Mystery Malts from Islay (Smokehead & The Ileach)


Reviews of affordable whiskies with some entertaining tales along the way…

Whisky Island

The popularity of Islay’s heavily peated single malt has never been higher and with the increase in demand, prices have started to climb. Fortunately, there are still a few bargains to be found, especially if you don’t mind an element of mystery about your purchase.

There are some great value offerings released by independent bottlers, who are sometimes contractually obliged to keep the origins of the spirit undisclosed. In that kind of situation, it’s common for the bottler to create a new brand. The lack of transparency can be off-putting but free of the premium that often comes with a distillery name, they can be very competitively priced.

With that in mind, I decided to review a pair of malts, both of which were distilled at one of Islay’s eight distilleries.

Smokehead Extra Rare

First up is ‘Extra Rare’, a travel retail exclusive from the ‘Smokehead‘ brand. It’s bottled by Ian Macleod Distillers (of Glengoyne distillery) and while perhaps not the cheapest at £50, that sum will buy you a litre bottle. Naturally, one can’t help but wonder as to the origins of the whisky and while no official information has been made available, multiple online commentators suggest that the spirit was distilled at Ardbeg. Of course, this is little more than speculation but it’s fair to say that the malt shares some of the characteristics of that distillery..

Smell: Big medicinal peat smoke with tar, iodine, TCP… Burnt toast. Malted barley with lemon and pineapple.

Taste: Tobacco smoke. Vanilla. Honey. Lemon. Caramel. Malt. Subtle oak.

Thoughts: £50 seems a wee bit pricy for a no-age-statement, 40% ABV single malt, although you do get a lire bottle. If, however, this is an Ardbeg, you can pick up their 10-year-old, bottled at 46% for a very similar price. I know which one I’d rather have.

Don’t get me wrong, the Smokehead is a pleasant dram. I’m not sure it’s quite as smoky as the name and branding would have you believe, though. For my palate, it actually represents the milder side of peated Islay whisky.

Still, a decent option for peat fans looking for something a wee bit different.

For more on Ian MacLeod Distillers…

The Ileach Cask Strength

The Ileach ‘Cask Strength’ comes from The Vintage Malt Whisky Company. Bottled at a whopping 58% abv, it retails in the UK for just £40. Once again, its origins are shrouded in mystery though the rumour mill links it to Lagavulin. If it is indeed a young, cask strength, Lagavulin priced at just £40, it is a very interesting bottling indeed. Although I must admit to being somewhat sceptical of that.

Smell: Bonfire smoke and charcoal. Burning grass. Chargrilled meats. Malted barley. Toffee. Interesting wee fruit jam top note.

Taste: Smoky barbecue sauce. Sea Salt. Blackcurrant. Touch of citrus. Dark Chocolate. Ash.

Thoughts: Regardless of its origins, this is a real cracker. You get the impression that it’s young and a wee bit raw but that seems to work in its favour. Peaty whisky often comes across better at a young age. It certainly doesn’t feel as complex as something like the Lagavulin 16-year-old, for example, but I suppose it could be from the same distillery, just at a less mature, feistier stage. Whatever the case, this is a wee belter of a dram. Not for the faint-hearted, perhaps, but fans of Islay should really appreciate it. Especially at £40 a bottle!

If either of the whiskies reviewed in this article have caught your eye, you can buy them from Master of Malt. Smokehead Extra Rare here and The Ileach Cask Strength here. Please be aware that as an affiliate I can be paid a small commission on any purchases you make after following links from my page. The whisky is also available from several other excellent retailers.

For more on the Vintage Malt Whisky Company…


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