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A new Islay whisky
Smokehead is a single malt whisky that originates from an undisclosed distillery on the isle of Islay. Launched in 2006 by Ian MacLeod distillers, it is packaged in a contemporary design with a view to capturing the imagination of the younger spirits consumer.
Ian MacLeod Distillers date back to 1933. Long renowned as the company behind the popular ‘Isle of Skye’ blended Scotch brand, the business was purchased in 1963 by Peter Russell & Co. Russell was the son of experienced whisky broker Leonard Russell and had seemingly inherited his father’s nose both for good whisky and a good deal. Under his guidance, Ian MacLeod Distillers became a hugely successful enterprise, specialising in the supply of own-brand whisky to supermarket chains across Europe.
By the time Peter’s son Leonard joined the business in 1989, the industry had drastically changed, and not for the better. The price of blended Scotch had plummeted and distilleries across the land were sitting on a whisky loch they couldn’t sell. Thankfully as a business, Ian MacLeod were able to ride out the storm but Leonard had become determined that greater control of stocks and supplies was needed. His plans finally came to fruition when in 2003, his company acquired Glengoyne distillery from Edrington for £7.2 million.
Becoming distillers in their own right proved to be the boost the company needed and further expansion soon followed. In 2011 they once again struck a deal with Edrington, this time securing ownership of the mothballed Tamdhu distillery in Speyside. That was followed in 2016 by the acquisition of the Spencerfield Spirit Company, adding much needed revenue in the form of Edinburgh Gin and the Pig’s Nose, Feathery and Sheep Dip blended Scotch labels. In perhaps their biggest venture yet, they announced in 2017 that they were to rebuild and reopen Rosebank distillery in Falkirk which had lain dormant since 1993.
Smokehead came along in 2006, at a time the industry was looking to capitalise on renewed interest in the spirits category. Though its origins remain shrouded in mystery, the liquid is rumoured to come from a certain southern-Islay distillery that stands approximately 3 miles from Port Ellen on the Kildalton coast. Whilst this spirit rarely appears in anything other than official distillery bottlings, Ian MacLeod’s history as a whisky broker could mean they have long-term deals in place that would facilitate just such a thing.
Whatever the story is behind the whisky itself, the Smokehead brand has met with considerable success and the range has grown to include ‘High Voltage’ bottled at 58%, ‘Sherry Bomb’ bottled at 48% and a travel retail exclusive ‘Extra Rare’ that I reviewed here.
Smell: Medicinal, slightly Perfumed Peat Smoke, Brine, Liquorice, Vanilla, Caramel and Honey.
Taste: Rather light bodied with Vanilla, Creamy Fudge, Smoke and Ash, Sea Salt and Liquorice.
Thoughts: A salty Islay dram, perhaps not as smoky as the name would suggest, but a satisfying blast of the famous whisky island nevertheless. Reasonably affordable, though perhaps would have delivered a little better at 46% rather than 43.
*If the whisky reviewed in this article has caught your eye, you can buy it from Master of Malt 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.