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Tasting SmokeHead 18 ‘Extra Black’

26 May 2010 4,641 views Written by: Gal Granov

SH18

One of my first Islay malts was the “regular” Smokehead. I remember me sitting in a bar (The excellent Tel-Aviv based ‘Norma Jean’ which boasts one of the best whisky collections available here), asking the bartender for a dram of something peaty and reasonable priced. He suggested the Smokehead, and I never regretted this choice.

For those of you who never heard of it, Smokehead is a single malt bottled by the Ian McLeod company, which origins are unknown (an Islay distillery for sure), and is a well kept secret. Why keep it secret you ask? Marketing, Marketing and then some more Marketing. It goes like this : you buy a stock from a distillery, create a brand, surround it with mystery and then charge a premium and make a nice profit. (of course you design a really good looking bottle with cool conts, colors and design). This basically Is what Smokehead is. But, is it good? Well, it’s darn good. The younger Smokehead is a cracking dram of a young Islay : peat, smoke, tar, iodine, medicinal notes and all the “goodies” a young Islay Peated malt brings with it. I shall review this youngster at a later time, but today we’re speaking of it’s older and much more mature (and expensive mind you) brother : The 18 Extra Black.

I’ve been meaning to taste this older expression for quite a time now, but only recently managed to get a sample (thanks I.T – aka @hmemcpy for your kind sample). An 18 year old Islay is always a grand thing to try. I’ve just recently reviewed the 18 year old Laphraoaig , and loved it. So I had high expectations for this one. Now mind you, this dram is not cheap. At £85 It costs much more than its non-Mystery Islay brethren: £20 more than the Laphraoaig 18, £20 more than the Coal Ila 18 etc (see Edinburgh Whisky Blog’s excellent post about the price comparison, and why it’s so dear)

Why? Is it worth the premium? Let’s get on with the tasting notes and see what’s it like.

SMOKEHEAD 18 Year Old Extra Black, 46% ABV

Color: Gold

Nose: Sweet Smoke on first whiff, then oh sweet smoked bananas in maple syrup arrive! (and a bit of other tropical notes I can’t put my finger on) I didn’t expect that one at all. What a wonderful surprise!. Some honey, and citrus and also vanilla on top of this wonderful banana split of a nose. The Peat is not very strong as expected by an older expression as this one.

Dried_Banana

Palate: Initially sweet, then bitter with tons of smoke and peat that attack your palate. There is also something spicy going on. The feeling is much more aggressive and strong than the nose would suggest. The smoked bananas are also evident on the palate.

Finish: Long, bitter, Smokey, peaty, ending on oak , burnt embers if coal. Textbook Islay finish. Sweetness is all but gone.

Summing it up:

What can I say? I am in love. A wonderful nose, with a great palate, those tropical fruit / bananas did that for me : mixing so well with the smoke and peat. Very complex, interesting, well aged Islay dram. Nothing short of greatness. This presents a real dilemma: Is this dram worth the extra £20 or so premium over other aged Islays ? Is it that good?

I think it is. £85 is a lot of money, but it’s really a premium malt, and for that amount you are getting an awesome dram, nothing short of that. I guess Ian McLeod could have saved us a few £’s if they chose a more humble casing, and not that black coffin of a box. Also they could have reduced the costs of branding and making the bottle stand out with its black paint and designed fonts, and other marketing features.

Bottom line : I want it. It made its way right into my top 5 wish-list. I intend to get one sometime soon.

The Guessing game continues:

Ok, Great dram. But aren’t you dying to know where this malt came from? I don’t believe I have more confidence in my guess after tasting this dram…

  • Coal Ila ? I’ve heard it more than once from my twitter buddies (this time from Oliver) , if there is a mystery dram on Islay – Suspect Coal Ila immediately :) But again, I’ve never got those sweet notes on the nose from a CI. I recently reviewed the 18 year-old CI, and the profile is quite different. Also, don’t they have enough mystery dramming going on with the Port Askaig series?
  • Peated Bunnahabhain ? – As noted by @mcdeffe , the Bunnahabhain distillery has started producing Peated malt only in 1997, so that is not possible.
  • Ardbeg ? – The nose again is nothing like the Ardbegs I’ve sampled in that age range (the ANB for example) , and there are no OB 18 year old expressions out there. So, Maybe.
  • Laphraoaig ? – In a recent review, I’ve tasted the 18 y.o expression. It had some similarities, but the as in the CI, I never got that wonderful nose on that expression.
  • Care to help me try and pinpoint which distillery we should thank for this exquisite dram?

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  • http://www.whisky-rating.com Oliver Klimek

    Ardbeg is often mentioned as well as source for the Smokehead. But the capacitiy of the distillery is quite small and there is such a high demand for “real” Ardbegs that I can’t believe they will sell off significant quantities of their malt to independents, apart from the occasional cask every now an then.

    But then again, do we really need to know? If we knew the distillery, it wouldn’t make any difference at all because there is no official bottling that resembles the Smokehead (or the Ileach or the Finlaggan or the Port Askaig or the….)

    If you like it, enjoy it. If you don’t, skip it.

    • Anonymous

      I do enjoy it. but i also love to solve those mysteries :)
      have u had it?

      • http://www.whisky-rating.com Oliver Klimek

        I don’t know it but I would love to try.

        You will never know which distillery made it unless someone from the bottler tells you. But they will have promised to keep it secret and they can be sued if they actually tell.

        The fact that it is so hard to guess the diistillery speaks for the quality of Islay whisky in general. They all can produce fabulous whisky. And you see that the selection of casks is so important for the final taste of the malt. You really can disguise the house style of your distillery by selecting a combination of casks that is a little bit different from the ones you use for your regular bottlings

  • http://www.hmemcpy.com/blog/ Igal Tabachnik

    Once again, excellent post my friend. Your notes are spot on! Glad you’re enjoying it.

  • http://www.jewishsinglemaltwhiskysociety.com/ Joshua (Yossi)

    I love the older Islay malts. Young peat is nice but old peat is just plain sexy.

    • http://www.whiskyisrael.co.il Gal(WhiskyIsrael)

      you are right. Old peat = sexy
      young peat = awesome.

      anyway, Peat is your friend :)

  • http://www.whisky-rating.com Oliver Klimek

    Ardbeg is often mentioned as well as source for the Smokehead. But the capacitiy of the distillery is quite small and there is such a high demand for “real” Ardbegs that I can't believe they will sell off significant quantities of their malt to independents, apart from the occasional cask every now an then.

    But then again, do we really need to know? If we knew the distillery, it wouldn't make any difference at all because there is no official bottling that resembles the Smokehead (or the Ileach or the Finlaggan or the Port Askaig or the….)

    If you like it, enjoy it. If you don't, skip it.

  • granov

    I do enjoy it. but i also love to solve those mysteries :)
    have u had it?

  • http://www.whisky-rating.com Oliver Klimek

    I don't know it but I would love to try.

    You will never know which distillery made it unless someone from the bottler tells you. But they will have promised to keep it secret and they can be sued if they actually tell.

    The fact that it is so hard to guess the diistillery speaks for the quality of Islay whisky in general. They all can produce fabulous whisky. And you see that the selection of casks is so important for the final taste of the malt. You really can disguise the house style of your distillery by selecting a combination of casks that is a little bit different from the ones you use for your regular bottlings

  • http://twitter.com/hmemcpy Igal Tabachnik

    Once again, excellent post my friend. Your notes are spot on! Glad you're enjoying it.

  • http://www.jewishsinglemaltwhiskysociety.com/ Joshua (Yossi)

    I love the older Islay malts. Young peat is nice but old peat is just plain sexy.

  • whiskyisrael

    you are right. Old peat = sexy
    young peat = awesome.

    anyway, Peat is your friend :)

  • http://www.whiskywall.wordpress.com Chris

    Sounds good. I wish it was available to us here in the states. I had the younger version which I thought was good – not great, but good.

  • http://www.whiskywall.wordpress.com Chris

    Sounds good. I wish it was available to us here in the states. I had the younger version which I thought was good – not great, but good.

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