The Riddle of “Smokehead” Single Malt Whisky

My son gave me a bottle of single malt Scotch for Christmas, as is his custom.  This year it was a mysterious bottle called Smokehead that he had picked up at Heathrow on a trip from London.

Smokehead is an independently bottled whisky from one of the eight Islay distilleries, but Smokehead is coy about saying which one.  Islay (pronounced Eye- la) is a small island off the west coast of Scotland about the size of Martha’s Vineyard.  Their malt whiskies are famous (or to some notorious) for their highly smokey character.

My son made me guess which one of the Islay malts was in the bottle (the clerk at Heathrow had told him that a friend of his knew which one it was).   The pressure was on.

I tried my first taste on Christmas night.  It was clearly an Islay malt, lots of peat, big smoky nose, and that briny quality that comes from aging in porous oak casks near the sea.

I was pretty sure it wasn’t Laphroaig (not smoky enough) or Lagavullen (not complex enough and too young), which have such unmistakable tastes. They are also the ones I know best.

It seemed a youngish malt (with no age statement). I guessed Ardbeg (my second guess was Caol Ila), and my son told me that Ardbeg was what the clerk told him it was.

A trip to the internet whisky sites confirms that Ardbeg is the most popular guess, but there are vehement dissenters.  It’s a lovely malt, but then they all are, really.

Smokeheadjust released an eighteen-year old in December that I have yet to try.  Maybe next Christmas!

Where I Ruminate on My First Trip to Scotland Twenty Years Ago and My Introduction to Single Malt Whisky

Twenty years ago this summer, after spending a term in Oxford reading P. T. Forsyth, my family and I headed north to Scotland for a two week vacation, or a fortnight holiday as we had learned to say back then. My children were seven and five at the time, so we visited many battlefields (Bannockburn, Glencoe, Cullodan) and castles (Inverallochy, Urquhart, Craigievar, Eileen Donan) and, of course, Loch Ness, where the children had their picture taken in front of the replica of Nessie, a photo I recall captioning “3 monsters” (we had been in the car quite a bit!) That night we stayed in a family room at a youth hostel on the shore of Loch Ness and I recall awakening in the night and seeing the waters of the loch reflecting the full moon. I stared very long minutes, half expecting to see Nessie, but, although it would be a better story if I did, I didn’t.

We made the mandatory pilgrimage to Iona, which was a highlight of the trip. We crossed “over the sea to Skye” before the new bridge was put in, and we drove around Wester Ross, which was lovely the few times that the mists cleared enough for us to see anything but the road. From Inverness we drove East on our way to visit Aberdeen, “the Granite City,” and do the proper Forsyth hagiographic tour there of his hometown.

As we headed East from Inverness I spotted a signpost for something called the Whisky Trail, which piqued my interest. Finding about it in the guidebooks we resolved to visit at least one distillery before we left Scotland. The first one we came upon was Glenfarclas, a venerable Speyside firm, that’s been in the Grant family since 1865. I later discovered that several Grant families make whisky, but this is a different family and an independent distillery unconnected to any chain.

We had a tour of the distillery, and the customary wee dram in the tasting room, and such was my introduction to single malt whisky. Now today such whiskies are a commonplace in any respectably stocked bar, but 20 years ago considerably less so. You might have found a bottle of the widely distributed brands Glenlivet or Glenfiddich here and there, but single malt scotch was still pretty esoteric in the US. The Glenfarclas was smooth and rich, dark in color and full-bodied. It was delicious.

I was hooked. The next day we toured Glenfiddich, after which my seven year old said, “Daddy, do we have to go to any more distilleries, I know how they make whisky now?” At Glenfiddich I asked the tour guide to tell me his favorite whisky, and he said Balvenie, which was made by them just next door. So I bought a bottle in a distinctive brandy shaped flagon, and gently brought it back on the plane in the pre-9/11 days. I nursed that bottle of Balvenie for many a month as a reminder of the tastes and experiences of our time in Scotland.

Six years later we came back to Scotland to live in St Andrews, where I continued my research on the atonement and wrote my little book “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement.” We had a lovely flat on Queens Gardens with a garden that abutted the grounds of St Mary’s College. We had neither a TV nor a radio, and it was a cold and damp spring, so the four of us would huddle around the electric fire and read. I had been reading all day of course, so often my evening reading would be Michael Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion (1995). The late Michael Jackson (no relation to the one-gloved entertainer) wrote authoritative guidebooks to both whisky and beer. Single malt whisky is expensive so one must make a little bit go a long way. I discovered that my local drinks store had a wide variety of whiskies in miniature bottles, and so I worked my way through Jackson’s book tasting whisky and reading the tasting notes.

Over the years in my many trips to Britain, both to live and to vacation, I have shared a number of enjoyable evenings with friends tasting and talking about whisky. Often several bottles will be produced after dinner with various amounts remaining in them, and these will be shared and compared. And if you can get talking about theology, well that’s even better. I can’t afford to buy much single malt, but my children, who I am glad to say have grown up to be fine adults, often give me a bottle for Christmas or my birthday.

Who but the Scots could take a few of their simple resources, good water, peat for the fires for malting, and barley on ground that can’t grow much else, and turn it into a luxury item sought throughout the world? I raise a glass to them.