand was launched with a site and packaging that read like a mission statement from a new local metal band setting out on their (hard) rocky road. And you know what? It worked. Several years later, the brand has a solid partnership with Classic Rock magazine and even now release a whisky called High Voltage, not just an early AC/DC title, but the name of the Classic Rock magazine’s sister publication which used to tailor towards the heavier side of rock.
For this review, we take a look at the Extra Rare release, which is their travel retail exclusive expression, which stands to offer a “colossus of clashing tastes, bigger and bolder than most”. This single malt is bottled at 40% ABV but the exact origins of the Smokehead whiskies remain a closely guarded secret, but there is one thing we do know: they are from Islay. So grab your leather jacket, don your denim battle jacket, and raise your horns as we turn the volume up in this Extra Rare cut…
Well, it’s from Islay! There’s that distinct coastal smell of sea-spray-battered casks that conjure up images of seaweed and brine in the mind’s eye, not to mention the characteristic Islay peat phenols and smoke. Each time I go back to it, the glass seems to offer a different smoke too. Peat smoke. Woodsmoke. Coal smoke. American bbq style meats. It’s sweet, smoky and sticky.
Smoke and sweet bourbon-vanilla hit the tongue first. Then some good malt rolls across the palate, actually. Citrus zest then bursts out of the smoky depths. A cracked black pepper fizzle sets it all off.
“Islaaaaaaaaay!” screams that last rasp of alcohol, tar and smoke. Any of the “flavours” within the liquid drop away fairly quickly but that smoke just goes on and on – even after the liquid is long gone, you have a couple of breaths that are intoxicatingly peaty. Once that smoke has gone I found myself with a tangy and tannic funk left on the tongue.
Rumour has it on the blogosphere that this is an Ardbeg and everything here seems to say that too. It certainly seems to be one of the Kidalton trio. When drinking this, a mate of mine once said it had all the flavours of a smoky BBQ sauce. You can’t deny that. It definitely puts sticky ribs to mind. It maybe even reminds me of the burgers from the Ardbeg cafe – is that a clue? Well, that’s poor detective work but as good as a guess as any. I wonder if it’s Ian MacLeod’s prerogative to actually get spirits from different distilleries to make each recipe? Obviously it’s an Islay single malt, meaning each release has to come from just a single distillery, but it could be possible. As I sit here in my “…And Justice For All” t-shirt, this is a decent Islay single malt and does suit me and the metal motifs well. It’s not the smokiest thing out there, by far, or a face melter (particularly at 40% ABV), but it’s got a certain something about it and is a good Islay for the money. Food wise, probably best served to people who like their steak cooked extra rare too! Musically, best paired with Alice in Chains, rather than Slayer. It grooves, it moves, it makes you think, but doesn’t leave you devastated in its wake. And that’s probably a good thing.
Sample disclosure: I bought this whisky at Dubai airport, whilst waiting for a connection back to the UK. All notes are my own and intended as an honest fair and independent review of the whisky itself. It is not intended as a promotion. Please drink responsibly.