Whisky Review: Smokehead 43% Single Malt Scotch

I’m a fan of a nicely peated scotch. Give me a good Lagavulin any day and I’m a happy man… except for my wallet. My wallet is never happy about buying Lagavulin. However, that’s where this new offering from Ian Macleod Distillers seems poised to fit in: offering a (hopefully) similar flavor and experience at a significantly reduced price.



William Maxwell & Co. Ltd (now known as Ian Macleod Distillers) is a distributor for scotch whisky in Scotland. Founded about 80 years ago, and self-declared as the 10th largest whisky company in Scotland, the company is best known for its blends and re-bottling of other distilleries’ over-production under their house brands.


There’s really no information about the provenance of this whiskey other than what we get on the bottle — which isn’t much. But we can try to peer through the smoke to figure out how this bottle appeared on the shelves.

First, a quick note here. Generally speaking, a distributor like Ian Macleod Distillers packaging and shipping their own spirits is a common practice in Scotland. It’s only recently that we’ve seen an explosion in the popularity of single malts produced by a single distillery. So keeping those details private doesn’t necessarily indicate an inferior product or that they have something to hide.

The bottle claims that this is an Islay scotch, which means that the fermentation, distillation, and aging of the spirit probably took place on the famed island of Islay. As a single malt whiskey, we know that 100% of the grains used in this spirit are malted barley, and all of them were distilled at a single distillery (otherwise it would be a “blended malt”). After distillation, the spirit would need to be stored for a minimum of 3 years in oak barrels before being ready to sell onwards.

That’s where we lose the thread, though. There must be some other post processing happening here, but for the life of me I can’t find what it is.


This packaging is really leaning into the theme here.

The bottle itself is pretty unremarkable: cylindrical body, rounded shoulder, and a neck that’s a little bit on the shorter side — all pretty standard for a scotch whisky. The glass seems to be tinted a little bit, which is making the spirit inside appear darker than it actually is.

The artwork on the front is very punk rock. From the brushstrokes on the skull to the bold labeling, it feels about as far away from the stuffy and formal dining rooms of Scotland as you can get. I appreciate that the front label is printed on a plastic sticker so you can see more of the whiskey inside, but unfortunately the back label is completely opaque and as a result you lose some of that effect.

It’s fairly well done. I don’t think I’m their audience personally, but I can see how this can be appealing.


Once out of the bottle, this is a nice amber-colored liquid. It’s a little darker than I’d usually expect from a scotch but still well within the range. There’s a smoky aroma wafting out of this glass that you can smell from a foot away (very clearly that traditional Scottish peat smoke) and it’s backed by some honey sweetness, a bit of baked bread from the malted barley content, and a touch of vanilla. Those other components may be present, but the smoke is the loudest voice in the choir by a country mile.

Taking a sip, there’s just a flash of some of the traditional malted barley notes — sourdough bread, honey sweetness, melon — before the peat smoke kicks down the wall like the Kool-Aid Man. From that point forward, the smoke is the biggest flavor component you’ll see. The smoke flavor continues to build to a peak, where it becomes bitter and unpleasant, and then diminishes back down near the finish where some of the malted barley and honey notes come back in.

On the finish here, all I’m getting is that very thoroughly burnt sugar flavor. Like the top of a creme brulee, except if you hit it with a blowtorch for like 30 minutes instead of 30 seconds. There’s also a bit of that minerality you get from some Islay spirits, almost like a salty seaweed flavor that lingers for a bit after the spirit has disappeared.

On Ice

This gets very flat and one-note with the added ice, which is a bit of a disappointment.

What I was hoping would happen here is that we would see that smoke toned down a bit in intensity so we lose the bitterness, but while sparing the other components from the flavor profile. That first part happens — there’s no longer any bitterness here — but now the flavor complexity just isn’t there. I get some of the nutty sourdough bread aspects from the malted barley and a touch of honey, but that’s it.


Overall Rating

This is a whiskey that is getting the broad strokes of a super peaty Islay scotch right, but it’s completely missing the subtlety and the balance that you get in the more expensive spirits. It’s designed to hit you over the head with a sledgehammer of smoke and that’s about as far as it takes you.

All that said, it’s not terrible for the price point. I could see this being a good component in something like a penicillin cocktail, for example, and with a bit of ice it’s simple yet sippable. I think there are other examples out there that pull off Islay scotch better… but I wouldn’t be mad seeing this on the whiskey shelf again.

Smokehead 43% Single Malt Scotch
Produced By: Smokehead
Owned By: Ian Macleod Distillers
Production Location: Islay, Scotland
Classification: Single Malt Scotch Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 43% ABV
Price: $52.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating:
All reviews are evaluated within the context of their specific spirit classification as specified above. Click here to check out similar spirits we have reviewed.

Overall Rating: 2/5
A bold, smoky Islay scotch you would not be mad about using in a cocktail.


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