Here’s one of those bottles that only comes around every once in a while.
I first tried this Small Batch bottling from WM Cadenhead’s at a whisky tasting with Manchester Whisky Club. It was the last dram of the night and it completely shamed the rest of the line-up (which wasn’t shabby by any means).
With my 29th birthday coming up, I couldn’t resist and bagged myself one of the last remaining bottles whereupon it sat on my shelf until I cracked it open in September. Now it’s down to the very last dram, I feel I need to mark its passing with a well-deserved closer inspection.
Caol Ila is something of a power-house distillery in an industrial-looking installation, which would be downright ugly if not for the incredible view over the Sound of Islay (where Caol Ila takes its name) towards the Paps of Jura, just a few miles away.
Their output is a heck of a lot bigger than every other distillery on Islay, and most of the spirit it produces will end up in Diageo’s blended whiskies. The malt itself is absolutely top-notch, though, and stands up very well by itself as a distillate. Even at very young ages, it’s remarkably well-made stuff.
Diageo certainly thought so in the seventies when they rebuilt the distillery to boost its output and by the eighties, with Caol Ila still going strong, they decided to mothball and eventually demolish the now infamous distillery at Port Ellen.
Having been lucky enough to try a couple of different official and indy bottlings of Port Ellen, I have to say that the flavour profile has a lot in common with Caol Ila. I don’t get the chamois leather with the latter, but there’s plenty of lemon sherbet, damp wood, sea shells and sea-spray.
In some ways, I see Caol Ila as the poor-man’s Port Ellen. No disservice intended there, but when an official bottling can set you back two-grand you’ve got to have a fat wallet to stand any chance of ever owning any.
Anyway, I digress. This whisky waited twenty-nine years in a barrel so I should do the polite thing and do some tasting…
Nose: The typical candied lemon and smoky peat you get with younger Caol Ila has really calmed down and grown up here. The volume of the music at the party’s been set to a mature, grown-up level. You can hear the conversation in the room now. I get sweet smoke, cloudy apple juice, paprika, Easter Egg chocolate, damp wood, tangerine and fresh honeydew melon.
Palate: Very rich and oily. Bitter oranges, poached pears, more cloudy apple juice, with a gentle woody smoke rising through the fruit.
Finish:Becomes waxy and spicy, with a Brazil nut undertone. Extraordinarily long and satisfying. Like a deep-muscle massage for your mind. It unlocks something in the brain that leads to fits of grinning, like some kind of serene whisky Nirvana*.
Cadenhead are consistently bottling some excellent casks, with the Small Batch series being particularly tasty. This is a truly stunning bottling, at a very respectable price indeed.
Diageo have just released an official bottling of 30-year-old Caol Ila, which retails around £400 plus. This 29-year-old bottling was about a quarter of that price (sadly all gone now), and Cadenhead have a 30-year-old available (in limited numbers) in their Authentic range.
I’m not sure how much difference one year makes to the flavour profile of Caol Ila, but I’d guess it’ll be showing a lot of the same qualities. And with the Cadenhead bottling being so tasty at 29, I’m sure you can guess which bottling I’ll be drinking on my next birthday…
I will sincerely grieve the passing of this whisky, it’s absolutely fucking glorious. If you get chance to try some old Caol Ila, don’t pass it up. This stuff doesn’t just age with grace, this whisky is Stacey’s Mom – and my gosh, has she got it going on…
* The Buddhist kind, not the Seattle grunge group that Dave Grohl was stuck in before he started making proper music.