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.

43% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $53-$60
Acquired: (1/4 oz tasting sample) K&L Wines and Spirits, Redwood City, CA.

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  • I actually have a bottle of this on hand…I do enjoy this scotch, so how about this; I wrote Ralfy (on YouTube) and claimed that Smokehead was young Caol Ila, he wrote back that “how about young Caol Ila aged in ex-ardbeg casks”…I find the spirit quite longing, complex, challenging, and quite delicious.

    • Caol ila was my first thought, inexperienced as I am, but I recently had a bottle of the limited edition loch fyne caol ila bottling (phenomenal btw) and noticed some similarities though the loch fyne bottling is obviously a lot more intense.

  • We cracked open a bottle of this last night as part of a tasting among friends. One friend said “The smoke went straight to my brain.” I think it’s enjoyable myself, a nice blend of smoke and iodine. But, it was the sixth whisky we tried. I’ll have to try it again in a few days when I have a clear palate.

  • Just picked up a bottle of this for $59 NZD (£31 or $49 USD) here in New Zealand. Read the tasting notes and just blind bought it on a whim (along with a bottle of Ardbeg 10). Haven’t tasted yet but can’t go wrong for this price (not to be repeated probably).

  • This is being delisted from liquor stores in Ontario, Canada. I bought three bottles. Not my favourite but a good ‘utility’ scotch for the price. I like to have something on hand in case I need a big gulp as opposed to a sip…. and I do like it.

  • I’m an admited smoke, peat and maltophile, so this whisky is right up my alley. The only thing that keeps it from being my daily dram is the price. Locally it is close to $7.00 a bottle more expensive than Laphroig 10 yr. old scotch, a product it only comes close to in quality in my opinion. That being said, I still like the product and will no doubt purchase it again in the future as a diversion.

  • I’m trying each of the Islay peated distilleries so I’ve got (Bruichladdich) Port Charlotte yet to try. Might try Bunnahabain despite it being very lightly peated and I’ll avoid (also Bruichladdich) Octomore based on price and extreme peatiness. Smokehead, I think, made me ill with colitis (stomach cramps, diahorrea, constipation). None of the other Islays made me feel like that. Usually a single measure 25ml was enough to bring on the symptoms. Anyone else experienced gut-rot like this?

  • I really like it! It is 2/3 the price of the entry level bottlings of Islay whisky, Ardbeg 10, caol ila 12 and Laphroaig 10 are regularly over 100 bucks this is 66 AUD. It is also really tasty, smoky and bold, I get ashy caramel and iodine and day after a bonfire. I think it is Caol ILA as they have capacity making whisky for blends Etc and they just increased the PPM and put it in a different cask