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A mysterious malt from Islay
Smokehead is a single malt distilled on the isle of Islay off Scotland’s western coast. Sourced from an unknown distillery, it is bottled by Ian MacLeod – owner of Glengoyne and Tamdhu distilleries, the Isle of Skye blend and the main driving force behind the ongoing rejuvenation of the dormant Rosebank distillery in Falkirk.
The brand was originally developed in 2006 with the intention of appealing to a younger audience, complete with contemporary packaging and a bold flavour profile. A core range comprising of “Original” and “Extra Rare” expressions saw it gain a foothold in an increasingly competitive market for affordable Islay whisky.
I must admit however, my own experiences with Smokehead over the years have led me to view it as a solid if unremarkable dram. A single malt that perhaps doesn’t quite live up to its rather dramatic branding.
2018 brought an extensive re-branding that put the familiar Skull motif front and centre, rapidly followed by newly developed products. At the forefront of this new era was “High Voltage”, a higher strength offering bottled at an impressive 58%.
Since 2009, Smokehead has enjoyed an association with Classic Rock magazine, running extensive advertising campaigns throughout the publication and acting as VIP sponsor of their Roll of Honour Awards ceremony. This spirit of collaboration has since been developed further in the form of “The Refinery”, a series of partnerships with other independently minded craftsmen and women.
The first such project saw the Smokehead team work with Scottish food lovers and creators of intense pop-up dining experiences Dram & Smoke to create “The Smokehead Feasts“. Taking place across three nights in three cities, the event welcomed 217 guests and saw the consumption of 153 bottles of Smokehead in the form of specially curated cocktails and big, bold dishes designed to compliment them.
In the most recent of these alliances meanwhile, Smokehead colluded with legendary bike builder Tyler Lunceford. Dubbed the Ducati Whisperer of the Tri-State Area, Lunceford has spent years building bikes for everyone from rock stars to obsessive collectors and now, Smokehead whisky. His latest creation is a one of a kind, customised Ducati inspired by vintage racing motorcycles. Dubbed “The Smoker”, this expertly crafted bike was unveiled on the 12th of November at the Bike Shed in Shoreditch, London.
High Voltage is bottled at 58% and comes packaged in a distinctive silver gift tube. I must admit however, as attractive as the packaging is, it would be nice to see some practical information about the makeup of the whisky as well.
Smokehead High Voltage retails at approximately £55 a bottle.
Smell: Wood smoke and ash. Charcoal even. Also a little vanilla, honey, toffee and orange. Sea salt and pepper. Brine. Lemon spritz. Liquorice. Cashew nuts.
Taste: Toffee. Peppery spice. Salt and brine. Charcoal and oak. Currants. Tobacco ash and bonfire smoke.
Thoughts: £55 for high strength Islay single malt is fairly reasonable but sadly the liquid doesn’t quite deliver enough for me to declare it an outright bargain.
In a way, Smokehead is a victim of its own branding. The packaging prepares you for an assault on the senses that doesn’t really come. Smoke is present of course, as is coastal brine and there’s a bit of the trademark Islay pungency, particularly on the nose, but it all seems to fall a little flat on the palate and lacks any real complexity – beyond the smoke, there isn’t a whole lot going on. Even with higher strength, High Voltage seems to have turned up the heat without necessarily increasing the intensity of flavour. Having said all that, smoke manages to linger on the palate for a satisfying length of time and it remains a decent enough experience, just a little Islay-by-numbers. Simple and enjoyable enough but a little lightweight and ultimately, a wee bit forgettable.
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Visit the Smokehead website here.