The popularity of heavily peated single malt from Islay has never been greater than it is at this moment in time, but with this increased demand comes an increase in cost – particularly for well aged expressions. That isn’t to say there are no bargains however, I’ve previously reviewed the Lagavulin 16, Laphroaig Quarter Cask and Bowmore 12 year old in these very pages but there are still other alternatives, so long as you don’t mind an element of mystery in your dram…
There are many independent bottlers operating in today’s market who track down casks from various sources and bottle them. Often they are contractually forbidden from revealing the origin of the liquid and so opt instead for a brand name, perhaps linked to the area. This lack of transparency can put some consumers off but at least where Islay is concerned, the possibilities are limited to just 8 distilleries.
Such brands often represent good value for money and I thought it might be interesting to take a look at a couple of examples…
Smokehead Extra Rare
First up is the ‘Extra Rare’ expression of Smokehead. This is a travel retail exclusive bottled by Ian Macleod Distillers (owners of Glengoyne). It’s heavily peated and while it isn’t the cheapest at around £50, it does come in a 1 litre bottle (there is also a regular Smokehead expression that comes in at a more reasonable £35). Now, curiosity naturally leads us to question which distillery may have produced this stuff and often a little digging can provide some hints. Caol Ila is the biggest producer on the isle of Islay and is often found amongst the independent bottlers which could make it a safe bet but there is also some suggestions that this comes from Ardbeg. Now, given the scarcity of independently bottled Ardbeg I would be surprised if this were true but having tasted the whisky I’m not so sure…
On the nose there’s smoke (naturally). Big, medicinal peat smoke with Tar, Iodine and TCP and more than a hint of burnt toast. There’s a note of barley and some Lemon and maybe a touch of Pineapple. The taste kicks off with big tobacco smoke, honey and vanilla and a little Caramel.
The Scores: About the Scoring System…
Smell: 17 / 20. Smoke, smoke and more smoke but then what else would you expect?
Taste: 16.5 / 20. A pleasant dram that doesn’t offer anything particularly original but should be enjoyable to most Islay fans.
Value for Money: 6.5 / 10. Not bad but £50+ seems a little excessive for a non age statement, 40% ABV single malt – even for a litre bottle.
Overall: 40 / 50. A decent enough alternative to the usual smokey suspects though perhaps just a little overpriced. You could pick up a Ten year old Ardbeg, bottled at 46% for a similar price and I know which I’d rather have.
The Ileach Cask Strength
Next we have the Ileach Cask Strength Edition, bottled by The Vintage Malt Whisky Company. It comes in at a whopping 58% and sells for around £40. (There is also a regular Ileach release bottled at 40% which sells for £25 – £30). Once again, the identity of the Distillery is unknown although many commentators seem to link it with Lagavulin. Like Ardbeg, you do not find independently bottled Lagavulin very often so if what we have here is a young Lagavulin at Cask Strength for £40 then we are looking at an exceptionally good buy.
On the nose there’s Bonfire Smoke and Charcoal, Burning Grass and Chargrilled Meats along with some notes of Fruit Jam – Raspberry and Blackcurrant spring to mind. On the palate meanwhile is a burst of Smokey Barbecue, Sea Salt, Blackcurrant Jam with Orange and some bitter Dark Chocolate.
The Scores: About the Scoring System…
Smell: 18 / 20. Big, intense and feisty nose that draws me in every time.
Taste: 18 / 20. Intensity is the key word here as well, huge big flavours of smoke, salt and fruits. Lovely.
Value for Money: 9.5 / 10. Even with it’s origins concealed and no age statement, this is a great dram for the money.
Overall: 45.5 / 50. If this isn’t a young Lagavulin it’s doing a damn good job of trying to be.