From the same producer as Isle of Skye, this single-malt from an unspecified Islay distillery brings up a few observations I’ve been mulling about the branding of whisky. Barrels of single malt can find themselves in various places outside of the distillery’s own bottling plant. Many end up in the hands of blenders, who use them as flavoring elements in branded blends like Cutty Sark and The Famous Grouse or include them in all-malt vattings such as those released by Wemyss Malts and Compass Box. Some are chosen by independent bottlers to release under their own labels (sometimes even with extra aging or finishing in other barrels). These include the likes of Gordon & MacPhail, Berry Brothers & Rudd, Whyte & Mackay, and even the Single-Malt Whisky Society (SMWS). Finally, some are chosen to represent entirely different brands, with the original distillery’s identity hidden. Examples of this are Finlaggan, Trader Joes’ own Highland Single-Malt, and Ian Macleod’s Smokehead.
For me, this begs a question: what exactly are you paying for when you buy such a product as this? You aren’t told the distillery from which it came, nor (usually) the age. You’re asked to trust in the “brand”, which is really nothing more than a careful selection of barrels which approximate the same style – usually a style that deviates from the distillery norm. If we guess that Smokehead, for example, is young Ardbeg, and that the barrels were not kept for use by the distillery due to their milder peat ppm or divergent notes of pine sap, fish sauce, and mint, then we are allowing Smokehead to establish its brand on that flavor profile. A consumer’s reason for buying such a product, then, must be either a preference for those flavors over the distillery standard, or the desire to pay a lower price. Or, perhaps, a clever marketing campaign that hoodwinks consumers into believing that Smokehead is better at picking Ardbeg barrels than Ardbeg is.
For me, the only reason that compels me to buy products like this is price. In fact, I do often keep a bottle of Finlaggan on hand, due to its absurdly low price. I’m willing to accept slightly sub-par barrels of unknown Islay whisky in exchange for a bargain price. Smokehead, on the other hand, is $53 a bottle. Is it good enough to command such a price?
Nose: Dark, musty grimy smoke. Oily. Some suggestion of pine sap. Warm charcoal notes and a tiny bit of dark chocolate.
Palate: Heavy barrel char and oaky resin to the point of being woody. Smoke comes in with barbeque sauce, Thai fish sauce, and hickory.
Finish: A hint of mint, but only of medium length (surprising for an Islay). Not particularly bitter, which is nice, but fades with a lot of woodiness.
Overall: A mediocre dram when compared with similar young Islays. There is some nice dark musty peat, but it’s not as intense as most Islay fans would like. My best guess is that this is a 6 year-old Ardbeg from a heavily charred ex-bourbon barrel, but not an excellent one. Someone suggested it might be Lagavulin. If so, it would have to be older – 9 years? – to account for those dark musty notes. However, I just don’t find that Lagavulin sweet-smoke balance here. Would I buy a 6 year-old Ardbeg distillery bottling for $53? No, and I wouldn’t buy this either.