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The popularity of Islay’s heavily peated single malt has never been higher. Naturally, with such greatly increased demand, prices have started to climb. Fortunately, however, bargains can still be found, especially if one doesn’t mind an element of mystery to their purchase.
Some great value offerings are released by independent bottlers, who are sometimes contractually obliged to keep the origins of the spirit hidden. In that kind of situation, it is common to create an entirely new brand under which to release the malt. Though this lack of transparency can be off-putting to some, such bottles are often 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 is bottled by Ian Macleod Distillers (of Glengoyne distillery) and is perhaps not the cheapest at £50, though that sum will buy you a litre. Naturally, one can’t help but enquire 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. This is little more than speculation, of course, but it’s certainly fair to say that the malt shares some of the characteristics of that distillery.
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.
Thoughts: £50 seems a wee bit pricey for a no age statement, 40% ABV single malt. Though you do get a lire bottle. If, however, it is an Ardbeg, you could 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.
A decent option for peat fans looking for something a bit different.
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.
Smell: Bonfire Smoke, Charcoal, Grass Smoke and Char-grilled Meat with a touch of Raspberry Jam
Taste: Smoky Barbecue, Sea Salt and Blackcurrant with Orange and Dark Chocolate.
Thoughts: Regardless of its origins, this is a cracker. You get the impression that it’s young and even a wee bit raw but that seems to work in its favour. Peaty whisky often does come across better at a young age. It certainly doesn’t feel as complex as the Lagavulin 16-year-old but I suppose it could be from the same distillery, just in a less mature, feistier stage. I certainly picked up some of the same fruity notes I often get in Lagavulin. That could just as easily be the power of suggestion, though. 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.