Taste Review 148 – Smokehead
Christmas. Done and dusted for another year and good riddance to it all. I really cannot be doing with all the hustle and bustle of people getting ready for some festival that pretty much most people don’t seem to believe in and spending money that they may not be truly able to afford to waste.
The first recorded Christmas celebration was in Rome during 336AD, which is quite fitting, for the gluttony that traditionally takes place at this time of year wouldn’t be out of place in a Roman orgy. Perhaps nothing much has changed after all? I had decided that this year we’d just treat our child and keep everything else low key. Being a good Aberdonian, I wasn’t really wanting to waste cash on anything that wasn’t necessary, though I’d caved in a bit when it came to the budget for Brussels Sprouts, Pigs in Blankets and crisp based snacks. The wife intimated that she wasn’t really looking for much for Christmas (or she gave me that impression, which was to be my defence if needed) and didn’t look that disappointed when that’s exactly what she got. Well, sort of; more about that at the end.
One of the things I dislike most about the festive season is being asked what do I want as a gift? I let it be known that I’d be happy with getting very little, but my wife wasn’t going to let me away with that so easily. As I tend to buy what I want when I need it, I couldn’t really say that I needed a new power tool. I’m pretty much fashion unconscious, so the offer of new clothing wasn’t taken up. My favourite designer is F&F and I only wear clothes because we have to in public. It gets pretty Baltic in this part of Scotland for most of the year, so clothes are a good idea for more than legal reasons. I sort of knew I was heading for the present that most whisky geeks may detest – Supermarket Whisky.
I’m not that much of a whisky fascist, as there are sometimes a few bottles of whisky in a supermarket that may be acceptable, but the problem is that my dearest knows next to nothing about whisky, and shows little or no interest in reading my blog so had no idea what I’d like. I’d instantly start to feel guilty about asking for something like Talisker 18 while my wife is currently taking time out of her career to look after our child. There was a slight glimmer of hope when she went shopping in Inverness just before Santa day, as she was wanting to go into Leakeys Bookstore – just up the street from wine and spirits retailer Wood Winters. The command that was issued to the effect that I was banned from entering her dressing room once she came home from that trip meant the chances were even higher of something decent. But I was deceiving myself.
I’m no stranger to a supermarket whisky gift. Previous presents have been Johnnie Walker Red, Laphroaig Select, Cardhu Gold, Glen Keith, Glen Moray Classic. None of these I’d say are bad whiskies, but definitely not anything I’d purchase myself. There was a wee bit of worry that I may end up with a full size Jura Journey, which given it took me over 5 years to finish a half sized bottle that ended up being poured down the sink filled me with dread. Even if it was a whisky from a specialist retailer, what would she get me? At best I was looking at a Macallan or Glenmorangie, which aren’t to be sniffed at, but not that exciting either. I started to mull over the contemplation that the word “Gift” is also the German word for poison, and wondered if the person who entered that into their lexicon had received supermarket whisky as part of a Christmas present. The regret from not asking for something from the Master Of Malt site was growing. I knew all my contemporaries on social media will be parading the fantastic whiskies that I’d love to try and didn’t want the feeling of pity when they learnt I got something so uninteresting as supermarket whisky.
Come the big day and I was right. It was supermarket whisky. However it was a complete surprise, as I hadn’t had it before and it turns out that my wife had put a bit of thought into it. My gift was a bottle of Smokehead. Not the basic one at 43% but the 40% even more basic version. Probably loaded with colour, chill filtered and as thin as water. I was going to find out that my misconceptions were misplaced.
Smokehead – NAS
Region – Islay Age – NAS Strength – 40% abv Colour – Cherry Oloroso sherry (1.2) Cask Type – Not stated. Colouring – Not Stated but likely Chill Filtered – Not stated but most likely. Nose – Sweet. Strawberry fondant cream, petrol, salty smoke, a hint of TCP, vegetal note of silage. Palate – sweet arrival with no obvious kick. Banana, ginger, malt, salt, smoked bacon, vegetal, liquorice. There is an oily mouthfeel which while light is surprising for such a low abv. A mineral note is present in the later part of the palate. Finish – Spicy but short finish. Ginger and nutmeg, mineral taste, coupled with smoke and a light TCP. Similar to Laphroaig, seaweed, oak and a hint of char.
You’d be justified in saying that I am a whisky snob; anything on a supermarket shelf just doesn’t get me excited unless heavily discounted, and even then there are limits. But this one was a bit of an eye opener. I don’t mean to sound so surprised but I enjoyed it. Complex – it wasn’t, but what grabbed me was the mouthfeel. It was more oily than expected, the smoke and peat was well controlled in such a way it was a pleasure to drink neat. There was a sweetness to it that persuades me that a Sherry cask may be in the mix somewhere. While I have had a lot better whisky than this, it was well balanced and pleasurable to drink while watching a Christmas movie. I may have some cheese and crackers with it when I watch my next Christmas movie. Scotty’s cheese box in the fridge is well stocked with smokey delights.
My wife’s thought process was impressive, remembering that we’d both visited Talisker distillery and she knew I preferred that smokey whisky to the Dalwhinnie later on in the trip. While she had no idea how smokey Smokehead would be, she thought it a safe bet. And it was genius idea, as the chances of me having a supermarket whisky were to be frank, low. While I would have maybe preferred to receive a Talisker 10, that is based on my perception of quality and consistency. But the Smokehead was no slouch, despite it lacking in the usual geek credentials of ABV, age statement, NC and NCF.
It is so easy to dismiss whisky that resides on a supermarket shelf, but we need to remember one or two things that will keep us grounded. Firstly, not everybody has the same whisky budget. Some might want something cheap and cheerful. Some may want a bit of variety, some may just want something a little different but don’t want to break the bank trying something they may not like. While we are not likely to find whisky geek banger whisky in Tesco, we can get something that is palatable at a decent price. Crucially, it could be someone experimenting with whisky who doesn’t want to spaff £75 up the wall on some thing they don’t like. We’ve all been there or known somebody that has.
Mouthfeel was good. More oily than you might expect, giving a feeling of quality. While it is obvious the this spirit has seen a bit of chill filtering, there is still some thing left to give a hint as to what a cask strength one would be like. Unfortunately the standard release is only 43%. No massive spirit burn, although there was a little on the finish. I’ve no idea what distillery it is sourced from. Common belief is that it’s Caol Ila or Lagavulin, but I felt it was less peaty and more smokey putting it into Laphroaig territory for me. Wherever it’s from, I’m not going to say it’s definitely that, but hats off to Ian Macleod Distillers, for it was a perfect dram to sit and sip without the attendant analysis of what I could and couldn’t taste, along with the distractions that such processes demand. Just get it down you and enjoy.
I’m not that jealous of those who got better drams than me for Christmas. I’ve enough whisky in the house and had already had potential Christmas disappointment averted by a delivery of two Murray McDavids from Aberdeen Whisky Shop, though I’ve not felt the need to crack them open in lieu of my supermarket whisky. As we now move past 2022 and into 2023, it’s time to maybe forget such snobbery about supermarket whisky. After all, I’ve got a whisky which some people could pay ten times that amount for other whiskies and not have a much different experience with. Who’s the mug? Obviously there will be stinkers on the shelf, but a wise whisky drinker will know what they are. Just because they have 46% and and age statement means nothing; besides it’s all subjective anyway.
Lastly, just in case my wife does actually read my articles, I’d like to say thanks for your present – I’m really enjoying it. Hope you liked your ironing board cover.
Yours In Spirits
All Photos – Authors Own
Public Domain Thomas Couture – The Romans in their Decadence