The popularity of Islay’s heavily peated single malt has never been higher, but with such greatly increased demand, prices have started to soar. Fortunately however, bargains can still be found, especially if one doesn’t mind an element of mystery in a purchase.
Some great value offerings are released by independent bottlers, who are occasionally contractually obliged to keep the origins of the spirit hidden. In those kind of situations, it is common to create an entirely new brand under which to release the malt and though this lack of transparency can be off-putting to some, 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, though exactly which one is not disclosed.
Smokehead Extra Rare
First up is ‘Extra Rare’, a travel retail exclusive of the ‘Smokehead‘ malt, bottled by Ian Macleod Distillers (of Glengoyne distillery). It is perhaps not the cheapest at £50, though that price does buy you a litre. Naturally, one can’t help but enquire as to the origins of the spirit and while no official information has been made available, multiple online commentators suggest that the spirit was distilled at Ardbeg on the islands south coast. Of course, this is little more than speculation but it’s certainly fair to say that the malt shares some of the characteristics of this most famed of Islay distilleries.
Smell: Smoke (naturally). Big, Medicinal, Peat Smoke with Tar, Iodine, TCP and Burnt Toast. There’s a touch of Barley with Lemon and Pineapple.
Taste: Tobacco Smoke with Vanilla, Honey, Lemon and Caramel.
Value for Money: £50 seems a wee bit excessive for a no age statement, 40% ABV single malt – even in a litre bottle. It remains however, a very pleasant dram.
Score: 40 / 50.
You could pick up a ten year old Ardbeg (bottled at 46%) for a similar price and it would, for me, represent a better purchase but if you’re familiar with the official bottlings from the Islay distilleries and looking to try a variation on the theme, Smokehead is a solid option.
The Ileach Cask Strength
The Ileach ‘Cask Strength’ comes from the good people at The Vintage Malt Whisky Company. Bottled at a whopping 58% abv, it retails in the UK for just £40. Once again, it’s origins are shrouded in mystery though the rumour-mill links it to the great Lagavulin, a dram which is rarely seen outside official bottlings. If this is indeed a young, cask strength Lagavulin for just £40, it is a very worthwhile purchase indeed.
Smell: Bonfire Smoke, Charcoal, Grass Smoke and Char-grilled Meat with a touch of Raspberry Jam
Taste: Smokey Barbecue, Sea Salt and Blackcurrant with Orange and Dark Chocolate.
Value for Money: Regardless of it’s origins, this is a great dram at a good price.
Score: 45.5 / 50.
I’ve no idea if this really is Lagavulin, it certainly could be but it really doesn’t matter. Sometimes it’s nice to let go of your preconceptions and just enjoy a dram at face value and this is certainly one to savour. Not for the faint hearted perhaps, but a sure fire winner for any fan of Islay.