I’m a sucker for a gimmick spirit. Professionally, that is. (Not personally — in that case, I usually like a nicely understated yet deliciously dark distillate.) But it’s always interesting from a reviewer’s perspective to investigate a bottle so obviously targeted toward a specific market, with a strong image being portrayed — mostly to see if the actual contents of the bottle match the bravado on the label.
William Maxwell & Co. Ltd (now known as Ian Macleod Distillers) is a distributor for scotch whisky in Scotland. Founded approximately 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.
- Learn More: What Is Scotch Whisky?
There really isn’t any information about the provenance of this whiskey other than what we get on the bottle… which ain’t much. But we can try to peer through the smoke to figure out how this bottle appeared on the shelves.
First, one quick note here. Generally speaking, having 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. Which is just to say that keeping those details private doesn’t necessarily indicate an inferior product or that they have something to hide.
With that out of the way… now, 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. There must be some other post processing happening here, but for the life of me I can’t find out what it is.
Well, it’s 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 color of the spirit inside appear slightly darker than it is in reality.
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 mostly-transparent 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 to their target demographic.
Once out of the tinted bottle, this is a pretty nice amber colored liquid, a little darker than I’d usually expect from a scotch but still well within the range.
I’ve tried their other offering, the Smokehead 43% Single Malt Scotch, and that spirit had a level of smoke that nearly knocked me out of my chair. Here, despite the “HIGH VOLTAGE” on the label, I’m not getting nearly the same level of smoke aroma from the glass. It’s there to be sure, but much less pronounced.
Just because it isn’t as I expected doesn’t mean it’s a pushover, though. Because the smoke isn’t overpowering, I’m able to get a bit of dried fruit, honey, and sourdough bread notes from the single malt scotch, and the smoke seems to add a nice depth and balance to those other components.
When taking a sip, you’ll notice right off the bat that this is a more oily and mouthfilling spirit than usual. There’s this immediate saline flavor as if you’re licking a slate rock on the seashore — salty, mineral umami flavor that really sets the tone for what follows. That smoke comes in next like an old seaside shack adding a layer of depth and complexity to the profile. After a few seconds, the bolder flavors start to subside and the other components make an appearance, adding some vanilla, caramel, toffee, and honey to the mix. The smoke never really subsides though, and that’s the flavor you taste long after the spirit is gone.
Quite opposite of most spirits, I actually think that a bit of ice sadly makes this worse — and more bitter.
What you lose here is a lot of the smoke flavor. The brine and the mineral flavors are still present, but there’s less of that smokey character adding depth and complexity. You also lose some of the saturation on the other components — the honey, the malted barley, and the vanilla — so you’re left with a very one note kind of a spirit. And, to make matters worse, on the finish there’s now a bitterness that I didn’t see before.
There’s a reason why a good Islay scotch whisky is an expensive purchase: there’s a lot of time and attention that goes into these spirits to get the balance just right. In this case, I think they hit the nail pretty close to on the head when you take this neat… but sadly with a couple cubes of ice, the flavors fall apart and a bit of bitterness starts to shine through.
|Smokehead High Voltage Whisky|
Classification: Single Malt Scotch Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 58% ABV
Price: $79.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 3/5
Drink it neat and enjoy it for what it is, but I do not see anything here that would justify the high voltage label.