The popularity of heavily peated single malt from Islay has never been greater than it is now and with increased demand comes increased cost – particularly for older expressions. This is not to say that there aren’t good value expressions out there though. I’ve already reviewed the Lagavulin 16, Laphroaig Quarter Cask and Bowmore 12 year old on whiskyreviews.net. However, there are other means of obtaining decent Islay malt at a good price…
There are many independent bottlers operating on today’s whisky landscape, usually sourcing single casks here and there and bottling them when they feel the time is right. However, occasionally these independents secure a more regular supply of whisky and decide to release it as an ongoing brand. Usually they’re contractually forbidden from revealing the origins of the liquid which can put some consumers off but particularly with Islay Malt, there aren’t that many possibilities – we know it comes from one of eight distilleries at least.
Some of these brands can represent good value for money and I thought it might be interesting to review one but since I had two in my collection I thought I may as well cover them both…
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.
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.