Why exactly is Smokehead so dear?

As I would imagine somebody will be quick enough to point out, this isn’t really a post with a point. It’s more of a musing, maybe a push for some discussion. I was looking at the price of Smokehead 18 year old yesterday and was struck by just how expensive it really is. In case somebody reading this doesn’t know, Smokehead is an independent bottling of an Islay Single Malt by Ian MacLeod. It’s not cask strength and it’s not single cask. Yet a bottle of it will set you back £86.84 (I should add that all prices in this post come from The Whisky Exchange). Have a look at how that price matches up to some comparable whiskies below.


Smokehead 18                      £86.64
Laphroaig 18                         £65.38
Bowmore 18                          £58.74
Caol Ila 18                            £56.19
Talisker 18                            £55.67
Port Askaig 17                       £51.08

Smokehead 18 stands a good £20 above its’ nearest competitor, the Laphroaig. How can this anonymous Islay malt be priced so far above the others – especially given the excellent chances that it is a product of one of the distilleries listed? It strikes me as slightly odd. There doesn’t even seem to be any emphasis on a limited edition nature of the 18 year old. Let’s now have a look at the standard Smokehead’s price compared to the standard distillery bottling from those listed above.


Bowmore 12                                  £26.04
Laphroaig 10                                 £26.56
Smokehead (no age)                     £30.13
Caol Ila 12                                    £30.64
Talisker 10                                    £31.66
Port Askaig (no age, 57.1%)           £38.81

So if we discount Port Askaig due to its’ cask strength nature, the standard Smokehead slots in nicely with its competitors in terms of price – although we should note that it’s the only one not carrying an age statement (not that well educated whisky drinkers put too much stock by that!). So no answer here to explain the price of the 18 year old. Someone recently offered me a very prosaic solution, citing that the cask contents simply passing through an extra rung (namely Ian MacLeod) on its way down the ladder to the customer could account for the increase in price. But the same increase does not exhibit itself when we look at the standard bottlings.

My best guess? Ian MacLeod have taken a long, hard look at the current single malt market and decided to take advantage of ‘Islay Hysteria’. This phenomenon which sees the demand for Islay single malt whiskies growing constantly has allowed the company to release this new product into the market at an inflated price. It’s the same reason that all those 30 year old Port Ellens released by Diageo in November disappeared so quickly – what could be more valuable in  future Islay dominated collectors market than a 30 year old from a silent distillery? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t harbour a grudge against Ian MacLeod for  their high pricing (this isn’t Manager’s Choice levels we are talking about) – if EWB ever did some whisky equivalent of the Oscars then Smokehead 18 would probably be my nomination for best picture. I just wish it was a little more in my price range!

If anyone has an alternative theory for the higher price of Smokehead 18 I would be very interested to hear it – that’s one of the aims of EWB, to promote healthy discussion about whisky. So feel free to weigh in.



  1. Good points, Euan. I share your opinon: they do it because they can!

    There is more demand for this whisky than there is supply, the simplest rule of microeconomy has it that the price will push up. Is it ethical? In our system, most certainly yes. Is it fair towards the fans of the brand? Not at all.

    Also, interesting idea with the Oscars… or should I say Woscars ;P

  2. …because it’s WORTH it? ;)

  3. Perhaps its an Ardbeg 18?
    Independent bottles of that range from £96-£125 depending on cask!

    Just an idea..?

  4. I went the same route as Blair on this one. There’s no OB Arbeg 18 available to compare prices with but the independent bottler prices seem to give credence to the possibility that the Smokehead 18 is possibly Ardbeg.

    You have to follow up on the “Woscars” idea. I’d read that!

    Jason @WHISKYhost

  5. Can you honestly see Ardbeg having good 18yo stock in warehouses and not bottling it officially?

    Caol Ila is the usual suspect here and the style of the spirit matches.

  6. According to my retailer / the tasting notes it is an Ardbeg. Maybe Ian McLeod bought the casks long ago so they can release now when there are barely any Ardbegs over 10 years available below 100 pounds…

    Anyway, I have a bottle, but I think I would rather drink Lagavulin 16, Caol Ila 18. It is a good whisky, but I don’t reckon it is stellar…

  7. Sjoerd,

    Your retailer can’t possibly know for sure what goes into Smokehead. Only a handful of people know and they are very tight-lipped, trust me.

    Ian MacLeod sits on a significant amount of stock from Caol Ila. Maybe standard Smokehead used to be Ardbeg, but the 18 isn’t.

  8. Right on the money there. Great post
    I agree fully those prices are insane. I loved the
    Smokehead but I won’t pay that much fir the 18
    If I can get the excellent laph 18 fir much less

    Suckers never die

  9. “What about the beautiful packaging!?” said my contact at Ian MacLeod’s today when discussing this post. Hehe:) Funny. He seemed to be a bit irked, but then he gave me a Smokehead t-shirt so I guess we’re grand;P

    I really think the packaging is great. But I would stll prefer to buy it £30 cheaper in just a clear, standard whsky bottle… but who knows, maybe then I wouldn’t like it so much?

  10. I tried it last week in a bar, very nice dram indeed. I would guess it as being a Laphroaig, could be others but last guess would be Ardbeg

    I still remember once I got handed a blind and my first comment were “This is surely not a Highland Park”, guess what it was ?? :-)

    So I am surely no blind expert


  11. My day job (outside of Whisky For Everyone, that is!) is in a whisky shop and we had the Ian MacLeod rep in when Smokehead 18 was launched. He told us it was Ardbeg and that the price was justified as no official Ardbeg bottlings were available + indie bottlers are raising their prices on old Ardbeg stock. He also said that they bought and vatted the casks a decent time ago, when Ardbeg were still releasing the 17yo. It should be noted that this person is no longer a rep with Ian MacLeod, as they left shortly after but I have no reason to not believe him. ‘Straight from the horse’s mouth’ as they say …

  12. @Lucas,

    Indeed, my retailer cannot know for sure. And indeed, the separate editions may vary as well. But what I meant to say was that, unless it is an Ardbeg (which usually is rather expensive) I also see no reason to the increased price.

    And as Matt says, this is how my retailer says he got his intel.

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