If you’re of the opinion that Scotch is a tipple for the refined and genteel, then you haven’t been introduced to Smokehead. The heavy metal-themed brand, which encourages its drinkers to “smoke tradition,” is produced by Ian Macleod Distillers, makers of more polite single malts like Glengoyne, Tamdhu, and Rosebank. But unlike those dignified brands with their age-statements and well-disclosed sources, Smokehead’s origins are something of a mystery clouded in, well, smoke. It’s a heavily-peated single malt of unknown age and maturation from an undisclosed Islay distillery (which at least narrows the options down to nine). And presumably from their marketing, it’s just as enjoyable out of a solo cup as it is from a crystal snifter. Maybe more so.
The Smokehead lineup includes several expressions, but today we’re taking our first look at the standard Smokehead Original, described on the brand’s website as “an assault on the senses” and a cask strength version dubbed High Voltage that presumably boasts an even more violently smoky profile. Rum-, sherry-, and tequila-finished offerings will be explored at a later date, after our tastebuds have had some time to recover.
Smokehead Original – My senses don’t exactly feel assaulted, which I suppose is a good thing. But this is definitely a bold, smoke-filled whiskey. The nose is packed with creosote, tar, and meaty notes that aren’t quite barbecue – the smoke seems too dry and sour – but it’s definitely well-charred. That said, there is a briny sweetness underneath it all which helps to tame some of the more acrid elements. On the palate, this whiskey is quite approachable, again despite the foreboding marketing. More tarry smoke dominates with secondary notes of treacle and burnt toast. Again, there is some sweetness to tame all of that wet campfire, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of complexity. The finish is a bit muddy with fading notes of ash and black licorice. Self-professed peatheads will probably still find this one wanting, but as a smoky mixer, it does just fine. 86 proof. B / $60
Smokehead High Voltage – While it certainly makes for a bigger and bolder aroma, the higher octane has, somewhat surprisingly, also given this one a better balance, adding heft to the sweeter maritime notes and seemingly reining in the punchy smoke and dusty ash. Notes of Band-Aid and citrus marmalade on toast give this one a modest complexity. The palate is similarly elevated with an almost molasses sweetness to pair with more elegant mesquite fire and cigar smoke. A measured, red pepper warmth sets in from the outset and never really lets up, adding a complementary heat to the smoky fire. The finish is much more memorable than its tamer sibling, thick with salted toffee, pickle brine, brown butter, and matchheads. Peatheads will find a lot more to appreciate here, and it probably makes for a better mixer, too. 116 proof. A- / $80 [BUY IT NOW FROM TOTAL WINE]