Smokehead

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The year is 2004. A boat glides silently under sail into the still, dark waters off the coast of the Scottish isle of Islay, hugging the shoreline until it draws up next to the distinctive white walls of Port Charlotte distillery. A lone figure steps onto the foredeck, quickly surveys the small crowd gathered outside the distillery entrance, brings a megaphone to hip lips and yells: “Our whisky will always be unpeated!”

At Fèis Ìle, Isla’s annual whisky festival, this is blasphemy of the highest order.

Brand ambassador Mikey Sim says: “It was great fun. Our managing director Leonard Russel raised the Jolly Roger and was heckling the guys at Port Charlotte. The Russel family had just bought its first distillery, Glengoyne, so this was basically a PR stunt for the launch. The guys at Port Charlotte loved it of course – they were lobbing peat at the boat, then went over and partied on it in the evening. They did say if Leonard tried it again the next year they’d break his legs though.”

It was reflecting on this fun weekend among the “smokeheads” of Fèis Ìle – a celebration of the island’s smoky, peated whiskies – that the idea of Smokehead was born. 

“Leonard was looking at this new wave of whisky drinkers that he’d met at the festival, and how they were just completely obsessed with the smoke. This was 2004, and by 2005 the Smokehead brand was launched.”

Although it’s unmistakably an Islay whisky, the team behind Smokehead are coy about precisely which distillery it uses for production. With only eight distilleries on the island though, each with its own hallmark style, a little knowledge would allow anyone to make a reasonable guess. The important thing is that, for all of its modern, convention-breaking branding, Smokehead is a cracking single malt whisky, with a salty smokiness that leans more toward lobster on a barbecue than the band-aid medicinal tang of some peated whiskies.


“Disruption has always been at the heart of Smokehead,” says Mikey. “They wanted to provide an Islay that didn't have any sort of ceremony with it. It’s about putting whiskey in a glass and drinking it, not the kind of stuffy heritage that you can get kind of tied in with a lot of distilleries; I think the more we can get rid of that, the better it will be for everyone. Smokehead is about having a great whisky that isn't £150 pounds a bottle, so you don’t have to treat it with such reverence. You can mix it if you want to mix it, you can you can enjoy it neat or over ice. You don’t need a Glencairn glass, or to be sat next to a fireplace, watching the legs run down the side.”

It’s a message that resonated with the new generation of smokeheads that Leonard had met on Islay, and the brand grew massively almost overnight, to the point where the supply was in jeopardy and the company had to renegotiate its contracts to keep up with long-term demand. 

Mikey continues: “There’s obviously a finite amount of whisky coming out of Islay, but we now have enough room that we can continue to grow the brand and start to experiment with different products, for example with our new Twisted Stout.  

“And that’s the beauty of Smokehead; it’s very versatile and we're so open to experimentation, because it's all flavour at the end of the day. We can develop those flavour profiles, like finishing in a chocolate stout cask, or a rum cask, or a sherry cask, or keeping the ABV up at 58% cask strength to see how that changes the liquid as well. So we see ourselves almost as liquid chefs, challenging people's perceptions but also giving them an incredible drink.”

With smoky cocktails based on whisky or mezcal currently enjoying a moment, Smokehead now seems to be sitting in a very sweet spot – one that several very traditional whisky brands are also eyeing with their own ‘mixable’ expressions. Leonard’s piratical adventure on Islay may have been a bit of a laugh in 2004, but in 2021 he’s definitely bringing home the booty.

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